Jonathan Richman is 63 today. I am deeply divided about him. He is one of the most profound popular musicians of the last half century who was hugely influential in the punk movement. And much of his work is marvelous. At the same time, I can’t really think of an artist who is as lazy as Richman. For years, he released half-hour records filled with new versions of old songs—and never his best material. What’s more, his later songs are rarely refined, often in need of second, third, and fourth rewrites.
What was always best about his work was the raw emotion that he put into his songs. He was never afraid to admit to his emotional needs. At 17, when most young men spend most of their time pretending to be stoic and without need, Richman wrote, “People all over the world are starving… for affection.” But he’s widely misunderstood. Most of his work is pedagogical. In fact, if you listen to him carefully, he can be annoying because he is very interested in tell you how to live your life.
With the release of Richman’s second album, Robert Christgau wrote that the album needed “one funny song as astonishing as ‘Pablo Picasso’.” Christgau is wrong; “Pablo Picasso” is not a humorous song. It tells the story of a cool guy and how all the girls are just giddy over him.The refrain is “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.” This is sometimes followed up with, “Not like you.” But the song ends with a devastating payoff, “Pablo Picasso was never called.” This is the defining theme of Richman’s work: you must risk being hurt in order to be loved. Sadly, it isn’t just Christgau who doesn’t understand this. Many people have covered the song and most don’t end it correctly. Most fans seem to think the song is about the painter. It’s really sad.
Even more sad is that most of the time, I don’t think that Richman knows what he’s doing. After boycotting the song for decades, he has begun doing it again. But now the song is more about confidence. It’s still pedagogical. But thinking is not his strength. The song is also an homage to the Velvet Underground, more so than any other song:
After this period Richman began doing charming children’s music that still holds up reasonably well, but is certainly nothing to be proud of. Finally, he came back to what the music was all about with a kind of stripped down surf music. His most fulfilling album was 1985’s Rockin’ and Romance. (Typically never released on CD.) That’s where his raw emotion met with having a wife and a child. Here is a live version of one of the songs off that album, “Now Is Better Than Before.” It’s adult without losing any of the youthful idealism of earlier songs like, “Girlfriend”:
And here is a little of his surf music from the same album, “Vincent Van Gogh”:
Happy birthday Jonathan Richman!