Volume 19 Issue 39 | February 9 -15, 2007

Tireless troubador Jonathan Richman

Indie icon shakes his funny maker

By Todd Simmons

The ageless and tireless Jonathan Richman, now fifty-something, brought his two-piece “band” and impish charisma to the Knitting Factory last week for a four-night stand of shows that were as much nights of comedy as they were musical entertainment. His songs about famous painters and lesbian clubs were quirky and amusing yet heartfelt. I’ve heard it said that upon seeing one of his shows for the first time, you can’t believe it’s taken you so long to do it. After Thursday night’s show I finally understand.

There’s a slightly devilish gleam in Richman’s eyes while he’s up on stage strumming his guitar alongside drummer Tommy Larkin that makes it clear that he is someone whose love of performing has sustained him despite his lack of major commercial success. He enjoys the crowd interaction and is fueled by it. When the audience breaks into laughter after lines like “God gave us the wine to drink — not to criticize” he seems to be chuckling inside as well.

As a teenager in Natick, Massachusetts, Richman became obsessed with the Velvet Underground and moved temporarily to New York to meet them, which he did. Eventually, the Velvet’s John Cale would produce the first Modern Lovers album, much to Richman’s delight. That band would include future members of The Cars and Talking Heads, but it was Richman that drove the Modern Lovers until their eventual break-up and the onset of his solo career. Songs like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso” have been a big influence on many an offbeat rocker since.

It’s hard, in fact, to overestimate the impact and influence that Richman’s first band, the Modern Lovers, has had on the impending wave of punk, new wave, and indie rock that followed his early ’70s output. His blend of humor and passion distilled through economical punk-pop-rock songs can be heard in the music of bands like Pavement, They Might Be Giants and countless others. His songs have been covered on soundtracks (“Pablo Picasso” was covered by The Burning Sensations for “Repo Man) and he himself has appeared in movies. Most notably, he played the troubadour in the Farrelly Brothers’ “Something About Mary.” It’s also hard to believe that Adam Sandler found the basis for his SNL troubadour shtick anywhere else.

Jonathan Richman has said that although he’s considered to be a Boston-based musician, he never really fit into the “Boston band” scene, and doubts that he was ever fully appreciated by the city’s Aerosmith fan-base. His music has always seemed to spring from the well of New York City, and I don’t think I’ve seen a Bostonian greeted so warmly in this town since Bill Buckner. Richman’s notoriously charming stage presence was in full gear on Thursday and he and Larkin managed to leave the Knitting Factory crowd clamoring for more. Although he continues to fly under the national radar, he appears to be having as much fun as ever.

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