Lost Classics: Having a Party with Jonathan Richman
Jonathan Richman is one of those artists so venerated by his nutball fans that it can be hard to take his music on its own merits. Best known for the proto-punk, Velvets-indebted 'Roadrunner', and his cameo appearances as a summarising troubadour in There's Something About Mary, most of Richman's career has been spent ploughing a lonely furrow of unbending musical simplicity and earnestness which alienates as many potential listeners as it beguiles. He is in the unique position of having influenced both the spartan, fuck-you juggernaut of early punk and the following 30 years of plaintive, nerdy indie-pop, yet he still feels like an outsider.
I first got into Jonathan (a lot of his fans call him by his first name, as if he is an old friend) only a few years ago through an article by Laura Barton on 'Roadrunner'. The article transformed a song that had been a staple of pre-recorded punk compilations in my teen years (which I had never really paid attention to) into something transcendent and beautiful. The magical thing about 'Roadrunner', as Barton so beautifully explains, is that it attempts, and succeeds in telling us about joy: the joy of being young and free, the strange beauty of the (sub)urban landscape, the thrill of darkness, of driving around at night with the radio on.
It's not something you come across often, arguably the doo-wop and rock'n'roll groups of Richman's own childhood were its only thematic predecessors, but they were generally confined by tropes of romance and teen rebellion and strict verse-chorus-verse structure. 'Roadrunner's stream of consciousness lyrics and 'Sister Ray' inspired repetition mark it out as something different. But it's that unambiguous joy, and that he could convey it without even mentioning love (in the traditional sense: between two people), that is so breathtaking.
The album on which 'Roadrunner' first appeared, The Modern Lovers (famously recorded by John Cale and then left in a Warner Brothers vault for several years), is very good without being as flat-out great as you hope every 'classic' album will be. It's got its share of standout tracks: the hilarious 'I'm Straight', the hopeful 'Girlfriend' and the morose 'Hospital', and, depending on who you ask, the others. At points its repetitiveness and the know-it-all attitude (which Richman would soon disown) are a bit much though. And there's been more than enough said about that album over the years anyway.
Fast forward 15 years and Having a Party with... is more consistent, and unlike The Modern Lovers it's consistently fun, consistently joyful. It's consistently full of the sincerity that doubters will always dismiss as a layer of artifice - as if everything in this stinking world has to be tainted with irony and deceit.
Having said all that, the first four tracks are lightweight and you couldn't blame anyone for thinking them a touch disingenuous. Richman's humour, as you'd expect from a childlike guy who shuns drink and drugs, is a little twee. When he complains about his wife not laughing at his jokes (in 'She Doesn't Laugh at My Jokes') it's like when that perfect couple you know complain about each other not putting the cap back on the toothpaste or whatever: you just know that they're sickeningly happy in every other respect.
Things don't really kick off until 'When She Kisses Me', which is a total delight. As usual the subject is love, and the methods of conveyance are little more than warm acoustic guitar and Richman's rich, unaffected voice. The whole album feels underproduced, which gives a sensation of unparalleled intimacy, like Richman is standing right next to you in your living room. His lyrics are simple but the phrasing - the satisfying way they interact with the music - is seamless. "When she kisses me/ I'm way ecstatic/ She thinks I may be being over-dramatic" - and we know this is how hard it hits him because this is a guy who cries when he sees power lines and pine trees in the dark.
'They're Not Trying on the Dancefloor' covers another of Richman's over-riding concerns - that people are self-conscious when dancing or watching bands. His interviews are full of expressions of displeasure that the people who come to his shows aren't letting go enough, but this is more a playful slap on the wrist than the (possibly unintentional) severity of the linked clip. It's a real pretty song too. 'At Night' is full of the beauty and joy of staying up late on a summer night, complete with thin Hawaiian-inspired guitar and slightly odd turns of phrase ("When the daylight ain't but the planets are/ the door to the arcane is thrust ajar!"). It's one of the absolute best Richman songs out there.
In 'When I Say Wife', Richman gets stuck on semantics: "Wife sounds like your mortgage/ Wife sounds like laundry", he complains, but, "I say wife/ because if you said lover every day/ you're gonna begin to gag!" A polite live audience laughs politely. '1963' is a straight poem on another of his reoccurring themes, nostalgia. 'Monologue About Bermuda' is actually half-monologue, half an older song; this one about how "stiff" Jonathan was in his youth (this gets another laugh from the polite audience, but he means "uptight", of course.) It's a charming diversion, especially when he references the Modern Lovers days.
I dig the last two songs more than is really rational. 'Our Swingin' Pad' is full of the generosity and naivety that Richman is renowned for: "I need friends to come over to our swingin' pad", he pines; the big dumb puppy dog that wants to play all the time; "We got a trampoline that you might like!/ You can ride your horse or ride your bike!" 'Just for Fun' is the best Beach Boys song they never wrote, a real bittersweet, straightforward love song the like of which just doesn't get made anymore.
Having a Party with... is by no means a perfect album, and I know quite a few people who think it's stupid, with its monologues and jokes-borrowed-from-your-dad and the way it mixes live cuts with studio tracks. The thing about this album is that it's written by someone clearly in love: not just with his wife, but still - all those years after 'Roadrunner' - with life itself. It's an album about happiness; which ain't fashionable but it is, to me at least, life-affirming. Listening to this album when I'm happy too makes me dance around the room. Listening to it when depressed reminds me that happiness exists: it's a real thing that people experience. I don't feel annoyed with Richman for flaunting his happiness: I feel grateful that he would put in the effort to describe it in such a beautiful, unpretentious way.