Brighton Coalition, 7th Oct
The recent Subway Sect review flirted with the notion that maybe punk wasn’t a plot-driven narrative but more of a character piece. Gigs are performed and records released, but only to give those characters a place to hang out - like theatre sets being built just so the actors can stand in front of them.
Jonathan Richman might have been a handy figure to carry that argument on, if he hadn’t spent most of his time trying to slip even that super-loose definition of punk. He started out with the classic Velvets-drenched punk outfit the Modern Lovers, but even then had figured the most punk thing to do was the most un-punk and was soon singing songs about loving his parents.
His parents won over the power chords, and pretty soon he’d split the band for softer musical climes. The explanation given at the time was rejection of volume. (He was concerned about making music which might “hurt the ears of tiny babies”.) But I wonder if it was as much against regimentation. Typically, freewheeelin’ and tale-spinnin’ delta blues singers electrified and formed bands, then found they had to conform to song structures. Richman did the reverse, first turning and then stripping his band down.
Tonight he’s accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and an impassive drummer, playing so minimally that at times it’s little more than a click track. Songs, accompanied anecdotes and audience chat shift and blend into one another. In short, the stage is stark and we’re left with little more than the man’s character.
It would be hard not to warm to Richman’s charm. He wears a permanent expression of dewy-eyed wonder, like a father who’s just seen his first-born child. And of course it takes skill and effort to sound this simple and naive. In yet another homespun tale, he recounts nights in with his wife in salacious detail: “She likes to read out loud... and I like to listen!”
We like to think that artists should be given carte blanche, that they’re the best arbiters of what they should be doing. We don’t like to read of albums being tampered with or musical directions quoshed by change-resistant record execs. But, like all romantic notions, it’s not actually as right as we’d like it to be. Nick Drake never wanted string accompaniments on his albums. Joy Division initially disliked Martin Hannett’s production, which was nevertheless imposed upon them. Being given your head can be a poisoned chalice.
Similarly, Richman has found what he most wants to do, like settling down in an easy chair and not feeling minded to get up again. Yet is it what we most want to listen to? Songs about loving your parents, served up with punk energy, have a creative friction to them, an arresting quality, an enticing edge. Songs about staying in with your wife, delivered as languidly as if that’s what you’re doing right now, can be as warm and comforting as Horlicks. It slips down easily, but it leaves little of an aftertaste. After the volume and the band, perhaps the next thing to go for Richman is the audience. Perhaps we should quietly slide shut his porch door, tiptoe out and leave him be...
Some classic Richman from back in the day...