Monday, April 5, 2010

Jonathan Richman - Elementary, or Elemental?

I had a chance to see Jonathan Richman, but I couldn't. This was about 1982 or 1983 at Reed College, during Ren Fayre. There was a Ferris wheel on campus for the weekend, and I went around on the Ferris wheel. However, the operator didn't let me off, so I went around the Ferris wheel a second time, and after that didn't feel much like doing anything. (Incidentally, I subsequently heard a story, unverified, that Richman himself initially had trouble getting into Commons because he didn't have a Reed ID.)

Like just about everyone else, I divide Richman's career into two periods - the period in which he made some rock recordings that weren't even released for several years, and the period afterwards, in which he seems to do everything but rock. "Roadrunner" is probably the classic from that initial period, but I still have a liking for "I'm Straight." If I were forced to pick one song from the latter period, I'd probably choose "I'm a Little Airplane." If you want to read about "I'm a Little Airplane," visit this Sesame Street website. If you want to read about "I'm Straight," check this page about Richman and Gram Parsons:

The Modern Lovers’ early songs were affronts to the hip pieties of their time. “I’m Straight” is no longer startling as a gesture; since Jonathan invented the stance, preppy geeks like Harrison’s later employer David Byrne have taken it to the bank. But the performance makes it clear that there was no irony involved. “I’m certainly not stoned,” Jonathan sneers, dripping contempt for “Hippie Johnny,” that trendy guy who all the girls think is deep, and his band (which comprised three hippie Johnnies in leather pants, long hair and, one assumes, discreet drug habits) answers back with a rush of noise that underlines his frustration and makes the gesture feel heroic rather than merely petty.

The stereotypical comparison of Richman's early and later careers is Initially a counter-countercultural artist who hung out with the Velvet Underground, Gram Parsons, and future New Wave heroes, Richman turned his back on all that and started writing silly, meaningless songs.

Or did he?

Over the weekend, as I was scrobbling various things on, I ran across the song "California Desert Party", which was released in 1988. In this song, the beach boy and his saxophone sing a happy little tune with lyrics such as this:

Everybody's dancin round in the cactus garden
yucca trees are all around Cholla too, look out
Guacamole's there for you, carrot juice and nachos too
it's a california desert party

What a silly little song...until you look at Richman's biography. Here's part of it:

While Richman and the Modern Lovers puzzled some people, they angered others. At a YMCA gig, people spat and threw cans from the balcony. In southern California, a large crowd greeted them with rocks and bottles when they opened for soul/funk outfit Tower of Power. After the set, ex-Byrd Gram Parsons had to rescue the band from toughs waiting backstage.

Needless to say, this is from Richman's first period. And the ties between Parsons and Richman were more than that of just show attendee:

Although Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers were managed by Eddie Tickner and Phil Kaufman in the early '70s, their sound couldn't have been farther away from that of Gram Parsons, or anyone else in the Byrds/Burritos axis.

But Richman wasn't around for Hippie Johnny - I mean Gram's - last, um, trip:

Parsons wasn't a suicide, but he killed himself all right. Blessed with charm and cash (his mother's family had made a pile in the citrus business), he got into booze and drugs early. In September 1973 he finished recording an album and went with some friends to an inn at Joshua Tree National Monument, one of his favorite places. The group spent much of the day by the pool getting tanked. By evening Gram looked like hell and went to his room to sleep. Later, on their way out for some food, his friends were unable to rouse him, so they left, returning a little before midnight. By that time Parsons was pretty far gone. Taken to a hospital, he was pronounced dead shortly after midnight on September 19. A lab analysis found large amounts of alcohol and morphine in his system; apparently the combination killed him.

So now you know about the California desert party.

Oh, and by the way, the story continues:

So far, your typical live-fast-die-young story. Then it gets strange.

Continued here.
blog comments powered by Disqus