The first thing you notice about Jonathan Richman is his totally unique, visceral sweetness. It's in his remarkable eyes, his gestures that are always seemingly gentle, his cocked eyebrows. Witnessing him for five minutes at a concert and you want to invite the guy over to your house, cook him dinner, and make him your best friend.
I saw him last night at the Bell House, an elegantly reconfigured warehouse space turned music venue in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Bitterly cold night to come from Jersey to see this oddity of the rock and roll era, one who has been so tied directly to the punk lineage but who steadfastly contradicts its precepts and subject matter. Jonathan once slept on the Velvet Underground manager's couch it is true, but Jonathan never picked up any of the dirty vibe of the Velvet's LES zeitgeist. No Venus In Furs or Waiting for My Man here. The scenario closest to anything remotely risqué involves Jonathan dancing alone at a lesbian bar. And you can betcha the lesbians were cheering him on, too, because Jonathan dances like no other.
Is Jonathan Richman art? If loving your mother, celebrating New England, smiling the most gracious and inviting smile with no sense of disinterested and manipulative irony are components of art, then hell yeah. But I think Jonathan Richman is something larger than that. He presents a persona untainted by his years on the planet, all 61 of them. There is a guilelessness, optimism, compassion, and understanding underpinning everything he does that makes you wish very hard for those days when you had them as well. When life was about perpetual discovery and fitting your bright expectations to a world that mostly won't comply.
An everyday event becomes an epic in stylish celebration of the goodness of life. Bright, sunny days where people hold hands, scold the mother strolling her baby while yammerin on her smart phone, wonder at the cityscape of NYC, take deep breaths and say "ain't life grand?". You know it's true, too, because Jonathan quite certainly believes it to be.
So where does a Jonathan Richman fit into a worldscape where we're having mass shootings every other day now? He's an anomaly from a better time. His music is so minimalist and sometimes cryptic that he is kindred to a deep whisper on a long-forgotten take on an obscure blues song left discarded and unappreciated. But it re-emerges decades later on some bizarre anthology from the era, and suddenly it catches on. Like Robert Johnson became everybody's hero long after his deal with the devil turned sour. Jonathan Richman is an anachronism of the high order, and of the highest quality. He exudes a benign kindness, and is gracious enough to share his happy placement within the world with the rest of us sodden souls.
I sit here today, a little hungover from Guinness, reliving a feeling that this man gave me, that life is a gift to enjoy and to share. Not in some empty, meaningless Hallmark greeting card way, either. In a truly felt and sincere way. Jonathan is genuine about such things, and he imparts it upon you with brush strokes of musical therapy and older brother goodness. If you leave a Jonathan Richman concert and don't feel love for the guy, you're past the point of no return and deserving of great pity.
I waited after the show around the exit behind the bar, just for the chance to meet him. And I did. He signed my Modern Lovers CD liner notes I brought with me, and we talked about his favorite version of Road Runner, Greil Marcus' analysis of that song, the Bay Area, whatever. Then he said "bye-bye" and left out the door to go to the next gig on his tour. And those of you going to that show, where ever it may be, are the lucky ones. You'll get to wake up the next day feeling like I do today. Which is kind of spiritually reconnected.
I love Jonathan Richman, and I thank him for just being around.