Jonathan Richman isn’t your normal interview. Few artists, when approached by a publication, request a phone number so they can call you back whenever the mood strikes. And few artists are able to embody the pure, uninhibited joy of rock’n’roll the way Richman does. Long known for his good-natured introspection and light-hearted romanticism, his live sets are a study in the essentials of showmanship. A little dancing, a few insightful, hilarious adlibs and plenty of inspired performance—aided only by his voice, guitar and drummer Tommy Larkins—add up to far more entertainment than can be mustered by the entire canon of diamond-studded divas and choreographed light shows. Take Me to the Plaza, a new DVD documentary taken from a December 2002 San Francisco show, is proof positive that few men enjoy their jobs as much as Jonathan Richman.
“To me, it’s not really performing, it’s singing,” he explains. “To me, it’s not the experience of performing. You just get up there and sing. You’ve got your guitar, and you’ve got your pal who plays drums. And the audience is there.” Not that he’s trying to be difficult or intentionally vague, but Richman isn’t the type of artist who provides long, tangential articulations of his work. This often results in his being labeled as evasive or guarded in interview settings but, surprisingly, Take Me to the Plaza offers some startlingly candid interviews with the troubadour as he recounts the rough outline of his history, cutting through the layers of myth that surround him. “There’s a difference between print interviews and that kind,” he explains of those on the DVD. “That kind I know that what I say is going to be there for people to see.”
And Richman has had a history of having his words inaccurately portrayed in print. “Not misquoted,” he clarifies. “They just make up shit—like make up whole interviews. But that’s not just exclusive to me.”
No matter how enigmatic Richman is, there’s no denying he’s consistent, and every piece of him makes more sense when it’s viewed in the context of the greater whole of his character. The same spontaneity that leads him to call an interviewer on a whim is part of the same set of innate predilections that informs the utterly unpredictable vibe of Take Me to the Plaza. “There aren’t any set lists,” he says with mock disdain. “Like that show that you saw on that DVD, that was all adlibbed. There are no set lists. When I say, ‘That’s how it was that night,’ that’s what I mean. If you would have seen it the night before, it would have been totally different. Like I told you—that’s what I learned from the Velvet Underground, for one thing. People like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley—do you think they used set lists?” he continues, pushing out the words with indignation. “Do you think John Lee Hooker used a set list? Do you think Neil Young uses set lists?
“I made a deal with myself when I was 17, that once I stopped liking it I was going to quit,” he says with typical frankness when asked if he really enjoys the live dynamic as much as it seems. “So, you’ll know when I stopped liking it because you won’t see me around anymore.”