Jonathan Richman: The Eyes Have It
Live at the Middle East, Cambridge, MA


Jonathan Richman is a pretty normal looking kind of guy. Some might even call him geeky. If you passed him in the street, sporting a black and white horizontally striped shirt and a scruffy brown jacket, you probably wouldn't say: "Oooh, there goes the godfather of punk." You'd probably just think, "Another computer programmer has found his way outside again."

And yet JoJo, as his devotees call him, is indeed the musical sire of just about any non-mainstream band that's stirred up dust in a garage over the past 25 years, even if he doesn't like to be associated with the "punk" movement (despite his intro for the PBS "History of Rock & Roll" segment on just that topic).

Suffice to say, in the early '70s—the days of glam rock and arena jerkoffs—JoJo took the essence of rock's pure mainline energy, stripped it down to its emotional core, and with a few guitar riffs, a slightly nasally voice and a very clever turn of phrase, proved that you didn't have to have the sex appeal of a Peter Frampton (debate that amongst yourselves) or the musical chops of an Eric Clapton to get up on stage and create something pretty damn meaningful. Twenty-five years later, JoJo is still making meaningful, if simple, music that touches the soul, makes you laugh and proves that geeks can rock.

* * * * * 

10:05 p.m.
I walk into the upstairs room at the Middle East, normally abuzz with feedback and talking. Tonight, you can hear a pin drop. Jonathan is already on stage. Someone tells me this is his third or fourth song. So much for the 10 p.m. start time. I order a beer in a whisper-- intent fans around me scowl in my direction as my change makes too noise on the bar. Jonathan has just finished "Full-Time Daddy," a song many people have been saying reflects his current marital status--or lack thereof. Still, he seems quite upbeat as he breaks into "The Fenway."

10:15 p.m.
I see empty space on the other side of the club. The room only holds about a hundred people, and it looks like they have all decided to stand directly in front of the stage in one huge human wall. Nevertheless, I take the plunge into the crowd, realizing I will never make it back to the bar alive for the rest of the evening--it will be a small price to pay. Jonathan is now doing "Plus One on the Guest List," yet another ode to his supposed singleness. This segues nicely into "Give Paris One More Chance."

10:22 p.m.
A couple next to me have broken into a geeky little dance, swinging their arms back and forth to the music, but their feet don't keep up. He is definitely a computer programmer, drawn like a moth to the flame. The crowd finally perks up a bit for "Vincent Van Gogh." Until now, the applause had merely been polite, and I wondered why Jonathan didn't tell the crowd, "Hey, stop adoring me and enjoy yourselves." I guess he decided to play some old crowd pleasers instead--woo 'em that way.

10:28 p.m.
I become convinced JR is looking right at me. I know, I know, everyone always thinks this, but I am able to catch his eye more than once. Well, it's either me or the guy in front of me with the goatee. Hmmm, Jonathan sure doesn't look 44—nothing like a good DIY punk ethic to fight wrinkles. Jonathan drops the mood down a few notches for "They're Not Trying on the Dance Floor." He must have caught sight of the uncoordinated couple next to me.

10:30 p.m.
As "Rooming House on Venice Beach" starts, the crowd gets excited—they've really loosened up a lot, but I still think a little remonstration from Jonathan wouldn't be amiss. Oh great, now a guy sporting the requisite goatee is standing right in front of me. JoJo can't see me anymore—he'll never marry me at this rate. But suddenly, he breaks into "Velvet Underground," and I really don't care. I had never seen him do this song in concert before. This was starting to feel special…

10:35 p.m.
The guy with the goatee goes to get a beer—Jonathan can see me again. Now, at this point, I wish I had a witness because I swear that he moved all the way over to the side of the stage, stared in my direction and did an instrumental version of "Blue Moon." Actually, I may not have been entirely crazy for thinking this—I was standing near the back under a light, pretty much away from anyone else. During the song, several people turned to see who he was looking at so intently. So he was obviously looking at someone, and if it made me feel better to think that this musical legend was indeed looking at me with those doleful St. Bernard eyes, well, where was the harm?

10:43 p.m.
I come out of my swoon to find Jonathan halfway through "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar." At this point, he whips his guitar from around his neck and starts to bump and grind the dorkiest dance you've ever seen as drummer Tommy Larkins lays down a groovin' backbeat. Now I know where the dancing couple get if from.

10:45 p.m.
"Now it's time for me to tell all you girls to leave your boyfriends...But Jonathan, he needs me... I know he does dear, but don't you know that's because he's a musician?" And so begins the amusing patter of what I wouldn't be surprised was a verbatim account of a conversation Richman might have had with his girlfriend/wife, oh, maybe a hundred times. "Don't you remember, dear, how we used to go out into the desert and throw Pepsi bottles at each other?" Such whimsy reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock. In fact, during Richman's childlike song period in the mid-'70s, he and Hitchcock were probably consulting the same muse. This sad tale of woe leads into Jonathan's encore, "You Can't Talk to the Dude," and the autobiographical references are unavoidable.

10:50 p.m.
The crowd won't let Jonathan leave the stage, so he does one more, a few sweet, poignant lines sung in Spanish from his 1995 album, "You Must Ask the Heart." I am reassured when he finishes with: "Don't worry, I don't know what it means, either." Then he's gone.

11:00 p.m.
Actually, he's not. He's out at the main bar, talking to some people, but mostly he's watching a baseball game on the TV. I'm standing very near him, talking to a friend. He catches my eye, yet again, and smiles at me. I smile back but can't muster the courage to speak to him. I guess some legends are better left unmet.

When I get home, karma kicks in. I turn on the TV and what's on but Repo Man? Otto (Emilio Estevez) is trying to pick up a girl, and what's on his car radio? The infamous Burning Sensations' cover of Richman's "Pablo Picasso." Yeah, girls can't resist him, damn, you bet…


Originally posted on SonicNet, April 3, 1996
Copyright 1996 Lisa M. Moore
May not be reproduced in whole or part without my written permission.