Friday, February 27

You Can't Talk To the Dude, But He May Play In Your Backyard

Firstly, I have no idea what you people in Mallorca are doing right, but holy Moses on the mount, go to a Jonathan concert this go round. Tickets are 2 euros! For a second there, I thought the American dollar had really taken a dive, but clearly God just smiles on the isle of Mallorca. I'm a little jealous, I won't lie.

Okay, now on to real things. I searched and did not find this posted here, but we all remember how great my search skills are, so if it's been done before, I apologize and bear with me. It is one of my favorite interviews of all, from December of 1996, involving a 2 a.m. phone call from a train station, as, naturally, this is when Jonathan would get the urge to call. Josh Kornbluth struggles through, and I laugh as I am exceptionally glad I never had the urge to go into journalism.

The phone rang. I groped around for the receiver, finally found it, and lifted it toward my ear, which at length I also found. "Hello, this is Jonathan Richman," a voice said. It was a voice familiar from his many albums — with a post-nasal timbre that practically cries out for Sudafed and affection. In a blurry state of excitement, I switched on my tape recorder and came up with the most professional-sounding opening line I could muster: "Oh hey, cool, Jonathan! How great to hear from you!"

"Well, thanks," he allowed.

I struggled to come up with a follow-up. At the last moment, it came to me: "Oh — hey, cool. So ... wow, excellent!"

"I call you from a pay phone in Pennsylvania Station in New York City," he said. "I'm about to take a night train, 'cause it's 2 a.m. here, almost."

Listening to the tape, I wish I'd said, at this point: "Well, Jonathan, it's a funny thing you mention that, because it's also 2 a.m. here — in nearby Hartford!" Maybe that would have made him feel a bit guilty and cause him to open up more than he did. Or maybe not. But in any case, I didn't say anything at all. So he went on: "In a little while I get on a train. But I thought I'd say hello, since I had some spare time."

"Oh, that's great!" I shot back. "Where are you going?"

"Oh, off to Boston," he said. "We just played — 'we' being the last performance of my little quartet — just played the Conan O'Brien show."

I went for the jugular: "Oh, excellent. How did it go?"

He said, "Good!" And then there was silence. I'd hoped for a longer answer, to give me a chance to clear my head. But it quickly became clear that Jonathan felt no compulsion to elaborate on his comments. Pithiness was the order of the day. Which, as a former copyeditor, I admired in a sense — though as a current interviewer, not so much.

Stalling for time, I said, "Cool, cool — excellent." But in my head, a battle plan was forming. Richman's latest album, Surrender to Jonathan, has several songs that hint strongly at a break-up of his marriage. Perhaps I could steer our colloquy in that direction.

So I said, "Your new record is really moving — because, at least based on your songs, like, you've been through some stuff, you know, with your family and ... stuff."

There was a long silence. Finally, he said, "Oh, I don't know about stuff like that." Then, using a distraction technique mastered by most parents of small children, he changed the subject: "But you like it, eh?"


I'm embarrassed to say that at this point, I just plain out-and-out panicked. I lost all sense of hewing to proper Woodward-and-Bernstein technique. Things clearly were not going well, and I instinctively fell back on what comes naturally: I started monologuing. I talked about my own hopes of one day raising a family. I told a long story about how I damaged my ears at an "acoustic" concert by the Violent Femmes, a band clearly influenced by Richman. I mentioned that I used to hang out with Barrence Whitfield, a blues shouter who sang back-up on one of Richman's albums. I started rattling on about the whole curse of the Boston Red Sox, his hometown team, and how it had impacted my life. Throughout, Richman occasionally uttered variants on, "Uh huh."


Now here's where I think he realized he was dealing with a pro. So for the next couple of minutes we had what I would almost term a linear conversation.

"Good," he said. "Okay. What's goin' on? Well, we did touring a bunch. And I just played a bunch of shows with my quartet. And after Thanksgiving, we go back to just me and Tommy Larkins on the drums."

Q. Are you happy with your new album?

A. Yeah. It came out good. I like how it came out.

Q. Uh huh. And then, the stuff with the organ that comes in sometimes is really pretty.

A. Oh good, thanks.

Q. Like, at the end of "Full Time Daddy Now"? That sort of, like, "held" thing it does at the end?

A. I'm glad you liked that.

Q. It's really neat. ... Do you do, like, a lot of takes of stuff?

A. Not usually.

Q. Yeah. Wow. ... And do you record all at once — like, everyone's playing at the same time?

A. A lot of times. Some of that album wasn't done that way. Some of it was. Um, some of it was done with everyone playing at the same time.

Q. Uh huh. It's probably more — Is it a lot more gratifying?

A. Yeah!

I'll admit that at this point I was starting to feel pretty good about the way things were going. I was asking questions; he was answering them. This was how interviews were supposed to work.

I asked him whether he had a preferred band-size for touring with.

"Yeah," he said. "Just me and a drummer. That's the way it works best."

I pressed the point: "Why do you like it better? Just 'cause you can do more, like, on the spur of the moment? It's more stripped down?"

Whoops! Another mega-silence. I'd evidently overstepped my bounds again.

At length he said, wearily, "I don't know. It's hard to talk about stuff like that." Then, brightening a bit, he added: "But I do know that that's my favorite way to do it!"

My will was now completely broken. Personal questions were off-limits. Musical questions were off-limits. Apparently, the only subject that could be hashed over in excruciating detail was my own life — and that's not why SALON was paying me the big bucks. I decided to give up on being a reporter and just speak from my heart.

I said, "Your stuff makes me really happy, Jonathan."

"Thank you," he said.

"And it makes my girlfriend really happy," I said.

Silence. Uh-oh. Perhaps my personal life was now verboten.

Eventually I heard him clear his throat. "Uh, I got to get going now. So I better wrap this up."

Golden relief swirled through me. "Okay," I said. "Cool. Well, thanks a lot, Jonathan."

"All right, Josh," he said. He sounded relieved as well.

"I hope you have a really safe trip, and all," I said.

"Uh, thanks — thanks a lot!" he said. "See you later!"

"Take care!" I said. "Bye!"

"Yeah! Bye!" he said. And he hung up.

You know, in those very last moments, I think we bonded. I really do. Or possibly we didn't.

You can read all of it over at

Now I'll take things that never happen to me no matter how badly I want them to for 1,000, Alex.

I asked this young gentleman, Dave Depper, how he made this happen, but as of this writing, he hasn't gotten back to me. All I know is this: It ends with Jonathan Richman playing in his backyard. So he's awesome. And I am jealous. Video evidence, courtesy of Vimeo rather than Youtube this time:

Jonathan Richman sings for us in the garden from Dave Depper on Vimeo.

Seriously awesome.

Everyone have a great weekend!

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