Beserkely, 1976 (reissue: Get Back, 2000)
I want to talk about sincerity. About Jonathan Richman when he stands before a crowd, small or large, and sings and talks. Some artists can’t help but be themselves, all the time.
Modern Lovers are beloved as punk-ish three-chord kids who sang about things like rock and roll, growing up, and art. Precursors to lots of “punk” and “art rock” of the 70s. Tight electric guitar riffs. Certainly tinged with New York punk influence, the Velvet Underground, New York Dolls, etc., but not quite as down about the world as those wearied CBGB kids. Yet not hippies. Suburb kids, “art rock” kids before “indie rock” was a phrase who somehow found their way to being produced by John Cale.
This album is iconic for a lot of people I know. One of the greatest all time,
they say. It’s got classic punk/rock style, and folks often a bit older than me remember it from high school or from an older sibling as the epitome of cool and against-the-grain-ness. And it was, it is. It’s slick and messy in all the right ways. It’s catchy as hell. It’s rockin’ – guitars and bar chords and all – but also surprisingly mellow, with organ backings and a jaunty relaxed pace. And the lyrics, and the singing, are something altogether cleaner. The band was fronted by a deep-voiced boy named Jonathan Richman whose lyrical vision was at the same time simple and far-reaching. Astral planes, positive iterations of love, witty talking-singing style.
I didn’t get into Modern Lovers until I got into Jonathan Richman’s solo stuff — around 1998, living in New York, dating a boy who loved singer-songwriter-electric-guitar guys and also happened to be from Grass Valley, where Richman lived. When I first heard this album, I realized I had heard it many times before, probably in high school, but couldn’t place when it entered my sphere of influence. I knew Richman and Lovers superfans, but I wasn’t really one of them. I just liked his songs, when I heard them, and I got this CD, and then later the vinyl reissue, and kept them around.
As an object, this record looks like a record every punk and indie rock enthusiast should have in their foundational collection. It’s pretty hip in style and sound – stark graphic design, chord progressions that are equally minimal yet rich. And these kids on the inside cover looking like they’re trying to be tough are a classic of the punk-band-photo genre. But here’s the hitch:
They’re not angry. They still love the 50s, and they still love the old world. They don’t understand why Pablo Picasso could behave the way he behaved and still get girls. They love Massachusetts
, for chrissakes.
Modern Lovers as the band recorded on this album didn’t really exist by the time the album was released. It’s complicated and I don’t really know the whole story, but basically: It’s 1970-ish. Jonathan Richman is really into the Velvet Underground. In Boston, he gets together some friends, students, to play music and they get really popular as a live band, make some recordings, including with John Cale, and then break up. (They are basically a student band, after all.) Then the record comes out, and they become even more influential (famous). Some of them by this time have moved on, to be in other great other bands that sort of sound like the Modern Lovers at times— most notably Cars (drummer David Robinson) and Talking Heads (organist/keyboarder Jerry Harrison). But Jonathan Richman keeps singing, fronting different “Modern Lovers” iterations but really just being his awkward, positive self in front of different backup groups. This all happens before 1976.
While it is likely that listeners and fans hear some grains of sarcasm in the Modern Lovers’ love for things like “the old world” and “the 50s,” Richman’s later work progressively eliminates that potential. His lyrics are entirely without layers, told as stories or observations or wishes of the person singing them. Over years he gets quirkier and quirkier, more and more pure in his approach to songwriting. Almost childlike in presence and lyrics. He scales down over decades, playing now with only an acoustic guitar and a single drum. He gets some flack for being a bit too quirky in some circles. He sings in halting Spanish and Italian, because he gets bored with English. He takes up flamenco-style guitar, gets folksier. He prefers to perform in smaller venues, bars and pubs where he does several nights instead of one big place, one big show.
Now, when I watch him, as I do once every year or so, I often almost cringe. Richman, after all these years, still disturbs what we generally assume are the sensibilities of rock and roll culture. How can someone be that nice and be making rock music? How can a songwriter be that precious, that blatantly fucking sincere about everything, and not be faking it? How can he really think positively about the world for so many decades, really not be posturing like every performer in the world, really taking things at face value and then writing insanely catchy rock songs about them? Can someone really be that simple, but still that good at guitar? Sometimes it’s just too much for this city rock girl. Too precious, too oddly childlike.
But still, I go see him. I don’t own many of his records—mostly just this one, although my sweetheart has some of the solo albums and I really like them (especially the Spanish one). Because I’d rather see this guy than dozens of the young trying-too-hard bands out there who claim him as an influence yet don’t seem to really listen to what he’s saying. What Jonathan Richman says to me is: Some artists have no choice but to be themselves. Sincerity and all. So I will keep watching him every time he shambles onto the stage at the MakeOut Room or the Knitting Factory or some house party in Grass Valley with that goofy, just-a-little-bit-off grin.
Because every time, every show, about halfway through his last set, I forget to be critical. I forget to doubt his positivity and his onstage demeanor and I remember to listen. I listen to the songs and I can hear the thoughts, out loud, of a real and complicated and highly unique person, who loves the world and sometimes gets sad and angry but really, actually, loves the world. And has mastered the style of song he writres. And still sometimes can make me, too, believe. I love the old world. I love Massachusetts. I wanna meet you on the astral plane, Jon, because wherever that is, it looks like a fucking good time.