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.
This article was contributed by Peter Grimm of Bummers. Check out the Bummers (ft. Ty Segall) on July 20th at Thee Parkside with Pamela, Rock Ceremony, and Pow!
If you don’t know who Jonathan Richman is, be happy you now get to discover him. During three consecutive nights in July, Jonathan Richman plays the Make Out Room on 22nd Street and allows San Franciscans for a truly Bohemian experience in the Mission. Richman plays a classical guitar miked acoustically, with no guitar strap so that he’s always ready to make an impromptu guitar twirl or dance break. Like Tom Waits he manages to blend humor and music without effort, but in his own Latin sound and pulse he sways endlessly between thought and jubilation.
Now more on the Bohemian feeling of last night. A little digging will have you learn that the term Bohemianism began when French artists started to concentrate in the lower class gypsy neighborhoods in the early 1800s; Bohemien’s being the Romani people who arrived in France via Bohemia. Today, the term is thrown around with great liberties, but if you take part in Jonathan Richman’s call-and-response chorus to “Bohemia,” you will have a true understanding of the lifestyle: “Pretentious artwork in my hand—showed me the door to Bohemia. They could see that it was life or death when they— showed me the door to Bohemia.” But it’s during “When We Refuse to Suffer” that Richman convinces you of the depth to a Bohemian’s soul: “When we refuse to suffer; when refuse to feel, that’s when the air conditioner wins and the real stench of the world loses. If we run from the dead algae pond with the dead fish in it and the dead grass in favor of the air freshener, we deserve the foul boring life. If our minds don’t take revenge on us, then our hearts will.”
Towards the end of the set on his second night, Richman sang “O moon, Queen of the Night” and mentioned the difficulty of choosing between two different chords both meant to approximate starlight. For the encore, Richman started with “Day-O” (everybody joining in for “day like come and he wanna go home”) which he said was his first attempt, so it was probably best to keep it simple, and that it was actually not the song everybody was singing but a different, similar-sounding song. Then he went into Chain Gang, the Sam Cooke classic (“that’s the sound of the man, workin’ on the chain…ga—aang”) and ended, to the audience’s delight, with the Jonathan Richman classic “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar.”
I love Jonathan Richman. Here’s a picture I took on my iPhone last night at the first night of his three-night residency at the Make-Out Room. Jonathan Richman showed off his guitar prowess by playing extended and complicated riffs and even literally spinning his guitar around his body and stuff. He’s still got his amazing voice. He played two pretty long sets (maybe 45 minutes each?) and had a ten-minute break in between the sets that he announced by singing about it to the audience.
Before he went to take his first break, he fed off the super-stoked energy of the audience and called his drummer Tommy (Tom Larkins) back on stage to play a song about Mission Dolores park. It seemed like a spontaneous moment and maybe even an improvised song, although I don’t really know, but at the least it was an unfinished track. He broke down the many types that hang out at the park and how even the hipster-y of the hipsters might be getting sick of the park and how some people might have just become hipsters that morning before they walked to the park. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to a show before, where the musician made the audience barrel-over laughing.
After the first break, he played a great rendetion of his epic 11-minute “Bohemia,” where he talks about his snobby Harvard Square days and talking to the Velvet Underground. At the show, I ran into Anthony Atlas, who made us this really awesome mix of Jonathan Richman songs. We got to talking about the great debate of what night is the best night to see a performer when they do a residency. Well, I went on the first night, so I have a lot of defenses for why that would be the best night, like that JR is going to be the most invigorated, rejuvenated, excited and the most spontaneous. Although, JR mentioned how he was working out kinks on certain tracks and, of course, with practice comes perfection (or at least improvement). Well, my friend Peter is going tonight and we’re going to compare notes on the nights. If anyone else goes tonight or Thursday, please let me know or even send in a guest post about how awesome Jonathan Richman was and whether you’d advocate that it was the best night.