Saturday, May 10, 2008

Jonathan Richman (and a Modern Lover?) At The Shepherd's Bush Empire

What can I say about the evening? Wonderful. Just wonderful. I left the gig with a huge smile on my face, swathed in good vibes and wanting to just give the whole world a cuddle despite a rather uncompromising conclusion to the show. That should not have been entirely unexpected: Jonathan Richman does not tend to do "compromise".

You can never be sure about what you are about to get with Jonathan Richman. His back catalogue has visited many genres and shown a quirkier take on most than might be expected. I'll provide a brief potted history for the sake of context. The journey is just about as important as the destination.

Jonathan famously grew up around the area that spawned The Velvet Underground. Completely unknown outside local circles they inspired a very young Jonathan and informed his earliest recordings. His first ever vynyl release was simply entitled The Modern Lovers and the influences on it are as clear as day. If you like The Velvets then you will simply adore this album. Notable tracks on it are Astral Plane and Pablo Picasso but it's all killer and no filler.

I think that the album was recorded and then canned for a year or two before it came out in 1976 and by the time it did come out Jonathan had musically moved on. The Modern Lovers was something of an underground, cult smash and was a hugely influential album on the US's East Coast music scene. Jonathan adopted the name "Modern Lovers" for the loose collective of musicians that he performed with ~ some of whom went on to notable success in bands like The Talking Heads and The Cars.

The song Pablo Picasso is a pivotal one in his reprtoire and was the first time that a certain quirky humour surfaced alongside the Velvetian rhythms. It was the quirkiness and humour that was to go on to define much of his later output although the rhythmic simplicity is also an underlying feature. It was as a result of the stripped down nature of his music accompanied by a fairly relentlessly industrial throb that has led him to be described as The Godfather Of Punk. I think is is a bit strong, to be honest, but the "I could do that" nature of his beginnings in homage to the velvets and the subsequent simplicity of much of his music definitely deserves a mention in this context ~ we are not talking about an approach that Emmerson, Lake & Palmer would ever have considered here.

The childlike nature of much of his output is shocking, truly shocking to some adult ears. "Who is this bloke?" and "What is he on?" are questions often asked, not unreasonably, by those that encounter his music for the first time. Some will just reject it out of hand. Some will embrace it. It's those who take the music for what it is that will gain the most and those who reject it will never know what they are missing out on. There is nothing hidden, there are no allusions to profundity or politics. What there is is simple honesty and no little insight into life itself. I can't emphasis the "simple" enough. It is another facet to his music which can make people reject him and his approach. For him no emotion is too personal to be explored, no feeling is out of bounds. Some look at his songs and are repelled by what they may feel is arch, mawkish sentiment. Well that is exactly what is is for the best part but where most run away from such things Jonathan just rushes over and gives it all a metaphorical great big hug. He quite simply could not be an Englishman it just isn't in our national psyche to be quite as brash about our deepest and most personal thoughts, feelings and emotions. You may hate what he does but what he does is done with absolute and complete sincerity and conviction.

More grovelling thanks to from whom I have blatantly stolen the pictures of Jonathan on stage. Is that a new shirt he's wearing?

That gives a flavour of what he does and what he has been doing for years. He had a brief spell as a pop star in the late '70s when Roadrunner was a global hit. Egyptian Reggae was another and I have memories of Pan's People dancing to it on Top Of The Pops. Largely though fame and commercial success has eluded him but then that is in no small part to his idiosyncratic approach and his determination to plough his own furrow despite what anybody else might want him to do. Artistically he has dabbled in many styles and apart from the proto-punk of his earliest stuff and the Nursery Rhyme parallel that I drew he has also made CDs in a C&W-stylee (another big turn off factor for some), '50s doo-wop Rock 'n' Roll and some even sung entirely in Spanish!!

Truly you can never be sure what to expect.

I have been fortunate enough to see him in concert once before. That was in the late '80s (I can't be sure of the year) at Elephant Fayre which was a mini-Glastonbury type festival held at St German's in SE Cornwall. I remember the gig quite well. Iwas sharing a flat with a mate called Meaks at the time. He was with me and his girlfriend, Mary, was there too. Jonathan was on the afternoon. He turned up with a couple of backing musicians: there was a stand up bass player and a lady backing singer. That was it. No drums or other backing. If any percussion was needed then he either stamped on the stage or tapped the body of his guitar to provide it. What followed was unknown, to me ~ then, songs all delivered in the simplest Rock n Roll style that you could imagine. Wonderful. If ever a time or a venue was right for his song That Summer Feeling then that was it. I was utterly transformed and carried away to a better place. Meaks hated it. Mary, who had never heard of him before that day, became an instant fan. There in a nutshell you have him and the effect that he has on people.

A string of hard to get CDs followed over the years. Jonathan continued along his own personal little voyage doing what he does, and I guess, what he simply must. The World went on it's path and the two seemed fairly oblivious to one another. Then a second blast of fame due in no part to a very gross sperm joke in the film There's Something About Mary.

The sperm joke was nothing to do with him (he would never be so crude) but it helped sell the Farelly Brothers' film. They are huge fans of his and used him through the film to link transitional parts of the film with songs; one performed with Jonathan up a tree, like you do, I remember. Think of the cockerel troubadour in Disney's Robin Hood and you aren't far off.

...and we are more or less up to the present day.

I was using Pasoti one evening and one of the users (Block 3 Row Q maybe?) had seen a Jonathan Richman gig advertised. "Is anybody going?" I just could not resist despite having to travel from Plymouth to Shepherd's Bush for the gig I just had to go. Thanks to the internet getting tickets is quick and easy these days for such events; after a few clicks and I was on my way. Huge thanks to Block 3 for bringing it to my attention.

My mate Graham and I went. On arrival we discovered that we had missed the every start of the gig, which was down to London traffic and the scarcity of available parking in the Shepherd's Bush area but never mind. The Empire is a typical old fashioned London venue. Obviously it was a conventional theatre rather than a concert venue and it was far smaller than expected. On entry we were immediately confronted by a bar. Ordinarily this is no bad thing but it ran all of the way across the back of the hall and in front of it was a seated area. I couldn't see but I assume there was a "Gods" section above us too. Capacity of the venue? I'd put it at about 1500. All in all quite an intimate arena and well-suited to this particular performer.

The performance echoed the one all those years ago in Cornwall. The venue was hot. Jonathan's approach uncomplicated. This time he had a drummer to help him. The set that followed was a typical example of what he does on stage. Before the show I didn't know what to expect at all. I was half afraid that we might get an evening of nursery rhymes sung in Spanish... What we got was an evening of huge entertainment, gentle fun and some silly dancing all based on his rather excellent acoustic guitar playing. It included probably the most understated, and possibly shortest, drum solo you could ever wish to see as Tommy (or was it Tony?) wielded the brushes and the sticks with the ping pong ball on the end as much as he did the conventional sticks.

Physically Jonathan looks exactly as he has for the duration of his career to this point ~ there must be a picture ageing horribly in an attic somewhere as Jonathan's youth springs eternal.

The songs sung in a foreign language were there and that was not a bad thing. One of them, the one about the Sweaty Lovers, he sang in English before abruptly stopping. "...and here's the same song sung in French". It was the same song, as far as my schoolboy French could tell, but the arrangement and tune were totally different. There was another song sung in Italian. Nothing in Spanish though and no nursery rhyme type songs. The closest we got to that was Pablo Picasso which was re-arranged from the original and played to in Spanish-sounding guitar style rather than the rhythmic dirge (in a good way) of the original and/or earlier versions of the song.

There was real love and affection in the theatre for him. This was the only show in the UK and he had only just arrived, by train, from Barcelona and was off, via train again so he said, to Dublin. I guess he must have a real fear of flying. I suppose it is also fair to assume that everybody that was there would be a real die hard fan of his music and if you were a fan in the UK then there is only one place to have been last night and that was at the Shepherd's Bush Empire. In passing it has to be noted that he obvious has some celebrity fans. I was stood next to comedian Rich Hall (I mean right next to) and bumped into Adrian Edmondson, too. I spoke to him "Are you Adrian Edmondson?" "Yes." "I've come all the way from Devon, too." I couldn't think of anything similarly brilliant to say to Rich Hall.

The songs? I didn't know them all and he didn't give much detail as to titles and the like. We compiled a list afterwards and this was the best we could come up with (not in the same order and with many omissions):

No One Was Like Vermeer
Sweaty Lovers (?)
Pablo Picasso
I Was Dancing In A Lesbian Bar
Not So Much To be Loved As To Love
He Gave Us The Wine To Taste
In Che Mondo Viviano (in this world that we live in)
Too Young For This Older Girl
Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild

The show finished with 2 encores the last of which was the brutally personal This Is What I Learned As My Mother Lay On Her Deathbed. As lines go it's a as hard to follow as "I once had sex with a post-op transsexual" (I didn't but I know a man who did). Could it be followed? No ~ and he didn't even try.

The End.


I have had to Google around a bit to get some of the info in this report and in doing so I happened across this little preview of the gig from London's Time Out website:

The sainted – some might say insanely over-rated – Mr Richman returns with his almost Latinesque take on guitar-pop, still providing the loveliest of melodies. Expect all the hits – from the rockin' 'Roadrunner', to the soppy 'Morning Of Our Lives', the gleeful lunacy of 'I'm A Little Dinousaur' and the rudeness of 'Pablo Picasso' - performed with gusto and sincerity to the faithful.

That has actually enraged me. Quite how the writer can so glibly knock such an influential and original performer and then be so completely and wildly inaccurate with regard to what to expect from the show is beyond me. If there is an award for "lazy journalism" (a favourite phrase on the Pasoti messageboard) then that surely walks away with it. Apart from inaccurate and snidey snippets in Time Out I wonder just how close this wretched retch has ever got to the same level of achievement or whether he ever held the attention of theatreful of gig-goers for 2 hours? Somehow I suspect not. I suppose writing like a talentless twat is to be expected from somebody so clearly unable to perceive the talent in others. For every Roadrunner there has to be a Wile E. Coyote, I guess. What a shame this coyote's acme typewriter allows him to get such drivel published.

Here are a couple of links that you may like to check out:

The Times Review

Shepherd's Bush Empire

A blog ( ~ interestingly there is a review of the Paris show from a couple of nights before there)

Madison (a review of a gig in Madison, Wisconsin)

Vapor Records (his current record label)

Elephant Fayre 1984

Some tosh from a bloke writing in The Guardian about the first album

If this review of the show has entertained you just a tiny bit as much as I was entertained last night then I urge you to check out his work. Start anywhere you like and if you are not impressed then try something else. I'm sure that one day he would just click with everybody. If you want a prod as to where a good place to start is then go for the debut album The Modern Lovers, the seminal Modern Lovers Live In London, Jonathan Sings, Jonathan Goes Country or the newest release Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild.

If I have managed to blag the right bit of code from the vapor website there is a free song here for you to listen to.

Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love

and Morning Of Our Lives are also on this blog if you look for them.

Interestingly Jonathan is now recording for Neil Young's Vapor Records (I think it is his label anyway). I would love to see Jonathan added to The Hop Farm line up. Come on Neil!! You know it would make sense. It's something I would love to see and this man deserves a bigger, and I mean much bigger, audience.

Finally: I found this tucked away on the Vapor Records website:

Please note that Jonathan Richman does not have any direct involvement with the Vapor Records website and does not participate in the internet on any level.

I said he ploughed his own furrow, did I not?


At 6:01 pm, Blogger Wisconsin Green said...

Excellent post and review, Babs. Glad you enjoyed the show.

Also agree on the Time Out preview. But it feels better to be an us when you encounter such an officious and puerile Them.


At 7:01 pm, Blogger tfrancis said...

i had a ticket for this gig but lost my job and couldnt afford the train from swansea or somewhere to stay so i had to miss it! :'-(


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