Wednesday, February 18

It's Like Trying To Figure Out Eliot's "The Wasteland"

Jonathan, that great mystery to journalists, music hounds, and anyone who foolishly thinks that they will finally triumph over the Sisyphean task that is interviewing him, and finally figure out exactly what kind of man he is and what makes him tick. A man who is so vulnerable and open on stage, and so tight-lipped in interviews, is a sort of Holy Grail to these people who desire to know. The fact that I am more likely to be the next J.K. Rowling than Jonathan is to gush emotionally about his life certainly doesn't stop people from trying, because if there's anything that's tempting, it's trying to analyze a mystery. Sara Brickner of Seattle Music takes a look at Jonathan, and comes to the conclusion I came to long ago: Who he is lies all in the music, and if you can't figure it out from there, you'd never get it anyhow.

I know some people don't approve of analysis about Jonathan, or any music, really, but the article is well written, and I'm an English major who can't look at any sort of writing without trying to figure it out.


Asking Jonathan Richman for insight into his music is like having to answer the Sphinx's riddle. His tight-lipped awkwardness during interviews is legendary. Countless interviewers have tried playing Oedipus only to be denied entry into Richman's head, and come away from the interview more baffled than before. Even getting an interview is difficult. If Richman consents, the interviewer must provide his or her phone number, then stay glued to the phone so as not to miss Richman's call, which could come at any time--one flummoxed journalist conducted his clumsy conversation with Richman at two in the morning...

A recent article in Cincinnati paper CityBeat called Richman "the eternally endearing man-child." Endearing? Absolutely. Childlike? Not really. When music critics discuss Richman, they mistake his songwriting's playful simplicity for childlike naiveté. Most of those writers loved him best at the helm of the original Modern Lovers, the seminal proto-punk band that made Richman a permanent fixture in the scattered history of punk rock. These writers—nay, fans—loved Richman as he was in the beginning, a bratty youth who expressed his precocious angst in songs dripping with mockery and cynicism...Unfortunately, what music fans—including music journalists—have difficulty accepting is that their beloved artists are human beings who grow up and out of their previous selves...

Richman's wisdom is that he knows it can be very difficult to restore the original visceral reaction we had to a piece of music after we've unceremoniously critiqued and torn it apart. It's a philosophy that seems right for a man who's dedicated to living in the moment, to having experiences rather than discussing them—a philosophy directly at odds with art criticism, if not the profession of journalism itself. But whether or not Richman ever sits down to a straightforward interview, the reality is that the answers to our questions have been available all along in the words of his songs.

Read the rest at Seattle Music.

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