“When I was 19,” Jonathan Richman sang to the crowd at the Bowery Ballroom, “I was over-intellectual … I was such a little brat.” Then he grinned his goofy, mournful grin, reeled back from the microphone and launched into another acoustic 1-4-5 guitar solo, for “Nineteen in Naples.”
Now 48, Mr. Richman has a Dorian Gray-like stage persona-boyish, ebullient, passionate. (He did sport a rumpled suit with his T-shirt, instead of his trademark jeans; maybe they were in the wash). Accompanied by drummer Tommy Larkins (who stood behind a tom-tom, snare and cymbals-it would be a stretch to call it a drum kit), Mr. Richman gyrated spiritedly, like an earnest teenager trying out for a funky cheerleading squad.
When the crowd clapped along, he encouraged them: “If you’re not going to dance, at least clap. It warms up the atmosphere.”
According to conventional wisdom, Mr. Richman threw away a promising punk career-having recorded the classic “Modern Lovers” album at age 21, in 1972-and withdrew into a strange childlike world, trading in searing garage-rock about obsessions and psychoses to mindless piffle about the Ice Cream Man.
But in fact, Mr. Richman had precociously perceived that, in the long run, it was punk music that would seem like greasy kid stuff, and that his homespun homilies would prove more enduring. (He stated as much on a monologue delivered on the 1991 live album “Having a Party With Jonathan Richman,” disparaging his earlier snottiness.)
Of course, he still admires the Velvet Underground; in his musical paean to them, performed on March 4, he commends their “sound as stark as black-and-white stripes.” And for every tossed-off ditty extolling parties or the corner store, Mr. Richman is still capable of going deep and dark. Performing songs like “Affection” and “Let Her Go Into the Darkness,” he tossed off perceptive, mature philosophy disguised by deceptively singsongy riffs.
After years of rejecting his roots, Mr. Richman now dips into his punk catalogue in his live act. (On March 4, he played “Girlfriend.”) The songs seem neither like artifacts nor towering achievements that dwarf his later work, just part of the same heartfelt oeuvre
Mr. Richman doesn’t grant many interviews or get personal on stage, but fans know his marriage broke up several years ago, and that jolt seems to have reinvigorated his songwriting. He’s penning lyrics from present-day uncertainty; his last album was called I’m So Confused . And “You Must Ask the Heart,” whose conceit is that it’s being sung by the listener’s brain, counsels: “Don’t ask me about love, ’cause I’m just the wrong guy. I don’t know how love happens, and I don’t know why.”
New numbers introduced on March 4 included “Couples Must Argue,” “My Heart Needed Repair When I Met Her,” and “I’m Not Obsessed With Her” (“It’s strange, if you know me,” he sang. “Is something wrong?”). On the lighter side, he also uncorked a brilliant two-minute rocking summation of the attitude of his hometown, Boston: “It’s great/ it’s cold/ it’s hostile/ you asshole!”
Sometimes Mr. Richman’s songs backtrack from their initial promise; instead of following a great idea through to its conclusion, he’ll just repeat verses, or sing them again in Spanish. But-as with “Couples Must Argue”-the ideas are so great, you cut him some slack.
There was a bootlegger taping show, which seemed odd. Jonathan’s appeal is so much about being in his presence, watching him. Despite noble attempts to bring him to a wider audience-by Conan O’Brien, the Farrelly brothers, even Mr. Richman himself, who has re-recorded neglected classics from deleted albums-he remains too quirky for mass consumption.
Like those of the Grateful Dead or Bruce Springsteen, his infrequent records don’t do him justice; he needs to be seen to be believed in.