Johnathan Richman | 3.5.15

In true Richman style, each composition was played just for that night, just for that stage, and just for the audience there.


Off Broadway, St. Louis

There aren’t many artists in their sixties these days who still tour tirelessly and play to crowds full of kids in their early twenties. But when a man largely credited with the first punk song ever recorded is still putting out sound, albeit a decidedly more winsome and mellow one, the kids these days still listen.  So do the adults, as it happens.

Johnathan Richman is an anachronism. He doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone. He doesn’t use air conditioning. He traces his musical beginnings back to 1960s New York City, where as a youth, he began asking questions about the fuzzy, electrified tones the avant-garde musicians of the era used as a medium to create imagery. He told this story in his own music—but more on that in a bit.

When he took the stage at Off Broadway on March 5 with longtime collaborator and friend Tommy Larkins on drums, Richman announced himself with the opening bars of “Egyptian Reggae” before segueing seamlessly through the rest of his set list. In true Richman style, each composition was played just for that night, just for that stage, and just for the audience there. Chances are, he’s never played those songs the way he did then and will never play them the same way ever again. Known for his performances being inclusive of the audience, each show Richman plays is created specifically for the people who happen to be there listening, and so everyone who sees him leaves with the feeling that they are his friends. This happens because he doesn’t just perform for them, he has conversations with them. He includes them in the music, asking them to sing choruses and give him the beat with their hands. And yet still, to those who are real fans, the experience borders on religious.

As he and Larkins gave us all the magic of songs like “Let Her Go Into the Darkness,” “That Summer Feeling,” and “I Was Dancing In A Lesbian Bar,” there were frequent trademark interludes in each piece during which Richman would tell stories, act out conversations between cross-lovers, and break into song in one of several different languages ranging from Italian and Spanish to Hebrew and Arabic. He related to us all how at the age of 63, he is still very much a child wandering through the world wanting to experience everything he can and echoed this sentiment in his finale, “They Showed Me The Door To Bohemia.” In this parting gift, he tells the story of being a youth on the streets of New York trying to impress upon the world his vision in the oil paintings he did as a young artist. He tells of how his parents fostered his desire for the Bohemian lifestyle—how they trusted him among the less than savory characters of the day as he learned the craft of painting with sounds by lounging in the practice space of the Velvet Underground and asking question upon question. 

Somehow a switch was flipped in that youth that turned him from the boy with the pretentious art portfolio in Harvard square—who was bratty but sincere—into the young proto-punk front man of the Modern Lovers, and then into the loveable eccentric who refuses to grow up into cynicism that graces the stage to this day.

Whatever that catalyst was that turned on the musician in Richman, it lit the fuse to a lifelong career of inspiring and moving listeners with the poetry in his words and the images his music creates out of thin air. The world can’t help but to love Johnathan Richman and his music and live performances make it clear that he really cannot help but to love the world back, immensely. | Jason Neubauer

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