Jonathan Richman’s Inner House is full of Cold Pizza and other Hot Stuff by Zack Kopp
Richman‘s career is an unbroken history of disdain for convention, marked by anomalies like children’s songs and surf-rock and instrumental movie soundtracks, which never fails to impress the discerning, and shows no sign of stopping.
His latest full-length collection, ‘Cold Pizza and Other Hot Stuff’ (Blue Arrow Records, 2022) featuring new Richman classics like the title track, a revisioning of the late 80s ‘New Kind of Neighborhood’ that’s at the same time slower and more celebratory about relocating to a new state, and the instrumental ‘Guitar in Orange Drums in Pale Purple’, an utter masterpiece of interplay with Jonathan and Tommy, melody maker and drummer playing rhythm different ways perfectly synchronized with one another in mutual sustenance. Two currents keeping each other alive and the whole song flowing.
His cover of Richie Valens’s ‘La Bamba’ in perfectly enunciated Spanish is an act of joy, and the album’s final cut, ‘Everybody Loves Dolly’ is another song of tribute to an honest woman who “the people can tell doesn’t hate anybody and she co-creates some of them songs with angels, wouldn’t you say?”
That album’s predecessor, ‘Want To Visit My Inner House?’ – featuring songs like the title track and others as free of façade, like ‘I Had to See the Harm I’d Done Before I Could Change,’ or ‘This Kind Of Weather Is For Me’ – is embodied by the same freshness of spirit characterizing all the entirety of the now 70-year old’s catalog – and just this morning, I got an email announcing that hard copies of the EP ‘Cold Pizza and Other Hot Stuff’ will be available in June of this year. His recent stuff retains the same pure emotional core as groundbreakers like ‘Roadrunner’ or ‘Someone I Care About’ from ‘Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’, released in 1976.
Richman’s slice of American rock ‘n roll culture began in the early seventies as the brain and soul behind Boston’s Modern Lovers.
He was a kid who loved the Velvet Underground so much he hitchhiked his way to New York and befriended them. His song ‘Roadrunner’ was covered by every early punk band, and his early stuff was characterized by an unalloyed, adenoidal sincerity that made everyone else’s more polished numbers seem overproduced and fake.
Besides being the first straight-edge song, ‘I’m Straight’, which can be found on the first ‘Modern Lovers’ LP and ‘Modern Lovers Precise Order’, to name a couple of places, was an early, impassioned declaration of Jonathan’s realist nature doubling as a plea for courage in life. The lyrics comprise his romantic bid, in competition with ‘Hippie Ernie’ (later Johnny), challenging his intended, “Tell me, why don’tcha, if these guys are really so great, why can’t they take this place, and take it straight?”
Another song, ‘Old World’, took a stance against the disrespectful futurist culture dominant at the time of its release in 1972, with lyrics like, “I’ll keep my place in the old world, keep my place in the arcane,” Richman saying, hey kids, don’t give up on the past for fleeting modern fancies.
The original Modern Lovers lineup featured Richman and bassist Ernie Brooks with drummer David Robinson (later of the Cars) and keyboardist Jerry Harrison (later of the band Talking Heads).
Their album contained idiosyncratic songs about dating awkwardness, growing up in Massachusetts, and love of life and the U.S.A, prefiguring much of the punk rock, new wave, alternative and indie rock music of later decades with its contrarian character.
After their trip to Bermuda, where they were booked as one of the house bands at the Hotel Inverurie, the original lineup fell apart. Jonathan’s discovery of the looseness of calypso musicians in comparison to the nervous “triphammer” playing of his own act changed everything. Richman later narrated his catharsis in a live rendition of the song ‘Bermuda’, retitled ‘Monologue About Bermuda‘.
In 1975, after moving to California to record as a solo singer/songwriter, his first released recordings appeared on 1975’s ‘Beserkley Chartbusters’ compilation, where he was backed by members of Earth Quake and the Rubinoos; these four songs also appeared on singles on the independent Beserkley label.
Between 1976 and 1988, Richman used the name Modern Lovers for a variety of backing bands, all quieter and more low-key than the original unit, specializing in near-childlike songs like ‘My Little Kookenhaken’ and ‘I’m a Little Dinosaur‘. Of his original bandmates, only Robinson was part of any of the other Modern Lovers incarnations.
The watchword throughout his career has been authenticity, generally in direct contradiction of the popular, without animosity—from openly aping the Velvets and the Stooges in tracks like ‘Walk Up the Street‘ to personalizing the same brand of lonely, heartfelt detachment in songs like ‘Hospital’—to 2005’s ‘O Moon Queen of Night on Earth’ or ‘I Was the One She Came For‘ which two latter tracks show a more fully-grown, better developed truth teller, more nuanced, but it’s the same self, relating its life.
Another late career song which may be seen in evolutionary context. ‘The World is Showing Its Hand’, from 2006, looking back on his first encounter with urban funk as a kid, is an affirmation of Richman’s inherent preference for sewage and grime over air freshener, – “I was delighted that the world would wanna smell like this!” the same preference for essence over artifice, real over fake, whatever it smells like, however it feels, to the one declared in 1972’s ‘I’m Straight’.
Maybe the perfect summation of what is inherently punk about Jonathan Richman is him ducking all these trends over the years, always turning out right in the end—from 1990’s ‘You’re Crazy for Taking the Bus’ (his bandmates preferred planes) to 2004’s unsurpassably titled ‘You Can Have A Cell Phone That’s Ok But Not Me‘.
He’s not a Luddite. He just doesn’t like fake stuff. Not retrogressive, more like anti-artificial. He’s an authenticity loyalist to a fault and that means a lifetime of paradox. In 1990‘s ‘City vs. Country’ in which he pines for both extremes at once, one more tender soul transfigured between the past and the future, between convenience and hard won real live feelings.
Richman has a flair for art appreciation, going all the way back to Modern Lovers album one, when “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole, not like you,” through initial veneration of Vincent Van Gogh—“the most soulful painter since Jan Vermeer, and he loved, he loved life so bad, his paintings had twice the color other paintings had”—on ‘Rockin’ and Romance’ in 1983, then again on an album in 2004, through “Salvador Dali was there for me . . . I was havin’ nightmares all the time, all the time,” on the same album, all the way to “No one was like Vermeer. . . he was born in another age, maybe ten thousand or so years before” on the next one, released in 2008. And probably more. I think there’s one about Matisse.
Jonathan seems now to have recognized that the old world has outlived its relevance in many ways, urging listeners to make way for much needed change, and “say goodbye to the old world.” Hearing that edit for the first time, after bonding with him as a fan over the years, understanding that now he’d changed, too, just like I had, and the world itself had, how we’d grown up all together, and there we all were, him and me and History and everyone else, it felt like nothing else could.
His current home label is Blue Arrow Records out of Cleveland, Ohio, and something else he’s doing is a series called ‘Just a Spark, On Journey from the Dark’, began “September 1 on Bandcamp (via Blue Arrow Records). Each episode will feature new studio recordings, poetry, and more from Richman. There will also be occasional appearances from guest musicians. Episodes can be experienced at Blue Arrow’s website, where his discs, ‘SA’ (2008), ‘That’s All We Need At Our Party’ (2016), ‘Want to Visit My Inner House?’ (2021), and others mentioned above can be purchased in vinyl or digital format, as can posters and T-shirts and even a songbook spanning Richman’s career from the very beginning to current times, and a booklet and CD for ‘Just a Spark, On a Journey from the Dark’ for $30.00. And look out for the hard copy of his latest EP, ‘Cold Pizza’, ‘Hot Stuff in June’, the digital version of which is available here, with tracks like ‘Guitar in Orange Drums in Pale Purple’ and a masterful cover of Richie Valens’ ‘La Bamba’, available for sampling.
Jonathan Richman has established a name for himself in the European and South American markets, and he keeps that non-domestic, multilingual reputation at least as current as the one stateside ‘¿A qué venimos sino a caer?’ was released in 2008. A few days after lockdown was declared, Jonathan played a live concert with Andrew Bird on YouTube, radiating energies of friendliness and collaboration. Blue Arrow’s website says after much consideration, he’s decided to cancel his winter 2022 tour dates, “out of respect for our overworked and understaffed doctors and nurses working so hard right now to contain this epidemic. We are also canceling in the interest of our public. Canceling a tour is not lightly done. Many people have worked very hard for this tour. I thank them. We’ll see you later on in the year.”
I’ve seen him and longtime drummer Tommy Larkins play a few times, the first about ten years ago at the Lion’s Lair. I remembered dancing with my then girlfriend Kate to ‘No one Was Like Vermeer’. The next time was a few years later at the Bug Theatre with my friend, Kathy. The Bug didn’t have a dance floor, and everyone sat there in the rows of theater seats as Jonathan charmed the spectators, singing and dancing and balancing and spinning his Spanish acoustic guitar and Tommy Larkins tapped along expertly. The third time, I got to the Bluebird Theater late. Emptied my pockets for the metal detector, then took a minute to use the bathroom before going in there and making my way toward the front of that crowded room. There was no opening act, and I only caught five or six numbers, including ‘Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love’ and ‘When We Refuse to Suffer‘.
Another he sang was called, ‘Muy Allegre Sin Razon’. That means very happy for no reason en Espanol, which struck me at the time as a perfect summation of Jonathan’s essence as a rocker. He delivered an impromptu rap about the dearth of real interaction vs. the surplus of virtual connectedness in modern society during that show that would fit perfectly somewhere in ‘Take Me To The Plaza’, about the Zocalo, or central public square in Mexico City, which is the active hub of civic society round the clock in that city, and has been for a long time, and will be forever, potentially…
Hearing him stop in the middle of ‘Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love‘ to explain how he’s changed—“Now, in the old days, if you had told me I cared about myself more than her, I wouldn’t have liked that at all, no, I would have wanted to fight you, back then, but now I can see!”—for the first time, it struck me, a strong impression of Jonathan Richman as an authentic old school troubadour, with his whole attitude, his whole experience of life on tour for as long as it lasted to captivate the locals. “it’s in the bread.” ‘Es Como El Pan‘. That’s from a Jonathan Richman song about essence.
Now in his 70s, Jonathan Richman is still on the road, embodying something better, like a traveling minstrel of medieval times. Or maybe only fifty to seventy-five years ago in European villages and small-town America, when Gypsies caravanning through your town turned into a circus because of their unfamiliar qualities, the shapes of their souls, and the smell of the snake oils they sold. “I don’t like those typewriters with the screens attached,” Jonathan joked from the stage. “I get distracted. Okay, this is your last chance to say goodnight to the drummer.”
The show ended, everybody filed out, and I wandered back into the lobby a few minutes later to use the restroom, and there he was. There were his earnest eyes looking right at me. “Did you enjoy the show?”
“I did. It was great. It’s an honor to meet you.” We shook hands. I drifted back outside, changed forever, and bumped into something.
Headline photo: Driely S.