“I’M IN LOVE with modern girls and modern rock and roll!” Jonathan Richman exuberantly declares on the two-chord driving anthem “Roadrunner,” which, almost 40 years old, still sounds as timely as ever. Overly self-conscious and insistently uncool, The Modern Lovers was both an antidote to the bloated and self-aggrandizing excess of 1970s rock and a proto-punk statement of intent that paved the way for the smart acts like the Clash, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. Richman, who teamed up with the Velvet Underground’s John Cale to piece together a record for a band that would be defunct by its release, wore his heart on his sleeve and his awkwardness like a name-tag. His music was as innocent and honest as anything any folkie crooned.
So idiosyncratic he has made immediate and appealing music all but unknown to what could be a far wider audience, Richman also foreshadowed the evasiveness of cadres of “independent” artists. He rarely grants interviews, and though he tours incessantly, he principally performs at unconventional venues like pizza parlors and bowling alleys. The first time I saw him was in a dim sum restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown (Richman’s from there; I was at school) where he played one Sunday afternoon at 3:00 p.m. The first time I spoke with him was while a DJ at my college radio station; he dropped by unannounced on a weeknight night to record a promo spot. Thanks to Dan Smalls Presents, on Monday, October 24 Ithaca audiences will catch a rare glimpse of the iconic singer and songwriter, when he will stop by the Haunt for a 9:00 p.m. show; tickets are $15.
If you recognize Richman at all, it’s likely for his role as the in-house musician in “There’s Something About Mary.” He sings the theme song to the Farrelly brothers’ film, and spends much of the movie wandering around in the background. But The Modern Lovers’ 1976 self-titled debut offers a taste of rock and roll that is anything but background music. Richman yelps pleas like “I don’t want just a girl to fool around with / What I want is a girl that I care about!” or “I’ll go insane if you don’t sleep with me,” and when he’s not bearing his soul he’s name-checking artists like Cezanne and Pablo Picasso and wandering by Boston architectural landmarks. When Richman entreats listeners to “share the modern world” he unmasks the ridiculousness of Led Zeppelin or progressive rock’s obsession with elfin mythology and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Some more facts about Richman: he sings in Spanish, French and Hebrew. One of his most loved songs is about dancing at a lesbian bars. He’s vegan.
Around the time of the Chinatown show, I had attempted to interview Richman for my college newspaper. When I phoned him, this was the message left on his answering machine: “If I’m unable to reach you before your deadline, it’s a rock and roll show with a drummer that I bring with me. We never use a set list. The show’s supposed to be fun. I’ll talk to you later.”
“I’m not understood that well by the press because I think they try and complicate it too much. All you gotta do with this stuff, folks, is like it or not like it,” Richman once told MTV. Evasive? Perhaps. But when he sings about making “secretaries feel better / when they put those stamps on the letters,” it’s hard not to feel that his aim, though modest, is true.