Jonathan Richman – A Rare Troubadour
From the back of the Middle East Upstairs I saw Tommy Larkin sit down at his kit dressed in black with black framed glasses. He waved, getting comfortable testing his drums, but then he disappeared behind a wall of shoulder to shoulder audience. Jonathan Richman came out almost like a tech there was so little fanfare, and broke right into “Her Mystery Not Of High Heels And Eye Shadow” as a solo, tapping out time on his guitar as he played and sang.
Dressed in a red shammy shirt over a striped tee, Richman was playing a no-name classical guitar that he probably picked up in Spain. He didn’t use a strap, and the guitar, which he would play expertly in many styles, had a smooth mellow tone like a true gut string classical. The small intimate setting of the room worked well, and even without the microphone we could hear pretty well.
The set-up was minimal. A hot white pin-spotlight and I only saw one microphone – the one Richman used to sing into. He held the guitar up to the microphone, reminding me of Pablo Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist.”
But Modern Lovers this wasn’t. No “Pablo Picasso” or “Road Runner” tonight. He stepped away from the microphone asking how everyone was feeling, which was quickly followed by “That Summer Feeling.”
The theme here was remembering to feel, learning to feel, and how our culture is failing to feel. Feeling sorrow, feeling pain, and relishing it as much as you relish that steamy sweaty first kiss on the gritty streets of Central Square in the summer heat. Suffer the heat. Stop refusing to feel. Don’t go into the air-conditioning. Stay outside in the heat of the night; otherwise you’re going to miss that sweaty kiss. You don’t want to miss that sweaty kiss, do ya? he asked.
He implored us to stop looking at our phones. “I’m here, I’m real, and I’m right here,” he’d say, as I continued to type notes into my phone, feeling guilty.
He explained that he didn’t drink anymore, though he had nothing against drinking, but it was so he wouldn’t deaden feeling. All feeling, whether bad or good, was wonderful and he wanted to feel everything. Even feeling bad was good. But, if you drink, then drink to taste the wine, he said, before playing “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It.”
Richman made rhymes of pizza and Mona Lisa, seemingly off the cuff. Then he asked Larkin to play a solo as he watched the audience intently, delighting in performing as much as listening, and connecting with each person he could. It was extraordinary how in this quiet way he made everyone feel truly present. People mellowed, smiled and allowed themselves, for this moment, to connect with others around them. In this connected/disconnected society that we live in, that felt rare.
Asking the audience to participate, he tapped out a beat for us to follow; joking, “don’t be shy, this isn’t Symphony Hall.” He talked about familiar things, like riding the T and the horrible screech at Boylston street, as he gathered up steam, with Larkin following his lead on the beat of the train. “We’ll be the noise,” he said, as he played a furious staccato riff. He talked about his love for the Velvet Underground, and on one song he sang teasingly of how he used to like “trash on the beach.” I could see him as a beachcomber, enjoying going through the flotsam and jetsam, but now he sang of how he didn’t like trash on the beach.
He talked of being genuine and authentic, and gave an example of his failings. During high school in Natick he said he affected an accent. He’d say “feline” instead of “cat,” and now forty years later he had to apologize for being “such a brat and such a bore,” and could have said “so” but said “therefore.” He continued to chat in this rhyming manner as he tuned his guitar and someone from the audience yelled “Fucking maple syrup.” He could do nothing with the non sequitur and said, “Um, yeah,” and broke into “Curly,” singing of beauty raw and wild, and appreciating wild hair in the wind.
He mentioned Fenway and taking a right on Longwood to get there, and playing in the cattails along the Fens. There was a song of “Printemps” in French for the coming spring and songs of heart break. You don’t want her to go into the ancient darkness in the alleyway of iniquity, but you have to let her go, and hope that she’ll come back.
Finishing the evening with a gorgeous rendering of “Pianefforte ‘E Notte” by Salvatore Di Giacomo, Jonathan Richman is a Rare Troubadour, indeed, telling stories of love and loss evocative in any language.