Overthinking Jonathan Richman

Music Features Jonathan Richman
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Such is the preemptive genius of Jonathan Richman. Just when you want to write a nice tidy piece about his new album Not So Much to be Loved as to Love, he manages to include a song like “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste,” in which he—in lyrics reprised on the surface of the disc itself—admonishes would-be wine snobs and critics with the disarming aphorism, “he gave us the wine to taste, not to talk about it!” Wine being like music, I realize this damning truism can apply to music criticism and I’m back to dancing about architecture and feeling like I’ve been outsmarted before I even have the chance to draw. I point out the parallel and he chuckles. I sulk and think of an angle.

Richman’s disarming good cheer and simple wisdom makes him in some ways a tough interview. Asking about song selection for his records, he casually opines, “It never turns out with the songs we think it’s going to. We just play a bunch of stuff and see what happens.”

Hmm … OK. So on this album there’s a song called “Salvador Dali,” a song called “Vincent Van Gogh,” and lots of Richman’s own artwork in the liner notes. A theme perhaps? “I didn’t even notice it until you mentioned it. There’s only two songs about painters, aren’t there?” Well, yeah, but what about Richman’s art, maybe it relates? “Naw, it wasn’t supposed to. Someone wanted me to put paintings on it so I did.”

New angle: the song “Abu Jamal,” a rare political, rather than personal subject. “That’s personal, too. I personally felt it, so it’s just like the others,” he deadpans.

This is where it’s time to give up on the interview for a paragraph and talk about the album. It’s warm and sweet and simple and thoughtful in the way Jonathan Richman’s music always is—casually mixing languages, images and musings with a directness that’s almost childlike in its candor and subtly self-effacing in its unabashed delivery. It’s so pure and singerly at moments that you almost want to hunt out some irony, but it’s hard for a song like the title track to be much else than a stack of daisies in a brownstone window. While his early work with the Modern Lovers gestured vaguely toward roots in The Velvet Underground, Richman’s latter day solo work seems more thoroughly self-generated, the sketches of an iconoclastic skygazer, much like the painters he so casually name-checks.

Back to the interview. So here’s a good question… if Richman could hear any artist do any of the songs on this album, who would be the artist and what would the song be? Paydirt. Sam Cooke doing any of them, particularly “Behold the Lilies of the Field,” and damn if I wouldn’t like to hear that, too.

Favorite place to play? “They’re all good.” The songs in French, Spanish and Italian? “Some stuff you just can’t say in English. Some stuff you can just say in French that you can’t say in Spanish. Just whatever comes to me. I’m not totally fluent in any of these languages, but I can carry on a conversation.” Music, the universal language, and I’m splitting hairs. Anything else Richman would want a fan to know? “That we don’t play too loud when we play live.”

With a few arrestingly genuine-sounding pleasantries, Jonathan Richman  takes his leave of me, again un-bested in his ability to convey an unflaggingly self-sustained, simple love of life despite the outside world’s best attempts to overthink it.

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