Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers Live

Modern Lovers Live from 1978 is, in my opinion, one of the greatest punk rock records of all time. Now it might seem ridiculous to argue that this is a punk album (and maybe it is ridiculous, but like Jonathan Richman, I'm not afraid to be ridiculous, so bear with me). After all, this album focuses on Richman's most whimsical and childlike material. How can an album full of songs like "Hey There Little Insect," "I'm A Little Airplane," "My Little Kookenhaken," "Ice Cream Man" and "I'm A Little Dinosaur" be punk? This is innocent, sticky sweet stuff that even an eight-year old might find juvenile.

Certainly my enthusiasm for this album is not universally shared. Rock critics despised Jonathan Richman's post Beserkley Chartbusters embrace of his inner child. In The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh dismisses this phase of Richman's career thusly:

In his original incarnation as the hyperthyroid lead singer of the Modern Lovers, Richman gave new hope to the socially inept. He looked like the kid who stumbled over his own feet in the high school lunch room and got the shit kicked out of him on general principles: short hair, sloppy clothes, no cool. But a real genius for metaphor was expressed in songs like "Road Runner," "Pablo Picasso" and "Government Center."

On Rock and Roll and "Live" Richman lost his vision and became once more a teenage twerp, warbling about Veg-a-Matics and other garbage, replacing the Lover's flat punk rock with even flatter folkie music. Now you know why everybody picked on that kid in high school.

Fortunately, Jonathan Richman was not interested in being some performing flea in Dave Marsh's fascist rock and roll circus. Richman was not inclined to play out Marsh's self-aggrandizing fantasy of the punk rocker as geek turned hipster. Jonathan Richman didn't want to make music so that rock critics could feel better about their high school traumas, and rock critics never forgave him for it. Instead, Jonathan did something much more profound and important; he followed his own muse where it led him, and did exactly what he wanted to do--critics (and audience for that matter) be damned. And that my friends is punk rock.

If punk rock is nothing more than a doctrinaire musical style (loud, fast and angry music), then no, this is not punk rock. But if punk is based on a DIY spirit and an aesthetic of radical individualism, then this music more than qualifies.

There is another aspect to this album that is punk that might not be immediately apparent given the sense of childlike wonder inherent in this material. Richman's interaction with the audience, though shrouded in his nice-guy persona, is borderline confrontational. Audience members regularly yell out for his older, more aggressive songs ("PABLO PICASSO!!!" "ROADRUNNER!!!") and Richman, in a simultaneously charming and passive aggressive manner, refuses to comply.

The 8 minute rendition of "Ice Cream Man" on this album is extraordinary. Richman does about 12 encore reprises of the chorus after the song comes to an initial end. David Cleary writing at All Music Guide criticizes this tactic as extending the song "well past the point of honest enjoyment." It's a fair criticism. After all, isn't 8 minutes of "Ice Cream Man" about 4 minutes too many?

Well, yes and no. Richman's performance of this song reminds me to a certain extent of the comedy of Jerry Lewis. Lewis will take a simple sight gag that is funny on the surface and then extend it to the point that it becomes painful, then keeps it going even longer to the point that it becomes funny again simply because you can't believe he's willing to keep such a ridiculous gag running so long. It is a style of performance that is confrontational, and alienates many, which is why opinion on both Lewis and Richman tends to be so divided. I'll let you guess where I stand on Jerry Lewis, but I make no secret of my love for Jonathan Richman.

This is an extremely well recorded live album that truly captures the spirit of the artist's performance at a critical juncture in his career. In my opinion it's one of the best albums of his career. My only complaint with the album is that--with only 9 songs--it is far too short. I'm sure there is a lot more material from these shows moldering in the vaults somewhere. I'd love to hear other Richman favorites from this period like "Dodge Veg-o-matic," "Abominable Snowman In The Market" and "Here Come The Martian Martians" added to this collection. I just hope Jojo didn't break down and play "Roadrunner" or "Pablo Picasso" as an encore, because it would totally shatter my understanding of Richman as an uncompromising artist. We should all pray twice a day for an expanded double CD edition of this album complete with liner notes from Jonathan Richman telling us how bad it is.

[Available at Amazon]


Anonymous said...

All hipster irony aside, "I'm A Little Airplane" manages to rock fairly hard.

Also, Dave Marsh, despite his championing of The Stooges and The MC5, as well as his super-early usage of the word 'punk' to describe ? & The Mysterians, always seemed confused and angered by the music. His general attitude seemed to be that many punk musicians were deliberately writing dopey songs for no other reason than to personally tick him off. His misunderstanding of The Dictators is a good example. Dave Marsh and Jonathan Richman - two strange cats, albeit not untalented, they are.

Pete Bilderback said...

"I'm A Little Airplane" actually sounds a lot like the Velvet Underground, although it is very hard to imagine Lou Reed singing about being a little airplane.

Dave Marsh seemed to dismiss a lot of punk and new wave music for reasons I don't entirely understand. The Rolling Stone Record guide is full of curt, clever three word dismissals of lots of punk and new wave acts.

Pol Dodu said...

Modern Lovers Live ! is indeed one of my favourite live albums, and one of my favourite albums full stop, considering as it includes three really great songs unavailable elsewhere : Morning of our lives, I'm a little dinosaur and I'm a little airplane.
Sorry to disappoint you, but they must have played at least Roadrunner at the time, since a live version of that song (known as "Thrice") was indeed released as a UK single B-side at the time.
It is a pity that this song is not included as a bonus on this CD rerelease. I confirm that there must be loads of unreleased tracks from these shows, if only because Castle initially listed the rerelease in 2004 as a double CD with tons of bonus unreleased tracks. This was substituted at the last minute for the straight reissue of the original vinyl, probably because (my guess) Jonathan Richman didn't sanction the release of the extras...

Pete Bilderback said...

pol dodu--

Thanks for the information. I don't feel too disappointed really. It would be great to someday hear an extended version of this album. I'd like to hear an entire show, because really Jonathan's back and forth with the audience is fascinating.

By the way, I see that you are from France. You will now probably destroy my cultural misconceptions about the French by telling me that you loathe Jerry Lewis!

Pol Dodu said...

I don't loathe Jerry Lewis, I just ignore him. I only have memories of watching his films on TV inthe 70s, when he was actually popular in France... When I hear his name, I just think of this most excellent song by Ben Vaughn, Jerry Lewis in France...!

Pete Bilderback said...

"Jerry Lewis In France" is an excellent song. I actually quite like some of Jerry Lewis' films, and particularly his TV work with Dean Martin.

Anonymous said...

I like "The Nutty Professor" and "The Ladies' Man." Also, Jerry Lewis is really, really great (like Oscar caliber)in the mighty "King Of Comedy." Like Mr. Richman and Mr. Marsh, Mr. Lewis is a very odd, very talented dude.

Pete Bilderback said...

I couldn't agree more about The King Of Comedy (which I just re-watched a couple weeks ago). Lewis is absolutely perfect in that film, and it is one of DiNero's better performances as well.

The set is the best thing about The Ladies Man, although I like Lewis in it just fine too.

The Nutty Professor is my favorite by Lewis, but I like some of his less well-regarded films like Hook Line and Sinker too.

Lewis is a brilliant physical comedian, and his sight gags are in the same league as Chaplin, Keaton (my favorite) and Tati.

JoeyC said...

As far as icons go, I prefer Jonathan-Goes-Acoustic-1978 to Whatsis-Goes-Electric-1965.

There's a pretty wonderful homage to Richman's bold choices of the late 70's on Frank Black's "The Man Who Was Too Loud," which echoes the post's point. I honestly never liked getiing the crap beat out of me at grindcore shows, but if I was going to get jollystomped, it'd be for choosing to put the live version of "Ice Cream Man" on repeat at a party and standing guard over the stereo.

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