Baby, He's a Rich Man(child)

The sometimes hard-to-find depth of Jonathan Richman’s songwriting

Oct 22, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Jonathan Richman’s career has proved so long-lasting — more than 35 years now — because he’s seen as the eternally endearing manchild. At age 57, he still has the looks of a boy, an adorable waif maybe — lean with dark hair and staring eyes, a knowing smile and an oddly punctuated, affectless speaking style that suggests a youngster proudly making declarations (“Yes, I can walk!”) to amused adults.

His live performances tend to underscore the image: He plays minimalist, almost-outsiderish Folk Rock on acoustic guitar supported by low-key partner Tommy Larkins on drums. He’s given to interrupting songs with impromptu dancing, hand-clapping and hip-shaking from the stage.

Richman’s wardrobe is unstylish. He at one point liked horizontally striped shirts that made him look like a child dressed up as a pirate (he posed as one for the cover of his Surrender to Jonathan album).

The result has been that many fans see him as a lovable, high-energy Comedy Rock act with an attention-deficit disorder relieved only by dancing. Some of his most well-known songs support that theory — “Abominable Snowman in the Market,” “Ice Cream Man,” “Parties in the U.S.A.,” “Hey There Little Insect.” His famous appearance in There’s Something About Mary, as a weirdly goofy wandering minstrel, also helped cement that image.

And there’s nothing wrong with this situation. It’s certainly a delightful alternative to the rage- and angst-filled self-importance of so much Rock. But there are oldtimers out there, fans of Richman’s early-1970s Velvet Underground-influenced rock band Modern Lovers, who have always been suspicious of this persona.

To them, those first songs — written by Richman in his early 20s — were preternaturally mature, him expressing in a nasal voice the fright, loneliness and confusion of a young man struggling to make sense, find love and achieve peace of mind in a fast-changing, evershifting, always-challenging modern world. And it seemed a real struggle for him, as strikingly imagist songs like “Hospital,” “She Cracked,” “Girlfren,” “Don’t Let Our Youth Go to Waste” and “Roadrunner” attest.

Compared to that work, “Hey There Little Insect” was, well, cutesy. And while Richman has since won most fans over with the sheer infectiousness of his extremely likeable solo work, they’ve always felt he let something go to waste.

Except, has he really? He doesn’t get credit for the maturity of his best writing. He’s always maintained a love for ballads and mid-tempo rockers with a driftingblues, twilight-feel romanticism to them.

You can tell he really struggles to write them as well as possible. It’s not easy for him, and some of those songs don’t develop beyond interesting titles like “Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow.”

But enough others do. Richman has developed a sizable and underappreciated repertoire of songs expressing an adult’s wise, thoughtful and poetic take on love and the passage of time. They often still manage to connect with his memories of childhood, which gives them an extraordinary perspective that few singer-songwriters can manage.

Richman’s oft-recorded “That Summer Feeling” is an example. It’s lyrically playful in listing alluring, enticing images associated with summer — and thus, symbolically, with one’s prime. But he keeps stepping out of the mood to caution, in that choked-back voice of his, “That summer feeling is going to haunt you one day in your life.”

The Surrender album, one of his best, includes “My Little Girl’s Got a Full Time Daddy Now” and the extraordinary “Floatin’ ” (“I had a dream about floatin’/ Out there on a raft in the ocean/ My my family far behind/ Why are they so hard to find?”).

The lovely “Springtime in New York,” from the Her Mystery album that came out right after 9/11, remarkably takes us through the stages of a couple’s relationship with spare but lucid observations about the East Village in spring.

On his latest album, this year’s excellent Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild, Richman moves from manchild to solemn grown son in a short but emotionally open song about spending time with his dying mother, “As My Mother Lay Lying.”

Playing acoustic guitar at his gentlest, he brings far more honesty and unsentimental courage to the subject of familial mortality than just about any songwriter. Yet at the same time, sad as it is, the song is also written with powerful clarity and a hard-earned sense of acceptance. It is, hard to believe, beautiful.

I wouldn’t count on him performing that song in Newport. But I don’t fault him should he avoid it for, say, “Those Conga Drums.”

Anyone capable of going that deep in song needs to dance and have fun in concert as a way of release. But don’t think such silliness is all he’s capable of.

JONATHAN RICHMAN performs Friday at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.