Sunday, April 9

Interview from Q Magazine - 1993 (continued)

Part 2...

I’d been warned, of course. Back in the 1970s, Jonathan Richman had been dismissed by all but the aficionados as just a nutter much given to crawling about stages on all fours singing nursery-rhyme-type songs about little dinosaurs and songs about bees going buzz-buzz, about ice cram men coming down the street with their chimes, about abominable snowmen and, hey, little insects and (here come the) Marian Martians and rock’n’roll leprechauns. Richman was a child – a Pee Wee Herman figure before Pee Wee had been created – and a lunatic and when, in the 1980s, he wasn’t famous anymore, the legend continued along Syd Barrett/Arthur Lee lines. He’d been incarcerated in the bin. He never gave interviews. When he did give interviews, he’d say absolutely nothing and you’d be lucky if you escaped one of his karate chops (for as well as being a raving lunatic, he was also a martial arts expert). Little or none of this is true, but he is a rather challenging interviewee. He won’t sit down – twirl, twirl go the arms as he hops about the park – and he is reluctant to answer the questions he hears. So lets try talking about music.

Jonathan Richman, awkward teenager, was obsessed with the Velvet Underground, hung around at the group’s shows, pestered Lou Reed (even got John Cale to produce demos that turned up on the Modern Lovers album). Will he confirm this?

“Well, yeah, I loved the Velvet Underground because there was magic there… and also the Kinks and The Rolling Stones and The Lovin’ Spoonful and you know that song Roadrunner? Well, that probably wouldn’t have been written without Big Brother and the Holding Company, you know, the D-D-A part – that is a song Big Brother and the Holding Company did on one of their first albums. I forget the name of it. It goes ‘whooo-whooo-whooo’. I stole that.”

How casually he mentions it: “You know that song Roadrunner?” Roadrunner, which reached number 11 in the British charts in 1977 and made Richman famous for a bit, has been described as the definitive highway cruising anthem: for some of us, it said more about mixed-up teenagers in motor cars than Bruce Springsteen ever managed to do. (Come to think of it, for some of us, it said more about Richman’s home state than the Bee Gees’ “and the lights went down in Massachusetts” ever managed to do, too.)

Roadrunner was first recorded by the original Modern Lovers – along with songs like Hospital and She Cracked, songs that spurred rock critic Lester Bangs to write: “Only one in 20,000 has the nervy genius of Jonathan of the Modern Lovers and is willing to sing about his adolescent hang-ups in a manner so painfully honest as to embarrass the piss out of half the audience” – in 1972. In 1974 before the first LP was released, the original Modern Lovers split up. Jerry Harrison, subsequently of Talking Heads, said it was all Richmans fault because Jonathan was into astrology and all weird. Richman tells me “Tom, I’ve told you, this is not a biography, it’s not that sort of interview.” He makes it plain that he is setting the agenda, so there’s no point in asking what happened between splitting up the first group and signing to the independent label Beserkley in 1976. The legend has it that Jonathan took a guitar around children’s wards in hospitals and cheering the sick by being the infant in all of us, that he’d turn up in clubs with backing bands armed only with rolled-up newspapers which they’d slap upon thighs as accompaniment to Jonathan’s increasingly loony tunes…

It has long been suggested that you are a “loony”, Jonathan.

“That’s for you to decide,” he says, looping about the park. The eyes of the drivers peering dangerously from the road to consider these antics.

So you’re not a loony?

“A loony? It’s horseshit. You’re talking to Jonathan here and Jonathan says it’s horseshit.”

Well there was a rumour going round in about 1985 that you’d been sent away and committed to a mental institution.

Jonathan stops his gyrations for a moment to consider. And then he laughs.

“That’s funny. That’s cute. I was in an institution? That is classic. Well I’m sorry to disappoint all the people who believe in those kind of rumours but maybe they should be in institutions and not me, because in ’85 I was playing more than ever. I was still recording. Nothing had changed. The only difference was that in 1977 people wrote about me and in 1980 they didn’t, because the press suddenly decided I wasn’t worth their time any more. Roadrunner was a hit and Egyptian Reggae (a biffy instrumental based on a Chantays-type motif, a disc which could be described accurately as a novelty) was a big hit. (number 5 in 1977) The next record was not a hit. It’s that simple. I am explaining to you, you dig? So they declared me on vacation. I knew they were wrong. If I was in a mental institute in 1985, how is it that all the people who were coming to see me in clubs in Los Angeles and the Midwest and wherever weren’t wearing white coats? There’s been no vacation in 20 years.”

go back to part 1

To be continued...

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