Jonathan Richman picked up a guitar at age 15 and let out, in what Derek Richardson of Pulse! called “a permanent head-cold voice,” a brood of adolescent laments that later became the signature of his art-punk band, the Modern Lovers. Young and angst-ridden when he actually wrote some of his first songs (including “Pablo Picasso,” “Roadrunner,” and “Girlfriend”), Richman was barely 20 when they were finally recorded. He has since recorded over 17 albums, spanning a stylistic musical gamut that includes surf-rock, country-western, insect love songs, and Egyptian reggae recorded with a frequently changing crew of musicians that have comprised the Modern Lovers over the years.
Influenced most heavily by the Velvet Underground, particularly their ability to improvise music and lyrics on stage, Richman began playing publicly in Boston’s Harvard Square at the age of 16. According to his artist profile from Rounder Records, by the age of 17 he had caused “many people to leave coffee shops ... quickly ... with their hands over their ears.” When he turned 18 Richman moved to New York City and wound up sleeping on the couch of the Velvet Underground’s personal manager for two weeks until he was finally settled in what he called “New York’s legendary (and rat infested) Hotel Albert.” He lived in New York for nine months, working as a busboy and a foot-messenger, trying to find a place to sing his songs in public.
Richman became so frustrated with desire to perform that one afternoon he climbed onto the roof of the Hotel Albert, where he began strumming his unplugged electric guitar and yelling his song lyrics loudly at the pedestrians passing below. His delight at having attracted a large crowd on the sidewalk turned to disappointment when he discovered the people were not lingering to hear his great lyrics, but rather waiting to see if he would jump.
Richman moved back to Boston in the summer of 1970. Wanting to put a band together, he contacted his friend and former neighbor John Felice, who was 15 years old at the time. They then recruited drummer David Robinson (who eventually became the drummer for the Cars). Robinson’s cousin Rolf e Anderson also joined in as the Modern Lovers’ first bass player. According to Richman, the first meeting with Robinson was rather serendipitous. Looking to advertise for a drummer and a bass player, Richman went to a record store where Robinson worked. Robinson recognized Richman from his solo performances on the Cambridge Commons and said something like, “If you ever put a band
For the Record…
Born in 1951 in Boston, MA; married; wife’s name, Gail; children: A son and a daughter.
Began playing guitar c. 1966; moved to New York City c. 1969; started band the Modern Lovers, 1970; band signed with Warner Bros., 1972, and broke up, 1973; first album released on Beserkely Records, 1976; went solo for several years playing in coffee houses and for kids in elementary schools, mid-1970s; toured Europe singing disco hit “Egyptian Reggae,” 1976; continued to record as soloist and with back-up bands, 1976—; signed with Rounder Records, 1987.
Addresses: Record company —Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140.
together, I want to be the drummer.” Richman, having just then begun to write “WANTED, DRUMMER,” on an index card, replied, “Now’s your chance!”
The Modern Lovers played their first show at Simmon’s College in Boston in September of 1970 as an opening act for a band formed by Andy Paley (who later produced both Rock’n Romance and It’s Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers). Within six months, Rolfe was replaced by Ernie Brooks, John Felice left the band, and Jerry Harrison joined. In the spring of 1972, Harrison engineered a record-industry first by coercing Warner Bros, and A&M to split the cost of flying the entire band to California. The resulting recordings by John Cale and Alan Manson comprised The Modern Lovers, which was bought and released by Berserkely in 1976.
Many of Richman’s cult classics like “Pablo Picasso,” “Roadrunner,” and “Girlfriend,” were recorded on this first album, which Dave Winans of the Jacksonville Jam Entertainment News called “the darkest music of Jonathan’s career, showcasing both his disdain for the hippie fashions of the time and the musical influence of the Velvet Underground.” Although Winans later added that the lyrics also reveal the young songwriter’s unpretentious humor, the release is not one of Rich-man’s personal favorites. “People who wonder why I’m not that proud of the Modern Lovers album should know that on a good night we did ‘Roadrunner’ ten times better than you ever heard it recorded. We got kind of a dark Rolling Stones vibe in our rhythm sometimes.” The difference between their live performances and their recordings became a well-known characteristic of Richman and the Modern Lovers; like the Velvet Underground, Richman is known for his improvisation on stage and his ability to constantly recycle material in long, verbal monologues that were difficult to duplicate in the recording studio. Often Richman and his producers attempted to replicate this impromptu performance style by recording in garages and using sound instruments.
Richman’s love of improvisation and his idiosyncratic performance personality began to undermine his ability to keep a band together; Richman’s playing became more spontaneous—changing keys, adding verses—as he slowly convinced himself that this was the best way to communicate with his audience. Of the band, Richman stated: “We didn’t always like each other when we played. We were just this side o’ twenty and out to explore the world.... But boy, could we hang out at your local college-age rock-star and Jimmy Page-Keith Richards imitator bar. I was even snottier than the other three so I’d be disgusted at how fake everyone was. But not disgusted enough to stay home. So like I said, we didn’t always like each other. But we were not musicians, we were a band.”
In the fall of 1973, Warner Bros. heard a rumor that the Modern Lovers were going to break up, and they sent producer Kim Fowley to record some material from the band. These tracks later became the bootleg Original Modern Lovers: by the time it was released, Richman had already decided to quit. He was tired of the band’s loud, electric sound, and at the age of 23 embarked on a new trend of writing “happy songs.” He played his acoustic guitar in solo concerts at hospitals and elementary schools, convinced that “high volume was not a necessity but a hindrance to communication and intimacy.”
According to Spin, Richman’s albums grew more and more childish. Richman began writing children’s songs (with lyrics such as “the wheels on the bus go round and round,” and “I’m a little airplane, wheee, wheee”), although he maintains that the songs were still of more or less adult subject matter and not aimed directly at children. “Do you know why I made up some of my funny songs?,” Richman responded in the Spin interview. “Because I went through children’s folk songs and I didn’t think they were good enough. I just write them like I’m talking to anyone else.” Jim Sullivan of the Boston Globe stated that Richman “spends more time upon minutiae than any of his contemporaries. That is, he is the only song-writer in the world who has written an ode to a chewing gum wrapper—and has made you feel for the damned thing.”
In 1976, Berserkely released both The Modern Lovers and Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. Late that year, Richman hooked up with yet another set of musicians to record Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers, an acoustic album containing the single “Egyptian Reggae,” which became a smash disco hit in Europe in 1978. In the late seventies and early eighties, Richman experimented with performing by himself in small clubs, and the press speculated that he had retired, hinting that Richman’s solo venture was due more to his problems working with other musicians than to any lack of songwriting inspiration.
“Take it from me, it’s better that I’m a solo act,” said Richman referring to an incident that occurred at the Bottom Line Club in New York with Modern Lovers drummer from that period, Michael Guardabasico. Guardabasico had just set up his drum set and finished a sound check when Richman asked him to put the whole thing away and simply use a dumbek (a small hand drum) during the performance. Richman admits to being completely stubborn and completely changeable at the same time, a combination often fascinating for audiences, but trying for his accompanying musicians.
In 1982, Richman recorded Jonathan Singswith backup vocalists the Rock’n Robins (Ellie Marshall and Beth Harrington) and Rock’n Romance in 1984, two albums that marked his self-described coming of age process. Over the next ten years, Richman released nine more albums, including a country-western album recorded with the Skeletons, and Jonathan, Te Vas A Emocionar!, recorded completely in Spanish. In 1987, he signed with Rounder Records and began working with producer Brennan Totten on Modern Lovers ’88 and Jonathan Richman. Totten also played guitar as a Modern Lover on tour with Richman and helped Rich-man record a song commemorating the animated figure Gumby for Walt Disney Records.
Although his later albums are decidedly more mature than his burst of children’s songs in the 1970s, Richman maintains his Peter Pan persona and his emphasis on the spontaneity of sound in his music. Having a Party with Jonathan Richman and, I Jonathan are decidedly party albums that rehash some old fifties doo-wop songs, recycling a few of his earlier recordings, and remaining within his style of post-modern wit and lyricism. “Richman rattles through a record in a couple of weeks,” said Richardson in Pulse!, “and he does his best, without overdubs, to impact the party ambience and twangy sounds of the cheapest kind.”
On his 1993 release, I Jonathan, Richman’s 17-year-old son (with the help of a friend) played drums on many of the tracks. “I don’t know how to play what’s fashionable now,” Richman told the Houston Press. Yet both of these albums contain New-Age jargon and a recurring regionalism that fans found in old songs like “Government Center.” He also sings about the 12-step program’s “Higher Power,” as well as the Dunkin Donuts in Mattapan.
Denny Dyroff of the Boston Globe described this element of Richman as “exhaulting the ordinary,” while still maintaining loopy humor; these albums also contain song titles such as “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” and “You Can’t Talk to the Dude.” “He can turn words and witty rhymes the way [professional baseball players] Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker turned the double-play in their prime,” wrote Boston Phoenix columnist Fran Fried, “flawlessly, smoothly, and before you realize what’s happened.” In “The Girl Stands Up to Me Now,” on Having a Party With Jonathan Richman, he sings: “Now when she says no/comes out smooth as silk/she don’t act like no bad breakfast cereal/waitin’ to wilt in the milk.”
Writing for Pulse!, Richardson described Richman’s old and new work as establishing a balance between “cozy reflections on emotional resonances from the past and specific details from real-life experiences in the here-and-now.” Richman admits to not knowing “whether I’m gonna talk about the future or the past minute to minute.” The musician lives with his wife, Gail, and his two children in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, taking a lot of time off to camp in the desert and jump on his trampoline in his backyard. The landscapes that he still writes about in his songs, however, are the cities of his youth: Boston and New York.
On I, Jonathan, Richman plays tribute to his past, and specifically to the band that inspired him as a teenager to pick up a guitar and eventually move to New York City, the Velvet Underground. In a tribute to them, he sings: “They were wild like the USA/A mystery band in a New York way/Rock & Roll, but not like the rest/And to me, America at its best/How in the world were they making that sound?/The Velvet Underground.” Perhaps 24 years and 17 albums later, Richman has finally figured it out.
(Contributor) Beserkely Chartbusters, Beserkely, 1975.
The Modern Lovers, Beserkely, 1976.
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Beserkely, 1976.
Original Modern Lovers (bootleg with Warner Bros, tracks; recorded, 1973), c. 1976.
Rock ‘n’ Roll With the Modern Lovers, Beserkley, c. 1977.
Back in Your Life, 1979.
Jonathan Sings, 1982.
Rock’n Romance, TTN, 1984.
It’s Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Upside Records, 1985.
Modern Lovers ’88, Rounder, 1988.
Having a Party With Jonathan Richman, Rounder, 1991.
I, Jonathan, Rounder, 1993.
Jonathan, Te Vas A Emocionar!, Rounder 1993.
Beserkely Years: Best of Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Rhino.
Modem Lovers Live, Rhino.
Jonathan Richman, Rounder. (With the Skeletons) Jonathan Goes Country, Rounder.
Billboard, January 9, 1993; February 5, 1994.
Boston Globe, June 28, 1990; October 9, 1992.
Boston Phoenix, November 1, 1991.
Details, September 1993.
Houston Press, January 21, 1993.
Jam Entertainment News, April 30, 1993.
Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1993.
Orlando Sentinel, October 30, 1992.
Pulse!, April 1993.
Spin, February 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Rounder Records press materials.