This article was contributed by Ryan Browne who is a Sunset in Sonny and the Sunsets and also a member of Tortured Genies, along with another Sunset Tahlia Harbour. See Tortured Genies live on August 9th at the Hemlock Tavern with Roommate and Sunbeam Road.
Many people from all walks of life make beautiful music, but not many succeed like Jonathan Richman in making the word “cool” irrelevant through the power of sheer positivity.
On Thursday evening, the last of a three-night residency at the Make-Out Room, the positive feeling was there even before the singer took the stage. Despite the sold-out venue and steadily flowing drinks, the noise level was low. There was clearly a communal desire not to get too rowdy, as well as an unspoken agreement that what we were all here for was to hear music and to love music, first and foremost. (Sadly, not a common experience at live shows in San Francisco).
Around 8:45pm Jonathan and drummer Tommy Larkins took the stage to fervent applause and launched into “These Bodies That Came to Cavort”, a song from last year’s release “O Moon, Queen of Night On Earth” (fantastic), which along with compositions from “Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild”, would make up most of the night’s setlist. (Not that there was a setlist — he chooses songs spontaneously, sometimes breaking off half-way or after only one verse to launch into another tune). At the conclusion of the first chorus, Jonathan leapt back from the mic stand, twirling his guitar and his body around on one heel and launched into a samba-like dance, to ecstatic cheering. To facilitate his frequent, hilarious and beautiful dancing, Jonathan’s guitar is mic’ed, not plugged in and he wears no guitar strap. At a Jonathan Richman show, dancing is often substituted for verses, guitar solos, and/or segues.
Those who weren’t familiar with the new album or Richman’s live shows may not have realized that Jonathan improvises new and additional lyrics for most of the songs he plays live. Sometimes he sings the same verse a few times. Introductions are given for many of the songs too. After singing the first verse of “Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild,” Jonathan stopped singing, still strumming the chords, to explain how before he dated women, he’d always thought that people used “products” with an “s” on the end…but then he came to realize a woman can just use “product”. He then sang: “Because her hair is curly and wild, she don’t need nothing in it…”
"After I wrote this song," spoke Jonathan, interrupting himself again, "…she said to me ‘you know I do put stuff in my hair, right?’ And I said ‘oh yes, I know…I just said you don’t need to, that’s all.’"
Both Michelle and Peter mentioned Jonathan’s new song “Bohemia” in their posts about nights one and two. If I was forced to name one standout, it would probably be this song. Of course it celebrates that passionate life of an artist that many of us in San Francisco can or would like to be able to relate to. However, what touched me the most was the song’s portrayal of the relationship between a teenager and his parents: "They knew my art was pretentious but they didn’t laugh…they knew I had to start somewhere, they knew I had to find my way to Bohemia."
This brought to mind one of my favorite Modern Lovers songs, “Old World”: “I wanna keep my place in the old world, keep my place in the arcane…’cos I still love my parents, and I still love the old world”. Many people feel this way, but I can’t think of many other songwriters who would include their parent’s love and sacrifice in their own Rock and Roll coming-of-age song.
For a man sometimes dubbed “The Godfather of Punk”, Jonathan expresses little to no anger in his music. Even when he’s singing about things that make him unhappy — a girlfriend leaving, electric light blocking out the moon’s rays, people who choose not to suffer and thereby stop living life fully — there is a tenderness to his criticism. Perhaps what we’re hearing and seeing is a purer, holier form of punk, one where everything superfluous has been stripped away to reveal not anger, but compassion. Or maybe his music is something separate, something older, a missing link discarded by rock evolution.
As we all sang along to the encore of “Dancing in the Moonlight” and “It Was Time for Me to Be With Her”, Jonathan didn’t take his eyes off of us. He was smiling that serious smile of someone who sincerely wants to share something. His is a realm that I wish overlapped with our world in more places, and one that I would like to visit more often.