True, Jonathan Richman’s postmodern nasalizing sometimes makes him sound drippy, and his embarrassingly endearing and artfully clumsy lyrics (“You wonder why you’re feeling rank/And you live with a guy who’s in the tank”) often suggest a development not only arrested but tried and convicted. And yes, his guitar-playing is charmingly rudimentary, like the spare, unpolished sound of his albums. Retro-radical to the bone, he relies on guitar, bass, drums, lots of handclaps, and heavy dollops of ingenuous humor worthy of Mayberry, NC, to make his music work. He epitomizes the utopian idea behind rock & roll: that anybody — anybody brave enough to pick up an instrument — can be a star.
Richman, who founded the legendary Modern Lovers back in 1970 and has, compilations and repackages combined, more than a couple of dozen albums to his name, is indeed a star to his fans, who remain as loyal as they do few and far between. To rock critic Robert Christgau, he’s a “moderately gifted neoprimitive egomaniac.” Same difference.
I, Jonathan, from 1992, isn’t his best album, but it’s like an old pair of sneakers that you haven’t worn in a while: good enough to slip back on every once in a while to remind you how good they feel.
“I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” is a classic, having nothing to do with gender or sexual orientation, but everything to do with Richman being true to himself and enjoying life. It’s at the heart of almost all of his work.
The closing “Twilight in Boston” was written in the studio and recorded in only two takes, but the hometown details, as Richman shuts his eyes and takes us on a wistful walk from the Public Gardens to the Fenway, are every bit as keen as Joyce’s Dublin, Lou Reed’s New York City, or Ron Carlson’s Salt Lake City.
On “Velvet Underground” he pays past-due homage to the seminal rock band that changed his life and to their “twangy sounds of the cheapest kind.” He could easily be singing about his own music. And when he segues into a stand-up cover of the Velvets’ “Sister Ray” he proves that, if he wanted to, he could sound just as tough and decadent as they used to.
Which is the point: he doesn’t want to. He’s making the kind of music he likes and having fun doing it. If there’s an audience out there listening, well, that’s fine, too.