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Of all the major figures in the history of rock and roll, Jonathan Richman may be the one who's been heard by the fewest people. Fans of the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and other precursors to punk, new-wave and alternative music certainly know his name, and perhaps they own some of the timeless tracks he cut in the early Seventies with his band, the Modern Lovers. But the lion's share of the world's citizens remain unaware that Richman is more than a footnote in music-oriented reference guides.
Why? Maybe it has something to do with Richman's legendary reticence to take business advice, be it good, bad or otherwise. Perhaps it's linked to his general distrust of the press (he's granted only a bare handful of interviews during the past quarter-century and is rumored to keep a list of journalists who've done him wrong). Or it could be rooted in Richman's personality, which is not what you'd call cuddly.
"I'm obstreperous," Richman says from his California home--and this admission is offered with pride, not regret. In fact, he spends much of the remaining conversation weighing the applicability of the terms "obstreperous" and "cantankerous." He finally decides that his instincts were right in the first place. "I think I like `obstreperous' better," he announces. "I'm obstreperous, all right."
He's also a man very much on his own wavelength. As befits an artist whose qualities include an unshakable individuality and more idiosyncracies than anyone this side of Robin Williams, he shifts from one mood to another with quicksilver frequency. Good humor generally prevails, but it can evaporate in an instant. And that's when you know that his obstreperousness isn't simply a pose.
Born in Boston in 1951, Richman took up the guitar during his mid-teens, and in short order he was delivering his own compositions in public. From the beginning, his writing was as resolutely individual as his voice, a wonderfully nasal tool that manages to convey a world of joy and heartbreak in spite of the narrowest of ranges. Boston coffeehouse aficionados were often appalled by the resulting sound, but their reactions only fueled Richman's ambitions. He moved to Manhattan (home of his heroes, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol) at eighteen and began penning the numbers that form the basis for his reputation: "Roadrunner," among the best driving tunes in popular music, the quirky, heartfelt "Girlfriend," and "Pablo Picasso," which is rock's closest equivalent to Catcher in the Rye. When Richman sang "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole...not like you," he caught the angst of adolescence in a manner that was both angry and wry--a combination rarely achieved before or after.
Nevertheless, New York City didn't embrace the young singer. According to Richman, his biggest concert during this period was an impromptu revue delivered from the roof of the run-down Hotel Albert before a throng of passersby who took him for a potential suicide. Frustrated, he returned to Boston and with former neighbor John Felice began putting together the band that would become the Modern Lovers.
By early 1970 the Lovers consisted of guitarist Felice, who came and went over the next two years, bassist Ernie Brooks, drummer David Robinson (the future rhythm-keeper for the Cars), and soon-to-be Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison. This formidable lineup caught the attention of executives from Warner Bros., who gave Richman and company a then-monstrous $200,000 advance and flew them to California to record under the supervision of ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale. The results were brilliant, but that didn't stop Richman from killing the project. Similarly, he did everything possible to subvert a publicity blitz designed to turn him into the star he deserved to be.
Today Richman says he feels no regrets over his choices. "I thought about what everyone said," he allows, "but I just didn't want to do it their way." He adds, "I got a taste of playing large shows when we were opening acts for other bands back then, and I didn't necessarily prefer it. It wasn't any more fun than a small show--let's put it that way. Bigger ain't necessarily better."
As if to emphasize this conclusion, Richman broke up the original Modern Lovers and began playing benefit shows in various children's hospitals. These and other unconventional gigs convinced him that stripping down his instrumentation and often dispensing with amplification altogether enhanced his ditties. In other words, he unplugged before unplugging was cool--although he's characteristically reluctant to take any credit for being ahead of his time. "I don't think there's anything in common between what [contemporary unplugged musicians] are doing and what I'm doing," he insists. "Besides, sometimes I use an acoustic guitar and sometimes I don't. To me, what matters more is whether there's feeling in the music than whether someone's unplugged or not. So I wouldn't think I've had any influence on anyone at all."
This contention was disproved by the appearance of the Cale demos, put out under the title The Modern Lovers by the small Berserkely imprint in 1976. The reaction to the material's long-delayed release was largely ecstatic, and it sowed the seeds for the Richman cult that continues to flourish to this day. But rather than capitalize on this momentum, Richman chose to issue Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Rock 'n' Roll With the Modern Lovers and Back in Your Life, a trio of discs that were epitomized by sweeping daffiness and sonics associated with the earliest rockabilly recordings.
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