Sounding Board

Jonathan Richman Invited Everyone To The Party With I, Jonathan

The Modern Lovers leader's 1992 solo album is getting its first-ever vinyl release

Jonathan Richman counts it off, and the feel-good chords ignite. Ever the gentleman, he offers a greeting, then a candid mission statement. “I’m from the ’60s, the time of ‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Little Latin Lupe Lu,'” he intones in a cool baritone to open the I, Jonathan album. “And I know we can’t have those times back again/ But we can have parties like there were back then.”

Richman, born in 1951, grew up hearing those seminal early rock and roll records driving around Massachusetts with the radio on. He marinated in doo-wop and rhythm and blues. At 23, he famously penned a letter to Creem magazine titled “Masculine Arrogance Blows” defending Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons after a negative review. On his most famous album, 1976’s The Modern Lovers, he devoted four minutes of sheer celebration to being an old soul, even as he helped steer the course of rock history toward punk’s new edge.

By the time he hit middle age — his own sound long mellowed into acoustic compositions — Richman hadn’t stopped looking back. On 1992’s I, Jonathan, which sees its first-ever vinyl release today via Craft Recordings, Richman revels in nostalgia for mid-century Americana and, as a 41-year-old, toasts the music of his youth. Even as contemporary rock had mutated into the primordial fuzz of grunge, I, Jonathan is vibrant and warm, buoyant with surf larks and kinetic with clap-along grooves. What made it such a compelling listen in 1992, and what keeps it essential in 2020, is how, at every turn, Richman’s rose-tinted vision of the ’60s is inclusionary. Everyone’s invited to his party. The artist who’d later record songs in Spanish and title an album after the Native American Ojibwe language word for fire is unassuming and open. He interpolates “Hang On Sloopy” and reminisces on SoCal hippie crash pads while simultaneously dancing in lesbian bars and musing on how nostalgia itself is illusory. He repeats near the album’s end that love is “magic.” So is how he manages to make it all hang together.

The festivities start on opener “Parties In The U.S.A.,” where Richman admits he’s not quite sure where the party scene is nowadays. But he digs it. He’s still a real bohemian, even if he likens the noise pollution from bass-heavy modern sound setups to actual radioactive waste. Richman is used to sparser tones, like in his teenage years, when he rushed to New York City to catch a glimpse of the Velvet Underground, whose bassist John Cale “played less notes and left more space.” (He’d help Richman do the same as producer of the first Modern Lovers album.) Richman’s musical heroes get their own tribute here, too, on “Velvet Underground,” a sock-hop jaunt that charmingly sounds nothing like them. Even when Richman slips in a bit of VU’s deranged noise-rock masterwork “Sister Ray,” a canny reference to its influence on his own “Roadrunner,” he takes on a sing-songy tone, delivering their transgressive work with childlike simplicity.

That’s what I, Jonathan keeps close to the surface: Without the Velvet Underground, there would be no Jonathan Richman as we know him. This fact is especially amusing when you contrast the group’s choice of topics (drugs, BDSM) with Richman’s (heartsick romance, abstaining from substances). But there’s genuine love on “Velvet Underground,” a straightforward appreciation of the queer, subterranean energy of the band that changed his life. Richman praises the group with the same extraterrestrial language he’d use for Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer on a later song. The Velvets’ “howl” is “spooky” and “a close encounter of the thirdest kind,” while Vermeer’s Baroque work is “eerie” and Martian. As he salutes them in simple, otherworldly terms, Richman remains in awe of how the Velvets achieved the extraordinary. “How in the world were they making that sound?” he asks while he makes the most familiar of sounds: the idyllic, traditional rock and roll the VU sought to upend.

As a concept, rock and roll is later used to mean pure freedom on “I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar,” a non-gazey exultation that’s rightfully become a signature Richman tune. The song’s built-in narrative is simple: He’s at a shitty club, not even remotely vibing, so “some kids” — noting his age once again — take him to a lesbian bar with the sole objective of dancing. And they cut a rug, both together and alone, away from expectation. “In the first bar, things were controlled/ But in this bar, things were rock and roll,” he rejoices. When he performed the song on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 1993, Richman twice flung his guitar off his shoulder to shake his own hips unencumbered in front of the microphone. The studio audience clapped loudly in rhythm. What liberation.

While “Lesbian Bar” is the most conspicuous example of I, Jonathan’s openness, a sense of fraternity permeates the entire LP. “Rooming House On Venice Beach” memorializes the variegated sand-bums of yore, and Richman commemorates when “biker boys meet the college kind” at Velvet Underground shows. Even “Tandem Jump,” a novelty number about skydiving, pairs up its jumpers to experience the splendor of altitude as one. The altruism extends to the “you” of “You Can’t Talk To The Dude,” someone locked in a bad relationship with a toxic masculine presence. “He’s set in his way/ Got a bad attitude when you say what you say,” Richman sings before reminding that there’s always the door, and there’s always support on the other side.

If it sounds like Richman is doling out wisdom, he is. On the ruminative “That Summer Feeling,” a frequent live-set opener, he spends as much time laying out bucolic scenes of boat rides, fresh-cut grass, and top-down Oldsmobile gliding as he does wondering what all that recollecting actually accomplishes. “That summer feeling is gonna haunt you one day in your life,” he repeats nine times — yes, even the pond swimming and the playground flirtations can be weaponized by the passing of time. But hey, at least we can go dancing.

“The idea was, I was lonely and sad about stuff, and I wanted to sort of tell the world how I felt,” Richman, now nearing 70, told Andrew Bird in an interview earlier this year about his beginnings as a performer. “I also felt beauty in things.” He later rejects Bird’s characterization of him as a classic romantic. “I thought so at the time. I don’t know how I feel now. I had a clearer sense of what that word was then than I do now.”

This kind of jubilant, gray wisdom has helped solidify Richman’s mythos as a sort of professorial troubadour, half cabaret talent and half street-corner poet. In 1998, his folk-hero reputation led to a major film appearance in There’s Something About Mary, which he narrates through song as an impeccably earnest Greek chorus. “He’s the Andy Griffith of musicians,” director Peter Farrelly told Entertainment Weekly at the time, “Because every time I see him, I laugh, and yet I always get a little misty, too.” This duality is precisely what makes I, Jonathan’s closer, “Twilight In Boston,” so moving.

Instead of whirring down Route 128 and zooming past late-night Stop & Shops, Richman ambles alongside New England rowhouses at dusk, almost meditatively describing the topography. The highway is no longer his girlfriend; the gardens don’t even symbolize anything uncouth. He’s just there, present, exploring his path, and then he’s gone. “Time for adventure,” he announces, shrinking into a copse of guitar licks. Maybe he’s heading off to find another party.

Or maybe he’s going home to sleep. As its title declares, I, Jonathan finds Richman completely comfortable with who he is. Two decades prior, he used jagged guitar bursts to lament getting called an asshole by women he expressed interest in. But here, he’s shed that baggage, asking both himself and us, “Do you long for her, or for the way you were?” He doesn’t answer the question. He just admits that, yes, everyone gets old, and everyone longs for their youth, even as they tried so hard not to let it go to waste. But it is possible to be both dignified and old. All it takes is a little rock and roll.