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]