I think of Jonathan Richman’s career in five stages:
- Following The Velvet Underground obsessively, hearing things that would influence his work. There are rumours he turned up to more of The Velvet Underground’s gigs than the band did.
- Roadrunner, Pablo Picasso, etc. The Velvets- influenced proto-punk work of the early seventies.
- The acoustic rock and roll, leading to his sole hit, Egyptian Reggae. A mix of rock and roll and heart on sleeve emoting so open that you cringe for the man.
- The career revival with Rough Trade Records. Songs seemed more mature but full of wonder at the world.
- The Rounder Records years, with more of the same but a bit less exciting, thanks to Jo-Jo (as his fans call him) continuing to mine the same theme.
Not everyone has the time or inclination to obsess over an act like that but Jo-Jo inspires obsession. People tend to either love him or hate him. Seemly stuck in a gauche adolescence into his fifties, Jonathan sings about things he loves and social awkwardness, covering the issues of grown-ups but with the lack of candour of someone just learning about this stuff. In other words, he’s bringing his inner dialogue out into the open. It’ll make you cringe but you’ll identify and that might do it for you. His endearing charm is his wide-eyed wonder at the world and the wonderful things in it (bright chewing gum wrappers, milkshakes, neon signs, etc). His less endearing quality is his adenoidal voice – you’ll either love it as something authentic or it’ll bug you. Personally, I love the man and have done ever since he poked me in the eye with his guitar in a tiny attic venue in York.
The songs here cover typical Jonathan Richman ground: Vampire Girl hymns his attraction to Goths. Dancing In The Lesbian Bar is about the non-threatening nature of clubs when you take away the testosterone. Harpo Played His Harp is about the Marx Brother that didn’t talk – just grinned, goofed and played his…. you guessed it….harp. Twilight In Boston is a quiet nocturnal stroll round a place he loves.
The songs here are selected by Jo-Jo from five albums and are not all what I would have picked. I’m not convinced musicians are the best judge of their own work – why would Jonathan put out a compilation a mere thirty-two minutes long? Why would he include a spoken word piece that is merely okay once and very annoying twice?
With that caveat, Jonathan Richman is a treasure and an exploration of his world will do jaded ears a favour – just maybe start with any album from the seventies or eighties, with further delving if you like what you hear.