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1/27/2010

Music

Roadrunner (twice)
A love letter to Jonathan Richman, a true original
Photo by Rory Earnshaw

 

Jonathan Richman
8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 2
The Social, 407-246-1419
www.thesocial.org
$12

My introduction to Jonathan Richman arrived in the most personal of forms: a mix CD, sequenced to perfection by a friend, Orlando’s Marc With a C. Its fixture in my car stereo became permanent, and it represents the most fitting way to spread the gospel of Jonathan, whose 20-album canon of songs lends itself to mixing, matching and reimagining. (The insane number of compilations of repackaged Richman material attests to this.) His oeuvre is deep enough to arrange themed Richman mixes: songs about Boston, for instance, or tunes about mythical creatures, or maybe songs about classical painters.

Richman has had nearly 40 years to build this impressively auteurist collection of music. As the founder of the Modern Lovers, he was post-punk before there was even punk. After the group disbanded, as inconspicuously as it had formed, Richman blazed a path of retro, childlike innocence rooted in skeletal ’50s rock & roll and doo-wop harmony throughout the late ’70s and ’80s. The volume turned down and the punk-rock urgency eliminated, he sang sweet songs about ice-cream trucks, insects, airplanes, leprechauns and abominable snowmen. (Artists like Daniel Johnston, Beat Happening, and the entire cuddlecore and twee-pop movements are certainly in his debt.) But it wasn’t all kids’ stuff. Richman made music for the brainy sort: In my favorite of all his songs, “She Doesn’t Laugh at My Jokes,” he references Sigmund Freud, Jean-Luc Godard and Albert Camus.

Though it’s curious to hear a man – then in his 30s – sing about Martians and chewing-gum wrappers, I take issue with the characterization of Richman as a “faux-naif,” proposed by music theorist John Alberti in his otherwise excellent essay “I Have Come Out to Play.” There’s nothing phony or gimmicky about Richman; his singularity and charm lie in his utterly genuine feelings for everything he sings about – something that can’t be said for his reverential followers, from Calvin Johnson to Nerf Herder to the ever-ironic Art Brut.

Now 58, Richman has shed his trademark naiveté but none of his emotional honesty, growing into a mature elder statesman. He’s embraced genres and languages from around the world (he’s known to sing in Spanish, French and Hebrew, both live and on recordings) and composed brooding confessional songs. Though sonically uptempo, the lyrics of 1998’s I’m So Confused make it a wrist-slitting affair, and 2008’s Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild is no walk in the park either, with numbers like “When We Refuse to Suffer” and “As My Mother Lay Lying.” His live appearances, however, remain as full of mirth and revelry as the records he released in the ’80s.

For a musician as influential as Richman – his legendary “Roadrunner,” sampled most recently in an M.I.A. song, is sometimes credited as the first punk tune ever – Richman continues to toil in obscurity, his audience diminishing despite his prolific and relevant output. There couldn’t have been more than 25 fans at his last appearance at the Social, a turnout so appalling I was shocked to see that he was making another stop this year. Support a living legend so it won’t be his last. And if you’re unsure about going, drop me an e-mail. I’ll make you a mix.

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