There are two kinds of rock n’ roll cult heroes: the kind that show up in cheesy posters hanging on dorm room walls and the kind that inhabit the hearts of musicians, critics, and musical snobs.
Jonathan Richman, who played to a half-empty Starr Hill on February 19, belongs in the latter group; he’s a living legend who may be one of the most influential musicians ever. What, you’ve never heard of him?
Despite his appearance as the bilingual bard in the film There’s Something About Mary, you’re not likely to recognize his name, face, or music, but his influence has cast a long shadow on the late ’70s music scene.
Names like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain are recognizable to any Westerner as musicians whose legacy lives on through exploitation with posters, T-shirts, television specials, and CD reissues. Their faces are as ubiquitous at a college poster sale as their voices are on classic rock radio stations. These rock stars were talented, innovative, and worthy of all the laurels posthumously placed upon their heads. Yet, their musical influence is largely ignored among the rock ‘n’ roll elite.
Musicians and critics have created their own class of cult figures whose personalities have inspired the creative minds of subsequent generations. Names like Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, Gram Parsons, and— yes— Jonathan Richman are not exactly part of the popular vernacular, but a group covering a song by one of these cult heroes will instantly gain membership in a musical fraternity of hipness.
These artists have been covered by groups as wide ranging as REM, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, and the Sex Pistols. What do all these artists have in common? They are elder statesmen of this hip fraternity. I challenge the readers of this essay to enter this musical brotherhood by exploring the work of these artists. Their stories will only entice you.
The generation that made out to the stereo sounds of Dark Side of the Moon is probably oblivious to the fact that Syd Barrett, the original guitarist and band-leader of Pink Floyd, wrote most of the material for their critically acclaimed first album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Unfortunately, Syd had an excessive appetite for LSD, which led to erratic behavior and his eventual ouster from the band. Still alive, he lives in seclusion.
Alexander “Skip” Spence was a member of two of San Francisco’s psychedelic staples, The Quick Silver Messenger Service and the Jefferson Airplane, before joining the critically acclaimed, but seldom heard, Moby Grape. He soon flipped out and smashed up the studio with an axe, which got him committed to New York’s famous Bellevue Hospital. After one post-release solo album, Oar, he sank even deeper into madness, never to record again.
Often cited as the father of country-rock, Gram Parsons dropped out of Harvard after one semester to explore what he called “comic American music.” After recording the seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo album with the Byrds, he recorded two fantastic albums with The Flying Burrito Brothers before embarking on a critically lauded but short solo career. By rubbing shoulders with members of the Rolling Stones (the Burrito Bros actually recorded “Wild Horses” before the Stones), he picked up their abusive drug and alcohol habits. This led to his death via a morphine overdose in 1973. (His body was then stolen by his manager and burned in Joshua Tree National Park, as Gram had requested.
One can begin to decipher the characteristics of a rock n’ roll cult figure from the lives of these three musicians. Their careers are often short, eccentric, erratic, and innovative. They don’t sell a lot of records, but they’re friends with those who do.
Jonathan Richman is no different, except somehow he managed to survive with his mental faculties intact. He eventually entered pop culture in the most unlikely manner with a role as the satirical Greek (or geek) chorus in the 1998 film, There’s Something About Mary. So how does he fit the cult figure mold?
Jon Savage, the author of the seminal Punk rock history England’s Dreaming, called Richman “the spiritual father, or elder brother, of the new post-glam mood,” and the Sex Pistols often covered his song “Road Runner.” His first Album, The Modern Lovers, was so innovative that although finally released in 1976— four years after it was made— its proto-punk style was still ahead of its time.
Richman was a gawky Jewish kid from Boston with a nasal voice and short hair. When progressive rock and singer-songwriters were all the rage, Richman modeled his sound on a relatively unknown group from New York called the Velvet Underground. In fact, ex-Velvet John Cale produced his first sessions. Richman’s first manager? David Geffen, who would eventually go on to found Asylum and Geffen records and now co-owns DreamWorks Pictures with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Richman’s original band, the Modern Lovers, contained the future keyboardist of the Talking Heads and the future drummer for the Cars.
If all that’s not enough for cult status, listen to his first album. It’s music from an outsider, the awkward guy who never got the girl. He used quirky humor and conversational lyrics that were so sincere he didn’t get the jokes. Or did he?
On “Pablo Picasso,” he sings, “Some people try to pick up girls and get called asshole/ this never happened to Pablo Picasso/ he could walk the street and girls could not resist his stare/ and so Pablo Picasso never got called asshole…not like you.”
When the music scene was drenched in sex, drugs, and reckless abandon, he wrote lines like “If you don’t sleep with me/ I’ll still be with you,” and proudly proclaimed “I’m straight/ and I want to take his place,” aiming his frustration at his pot-smoking nemesis “Hippie Johnny.”
Richman’s outsider stance and primitive playing influenced both the punk and new wave movements. He went on to record a dozen more records, but he never improved upon his initial burst of tunes. Thirty years after these recordings were made, 50-year-old Richman still remains unknown. He’s still an outsider; he’s still a geek, only now he’s in on the joke. Or is he?
I must admit I saw him running to the venue with guitar in hand last Tuesday night. On stage, the adenoidal whine and awkwardness were gone. In their place were a cloying croon and candid cuteness. Appearing with only an acoustic guitar and drummer sidekick, Richman amused the crowd with his adorable dance moves and spoken vignettes, while baffling others with his anguished facial expressions and blatant insecurity. Early in the show he asked the management to turn down the air-conditioning.
“Do you guys like this stuff or not,” he confronted the audience, “cause I can stop if you want?”
On “Spring Time in New York,” he seemed oblivious to the laughter that his New York humidity reference evoked with his deadpan delivery of the lines “if you’ve been in New York in springtime/you know when I say sticky that I’m right.” It was never entirely clear whether he was portraying a tortured weirdo or performing a comedy routine. He ran through most of his last album, Her Majesty Not of High Heels Or Eye Shadow, before exiting the stage. Upon his departure, I stuck out my hand to give him a congratulatory hand slap ( yeah, I’m that guy). He paused with surprise and gave me look of sincere appreciation, like a formerly ostracized middle-schooler who just been picked first for a kickball team. This answered a question that I had been asking myself all night.
Were his bizarre antics and contradictory behavior genuine or feigned? The answer was yes. For this reason Jonathan will always remain an enigma. For this reason he will always remain too quirky for mainstream acceptance. For this reason he’ll always remain a cult hero, and this is what he wants. Or is it?