Jonathan Richman is a one-off. Many times it seems that the profession of rock journalist exists merely for the purposes of writers claiming to have unearthed that one singular character who started a musical genre.
Mr. Richman always seems like too much of a nice man to make such claims himself. Hell, this is a man who once objected to his song, Roadrunner, becoming an official anthem of his home state of Massachusetts.
And, while the songwriter has followed his muse like a man of faith journeying out into the desert on a call from above, he is, without a doubt, a true rock n’ roll innovator, a punk-rocker before such terms had been invented.
I’ve had the pleasure to interview Jonathan Richman. The following is a sparse, but deep set of answers, a veritable Zen handbook on life and how to live it from a true original.
Jonathan Richman Interview
May I first ask how you developed your lifelong love of art?
I used to draw and paint all the time, even as a little kid.
Could you please tell us about your inspiration for your most recent album SA? From life itself.
I understand that you once again worked with Jerry Harrison. What is the secret to such a long-standing collaboration?
Make sure there’s a 45 year minimum break in the middle. It also turns out we play off each other very well. But do not underestimate that break part. Very important.
May I ask how you develop the very distinctive poetry that is central to most of your recordings? Thank you. Just comes out like that.
I wanted to ask you about one of your biggest influences. What was it about the Velvet Underground that impressed you the most the very first time that you heard them? The sound! With the drone! With the treble guitars! With the drums, all hypnotizin’! With the rhythm parts to the guitars and the feedback from the amplifiers. And the sounds of the words. And Lou Reed’s voice. All. It was all.
Has any other artist given you the same kind of excitement as the moment you saw The Velvet Underground for the first time?
Most exciting rock show I ever saw lasted twenty minutes. It was the first time I saw The Lovin’ Spoonful. March 11, 1966 at a movie theatre on Washington Street in Boston. I was fourteen.
Is it true that you moved to NYC to be closer to the Velvets?
Yes, them and Andy Warhol both.
Does it feel rewarding knowing so many bands attempt to learn Roadrunner, especially in their earliest stages?
I didn’t know that very many bands chose that song. But I’m glad if they do. The chords are easy so that’s a plus.
What was your opinion of the early punk bands, many inspired by the Modern Lovers? I thought Sex Pistols’ version of the song was going along ok but they stopped it.
The Modern Lovers are considered by many to be musical pioneers. Was innovation on your mind when making the first album?
No. But no first album was ever made. You are referencing to a collection of demo takes half of which would have been considered not good enough by the band. That take of “Roadrunner” was too fast, not enough deep feeling in it at all. Only “Hospital” and “Pablo Picasso” were as good as we used to play ‘em ‘live’ at a show.
There is such exuberance and urgency about the Modern Lovers’ debut. What was life like at the time and how much did it feed into the making of the album? Could you also tell us about your travel to Israel prior to starting the band?
That collection of demo tapes, actually the record companies auditioning their studios for our approval (with the exception of “Hospital” which was in fact a demo tape we made for Warner Bros. several months earlier in Boston) did not have much exuberance or urgency compared to the ‘live” shows we did. I was not comfortable in the recording studio at that age. Most of the material is not relaxed enough.
Could you tell us about working with John Cale? Was it intimidating?
Admired him very much. Still do.
In terms of songwriting, when do you know that you’ve found a great topic for a song and when do you give up on an idea?
I know the song is good when it haunts me.
Is there any advice you would give an aspiring songwriter?
Don’t try too hard.
Regarding live performances, was it more intimidating playing in front of an audience as a solo performer rather than with a full rock n’ roll band?
No. Both are fun.
You have always avoided commercial compromise. How do you do that and what’s your opinion of peers who did not?
Just don’t give in. Like they say…”We at Warner Bros. feel that you must do this and that….” You say…”You gotta be kiddin’!” They…”No we mean it.” You…”Oh! Then drop dead, then.”
In closing, I am just wondering how you feel about the events of the past year and whether this will factor into how you will approach making music in the near future?
We’re on tour in October. Let’s see how it goes!
Thank you tremendously for agreeing to do this interview and thanks a lot for the music!