Forty-five years after he helped change the course of popular music, Jonathan Richman remains a force of nature. At White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on Oct. 19, he sang, danced, juggled five languages, recited poetry, hectored, joked and completely entranced the nearly sold out crowd.
At 67, Richman retains the child-like sense of wonderment and innocence that has always beguiled his fans, armed only with a strapless acoustic guitar and his longtime collaborator, drummer Tommy Larkins. Like Paul Reubens and Andy Kaufman, Richman has created a persona uniquely his own, with its own language (part Boston Southie, part pidgin English), inflections and mannerisms. But unlike Pee-wee Herman, it’s not an act; this is Jonathan Richman, onstage and off.
Eschewing a guitar strap (which, trust me, isn’t easy), Richman strummed with his fingers and plucked with his thumb, flamenco-style, occasionally putting down his guitar to shake sleigh bells or sashay around the stage like a Bizarro World mashup of Stevie Nicks and Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.” When he asked the crowd to sing a callback verse or clap along, the theater erupted; but otherwise, audience members — who ranged from sexagenarians to teenagers — listened raptly, waiting for a song they knew but nonetheless engrossed by Richman’s stream-of-consciousness free verse constructions, which seemed to be improvised on the spot.
A week earlier, on the same stage, The Feelies played a cover of “Astral Plane,” from the groundbreaking 1972 demos that included beloved proto-punk originals like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso,” recorded by Richman with the original lineup of his band, The Modern Lovers. That group (which included Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison and The Cars’ David Robinson) didn’t last long, but Richman formed a new Modern Lovers in California, recording for Beserkley Records, and started to build his cult audience. By 1980, the Modern Lovers had dissolved and Richman — after a short hiatus — started a solo career that continues to this day.
Security personnel warned concertgoers on arrival not to use their cellphones, and asked people to put their phones away if they tried to use them during the concert. Richman, at the end of his set, explained that it wasn’t because he’s afraid of bootlegged recordings or photos. “I come here to sing for you,” he told the crowd, “not to watch you watch TV.”
Richman didn’t do “Roadrunner” or “Astral Plane,” although he did dip back into his early songbook for “Affection” (from 1979’s Back in Your Life) and the instrumental “Egyptian Reggae.” More recent songs included “Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love” and “Springtime in New York.” Richman’s early work charmed with its tortured rhyme schemes and catchy power-pop hooks, but much of the set focused on newer songs with free-flowing lyrics and abstract melodies.
In between songs, Richman recited verses from the Indian mystic Kabir, the Persian poet Rumi, Allen Ginsberg and Salvatore Di Giacomo. He sang in fluent Italian, Spanish and French. He even cracked a few jokes. In the middle of a song about the perils of phony nostalgia, Richman warned that while it might seem romantic to travel back to 1430, we had to remember that Vlad the Impaler was around then, too. “It didn’t matter back then who was on the Supreme Court,” Richman added.
Richman starting winding up the 80-minute show with one of his most popular tracks, “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar,” with its call-and-response chorus, “Well the first bar, things were just all right/But in this bar, things were Friday night!”
It’s weird, and quirky, and charming, and funny. It seems like he’s been around forever, but when Jonathan sings, it’s definitely still Friday night.