Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Plea for Jonathan

Its time I made an appearance on the Spill I reckon and in honour of my first time, I feel I want to say a few words about my obvious love for the man Richman and his music.

Now it might seem to some like I praise the guy a little too often on RR or that I hold his work in too high esteem. Of course, one of the joys about RR is that its all personal, its all about a feeling you have for a particular sound or record, and where that sound takes you, in the end, is somewhere nobody else can travel in quite the same pair of shoes.

All I can tell you is that something happened to me one night at a Modern Lovers gig. I was 19 and went along to see the great Orange Juice play a now defunct and cheesy nightclub in Leicester town centre (next to the famous Clock Tower) called Mr Keisers in late Spring. I was right up for Edwin's band coming on, quite focused on what to expect. Perhaps that's why (in that eight-tenths empty club - it was still early to mid evening) I was completely taken aback when a group of about 6 Cali-looking hippies (many of them, middle-aged looking and at least one bearded) shuffled out onto a bare stage with instruments that made them seem like some buskers had arrived; a cool looking guy with an open neck shirt stood to the front and spoke into the microphone but, at the same time, at a distance from it, like it wasn't important. "Hello everyone! I'm Jonathan Richman and this is my band, The Modern Lovers and we're gonna play some songs for ya".

I was 19. Two years shy of making the move to University. We were there, all of us, expecting more of that left-field shilly-shallying which was early Eighties indie, in our black long sleeved t-shirts and our Bunnymen haircuts and our Pillows and Prayers late-sixties/early seventies nostalgia. Nothing prepared any of us for that look, that sound. For me, it was a revelation.

I had played the guitar since I was about 6, but never really got so into it until I was about 13 when I formed my first group. At that age though, you cant really expect to be taken seriously but I guess you could say that I was already something of a veteran of the band scene in general, but was still casting around for the influences that would mould me into who I really longed to be. Bobby Dylan had arrived at 17, stomping all over my world in cowboy boots and suede jacket, persuading me to try to look the 1964 version of him in 1983. But Jonathan Richman hit my world from a completely different angle.

The first song he played was 'The Beach'. We all shuffled closer to the stage. I remember crossing the room from the bar, almost unaware I was even doing it, drawn to this magnet I could feel. The volume was at a comfortable level and we could actually hear all the words; a weird sensation for a start. But it wasn't the volume, or the words (which had me laughing nervously at first - cautiously rechecking my cool as I did so) or the way that Jonathan accomplished himself so effortlessly there on the tiny stage. It was the joy. The sense of joy he and his band created was palpable in a way that related back to my first experiences with music. With my sister's Dansette and the countless Motown, old Rock'n'Roll and sixties pop singles she left lying all around the floor of her room when ever she was out (which was frequently, since she was 12 years older than me); with the first time I can remember listening to Radio 1 or far off Radio Luxembourg. With moving and shaking without fear of embarrassment behind a closed door as I listened to it all. Jonathan had that joy. That unashamed, unabashed, unalloyed joy which got me out of where I was and into the totally new space, which was Rock and Roll.

I knew I could never be Jonathan (I was from Oadby, Leicester) nor could I hope to emulate his sound, but nevertheless, I knew where it counts - in my heart - that I had found my champion.

I saw Jonathan many many times in the years since. Ive taken so many friends along and introduced them all to his 'sound' (not one failing to give me a hug at the end, even if they never did such a thing before) and he's pretty near always been on top form, unless there were cameras present or (worse) an audience giving off the kind of self-conscious vibe which Jojo has mentioned as being an anathema to his purpose. He never really let me down. He is also the one and only person I have ever written a fan letter to and posted it (it was just after the aforementioned gig and after hearing his 'Jonathan Sings' album fresh from the presses). About six months later, I received a postcard from somewhere called 'Grass Valley, California', thanking me for my 'nice letter', hand-written and signed by him personally. I also got a t-shirt, which he designed himself and which I wore almost daily for the next year. That was it. Sold.

So now i've unburdened myself, I will disappoint slightly by adding that I dont even have any Jonathan Richman records here with me (I am currently based in Budapest, as regular RR'er's will know). Sure, I listened to them so often that maybe it doesn't matter that much. But in the end, I like to believe, its the spirit, the heart of Jonathan Richman that endures with me to this day, even in the absence of his records, which I still cherish and keep locked up safe with all my others. I take a little piece of it everywhere I go and every time I pick up a guitar, he's there. Urging me to let go.



steenbeck said...

beautifully written first post, sourpus. I'm sold. Off to Toffeeboy's post to listen to the songs. Thanks for coming on board the mad SS'Spill.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ sourpus - great stuff - it was almost like being there! I can't actually remember what it was that got me into Jonathan. I remember seeing Pans People (I think?) dancing to Egyptian Reggae and I remember hearing The Morning Of Our Lives on Radio One but I don't recall a "crossing the Rubicon" moment.

I too have seen Jojo live on, I suppose, a dozen occassions - mot recently a couple of months ago at The Shepherd's Bush Empire when it was just him, his acoustic guitar and his drummer (Tommy Larkins) - and about a thousand fans. As always, it was a magical experience.

Anonymous said...

ToffeeBoy, it was indeed Pan's People - quite a performance too and I remember being struck by the sounds I heard (as well as the lovely ladies) as I watched it from the sofa. Of course, I had heard Jonathan before that night in 1983; Road Runner and Egyptian Reggae, like most kids my age - his other chart singles didnt quite jump high enough, although 'Modern Lovers Live' and 'Rock n Roll' had drifted through my brother's bedroom (he was an album's man, with lots of music obsessed mates) I didnt really get most of that early stuff until after the gig I wrote about. It was immediately after buying 'Jonathan Sings' and 'Rockin and Romance' that I went out and bought the first album on import. Hearing the first album around 1984 was one more revelatory moment, similar to the one I had at the Orange Juice gig. I used to write out the words from memory for 'I'm Straight' and 'Someone I care about' to keep boredom away during college lectures. Like I said though, it was the spirit of his stuff which spoke the loudest.

Wish i'd been able to visit the recent gig in London. Although maybe I should just write one more letter asking him to turn up in Budapest! sourpus

Proudfoot said...

Egyptian Reggae my first time too. Then 'Roadrunner' from Rock'n'roll Swindle guided me to the original, and Annie Nightingale on Radio1 played 'Wheels on the Bus' about the same time. Then live gigs, which I've mentioned elsewhere.
My JR top 5 today?

1. I'm Straight
2. Summer Feeling
3. New England
4. She Cracked
5. You Can't talk to the Dude.

Tomorrow this will be completely different.

ejaydee said...

Beautiful first post, like I said on ToffeeBoy's post, I want to hear more.