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Jonathan RichmanCraft Recordings
Released: 30th October 2020
|LP||£21.99||Buy Now||In Stock. Dispatched tomorrow.|
'I, Jonathan' is the fourth solo album by Jonathan Richman, released by the Rounder Records label in 1992. This is the first time it has ever been available on vinyl.
There’s a few artists that have an appeal to all of us in Monorail. This isn’t a conclusive list but it’s fair to say artists like Fred & Toody Cole, Alice Coltrane, Arthur Russell, Kraftwerk, Grouper, Jonathan Richman, Sun Ra are all solid choices for being universal threads that run through the shop’s identity. These are artists whom we’re all in agreement on and everyone has at least one record by them. These aren’t rules anyone has sat down and written out, nor is it a sackable offence to demur on them, it’s just no one has thought to. Until now. At the risk of ostracization from my peers I wish to step out into the light of truth and say that I have never knowingly listened to a record by Jonathan Richman.
Sure, I’m familiar. You can’t grow up among records and music in the post-punk, Wedding Singer landscape of the 90s and not be familiar with that drawl. I would be happy to say it is iconic; Richman has one of those instantly recognisable voices that couldn’t belong to anyone else. In my mind he’s a caricature of downtrodden loneliness, a solitary figure who wasn’t a Modern Lover, he was just with them, subtly in charge of them. To my mind he was a geeky Romeo, the nerd’s avatar who sang of never getting the girl but somehow made everyone swoon. These are just my perceptions but working in a record shop you have to form an opinion or garner some knowledge on the music you’re selling in order to do your job.
I, Jonathan is an album by Jonathan Richman originally released on CD by Rounder in 1992 that never came out on vinyl. It is now being reissued by Craft Recordings on vinyl for the first time. This is the bare minimum I know from reading the sales notes and judging by the enthusiasm from all my colleagues, it’s a big deal. It’s a Richman classic, a glaring omission from any vinyl enthusiast’s record shelves. In order to serve the truth faithfully I’ve decided to work from home today and listen to I, Jonathan from start to finish and see what I think of it while offering you, dear reader, some links with which you can furnish the void in your Jonathan Richman collection. So, here goes.
Before it even starts I’m assaulted by stirring, cinematic strings bursting out of the speaker like I’m mid-battle in a Viking raid. I’m immediately caught off guard, but it’s an advert for a revolutionary new toothbrush that prevents bad breath, so that’s a good start. Richman’s face begins looking at me with a disarming candour, like he’s mid-sentence, saying something coy but funny and innocent at the same time. He’s good looking, reminding me a little of Bruce Springsteen in that frankness on the album cover. I apologise in advance for the comparison. Parties In The U.S.A. begins with a count-in decked with slapback echo and the Louie Louie riff that Richman instantly acknowledges in his intro. He’s going for a raw, live feel, echoing the guys-around-a-condenser microphone of early Rock ‘n’Roll and the frivolous, light-hearted gang mentality that Grease satirised. It’s a track released in 1992 that references all the R’n’R history that Richman clearly grew up on, it’s dripping in knowing nostalgia that the singer is skewering as he delivers it. It’s clever, because the track is played with gusto and finesse despite, it makes you want to dance. It’s one riff – the original riff – played over and over, while Richman laments a powerful version of the USA that he knows is fictional anyway. It’s a USA of sunshine and Californian beaches that survive in imaginations all over the world because of the emergent monoculture. I’m not quite sure if Richman is celebrating the emancipatory nature of fun and communalism or taking a swipe at a society that’s moved on from that or both. In 1992 we’re in George Bush’s America, fresh from the Iraq War and Reaganomics has created the culture of profit, of selfish aspiration so I’d like to think that Richman is itching for a return to a kind of collective joy. I can get with that.
I’m not sure what a Tandem Jump is, so while Richman is doing another spoken word intro I’m going to look it up. Apparently it’s when someone skydives while attached to an instructor, so now we know. One of the things that’s striking me as ironic on I, Jonathan is that the album is so far parodying parties, of groups having fun while the album title is pretty unequivocal in its solitude. The production has plenty of chorus vocals, apparently incidental but clearly meticulously choreographed. It strikes me as anachronistic, even more so when you think of the prevailing production values of 1992 western music. Fair play to JR, there’s no ugly chorus on the guitar or big distortion pedals. Tandem Jump is a parody instrumental in the style of Wipeout and a million other novelty twangy guitar pieces popular in the early 60s. You Can’t Talk To The Dude is exactly what I imagine Jonathan Richman to sound like. Impeccably composed, with rhyming couplets that hook in your mind, it’s a song with satisfying minor chord changes on Richman’s rough and alive guitar playing. A description of a relationship with a brutish man, Richman takes on the role of confidante, telling the presumably female friend to leave him as he’s set in his ways and behaves in a way we’d recognise as abusive now, if not then. It’s so, so catchy that I have to pause the track to finish this sentence. I like the incessant gang handclaps throughout the track and the vaguely Flamenco guitar flourishes that build the drama in the narrative. He’s right of course, she has to leave him.
Velvet Undergound again uses parody as a jumping off point. With that instant nod to the VU chug, Richman is regaling the listener with tales of Reed and co, it’s a kind of naive fan letter. One thing that’s striking me as unexpected is how straight down the line the production is, it’s pretty cool. 3 elements: voice, guitar, percussion and a brilliant songwriter delivering the goods. In Velvet Underground we return to an idealized America which I, an astute critic, am beginning to think might be a running theme in Richman’s career. Is that true? Velvet Underground are “America at its best” and who am I to argue? Melting pot of oddball characters, pretty messed up but inspired, the female element being the best thing about it. Anyway I’m getting off topic: it’s a wayward song that twists time signatures and tempos, unpredictable if it weren’t for the songwriter’s firm appreciation of a comforting structure.
I Was Dancing In A Lesbian Bar is a brilliant song title. I have to confess I’d always seen this song title and heard people say it’s their favourite JR song and been wary. It could have been insufferably twee but actually there’s a very subtle disco groove with the bass – an underused instrument on this record – and a staunch 4/4 beat played heavy on the snare that makes it kind of loveable. The disco element – for dancing, get it? - is brought out by some Nile Rodgers-eat-your-heart out guitar slashing. It’s a song, like much of Jonathan Richman’s back catalogue I’m thinking, that in its open-heartedness and in its subtle take down of heteronormative hegemony, is full of love. I’m beginning to doubt my ingrained cynicism as I’m rewinding – pressing replay on YouTube - to listen to the song again. A lot of Richman’s vocal inflections are brilliantly used here. The “oh oh ohs” are sultry, the way he drags “zone” out. Maybe I’m overthinking it, but even the intentionally pronounced double entendres “things were laissez faire” and “things were too controlled” are done with such aplomb they’re bordering on irresistable. I’ve been lucky enough to dance in a lesbian bar or two in my time and can confirm JR’s experience.
To be honest with you, “...Lesbian Bar” is so fun that I’m tempted to listen to it again and skip Rooming House On Venice Beach. We’re back at this fabled USA, this one is all about the facade and its crumbling. We’re reminded that the singer is a story teller, the scene is painted so vividly here it’s almost like we’re there. It seems that the song is surveying Venice Beach and seeing in its characters some sort of archetype landscape with the narrator being a decided outsider, down on his luck with his “bag of crap” in reach of this ancient world of bronzed gods but not able to touch it. I hear ya JR.
That Summer Feeling is something that we see so little of in Glasgow. Writing while looking out over an industrial state under a grey sky, Richman’s Summer Feeling is incongruous with July 2020 in South West inner-city Glasgow. From listening to the song, it feels like something that does more harm than good. I’m being jovial here to distract from the very real sadness I’m beginning to feel as the aching nostalgia of the song is creeping into the room. It’s a testament to his skill that Richman can talk about very specific experiences and extrapolate them into a universality that you just get. He talks about having “a mobile with the top down on it” - the way it scans to the music itself is a hook – and I’m not sure what he’s talking about but I know exactly what he’s talking about. I suppose the premise is, is it better to have a good time and have it as a ghost that haunts you when the skies are grey? It’s about the falseness of memory, as he confirms later on. The song is a catalog of those evocative literary details, kids with dirty ankles, 4th grade at school and the twist is these things are figments of our melancholy, they were nothing at the time. Our good times are weaponized against us. Damn it Richman, why so sad?
Grunion Run is another fun surfer instrumental and it serves to break up the narrative structure of I, Jonathan. As an artist, Richman is a master editor, he’s clearly approached this as an album, with consideration to flow and effect, so once this slammer is drum-rolled to an abrupt start Richman is in full romantic flow. It strikes me now that A Higher Power is actually the first overtly romantic song, which disproves my preconception of him as an outsider Romeo. It’s the editing of the album as a whole which makes the effervescence of A Higher Power such a joy, magic even. As he does through out I, Jonathan, the singer acknowledges in advance the criticisms you might have for him and turns them on their side. “I know that magic is an easy word to abuse but I’ve tried other words and what other words can I use?” The effect of Richman singing about this love is that you believe him, that love is something unquantifiable, a higher power beyond science and real understanding. None of that matters when that magic is in the air. It also doesn’t matter that at the end there’s a dark twist which - in case you’re still reading and haven’t listened to yet – I won’t spoil for you. It’s an effortless song that really only Jonathan Richman could pull off. Which he does.
And with that, we’re on an amble around a twilit Boston, Richman’s pronounced east coast accent a tour guide gently dancing with a tremolo-effected guitar. Odds are you’ve never been to Boston and it doesn’t matter, because Boston here is a character in a story. In its specificity it could be anywhere, it’s the feeling that comes across powerfully. It’s a homesickness that you can transpose to anywhere, any time, it’s Richman as a gentle presence saying “hey times are weird, but I’m here, we can still have adventures.” Richman is so close to the mic you can hear him breathing as he solos on the guitar, “time for adventure” he says and grabs your hand to head up into a moon-drenched Beacon Street.
With that, the spell is over. I’m looking forward to listening to I, Jonathan on vinyl without the adverts and with my colleagues in a newly opened Monorail Music.
As the founder of influential protopunk band The Modern Lovers, Richman had strived to convey authentic emotions and storytelling with his music. I, Jonathan continued this aesthetic with simple and sparse rock and roll arrangements, and straightforward lyrics about mundane topics.
Songs on the album addressed topics such as backyard parties ("Parties in the U.S.A"), memories of neighborhoods in which Richman had lived ("Rooming House on Venice Beach" and "Twilight in Boston") and his admiration of his primary musical inspiration, the Velvet Underground ("Velvet Underground"). The latter song includes a brief interlude of the Velvet Underground song, Sister Ray.
The album helped increase Richman's cultural profile, which would include a 1993 appearance on Late Night with Conan O'Brien in which Richman performed one of the album's songs, "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar".