"When I was a teenager, I made myself a promise. I said, 'Jonathan, if this ever gets to feel like work, you and me are quitting.' "
That's a quote songwriter Jonathan Richman gave The Independent in 1998. Richman celebrated his 60th birthday in Nashville in 2011, so rather than accuse such a heartfelt, painfully honest, "dignified and old" songwriter of breaking a promise, one can only assume he's still having a pretty good time.
The Scene's own interview request was denied, and research shows that Richman has granted very little access since the late '90s — since, that is, his fleeting, fluke almost-comeback thanks to his appearance in the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary. Even then, discussions about his music and personal life were frequently met with awkward silence or an abrupt change of subject.
To call Richman "old school" is an understatement. He doesn't use cellphones or computers. He is a resolute stranger to the Internet. Even if we were to ambush him for a quote before he loads into The Stone Fox on Sunday evening, Richman doesn't speak before or after a performance. As he explains at the end of every show, his vow of silence is doctor's orders — he uses a pad and pen for any crucial communication. In other words — or rather, in his words — you can't talk to the dude (no, no).
The Jonathan Richman we see and hear onstage is in love with simplicity. He's a goofy, wide-eyed Joe Schmo savant whose worldview is steeped in chill vibes and filtered through a rainbow of positive lights. His lyrics magnify life's smallest joys into skeletally epic ballads as he embraces both love and pain with equal adoration. His profundity is peppered with double negatives, and stated as plainly as possible in a knowingly dumbed-down, thick New England accent. One could call him the Kurt Vonnegut of pop, or maybe even the punk rock Jimmy Buffett.
For nearly two decades, Richman's only accompaniment has been a classical guitar and drummer Tommy Larkins — an almost entirely unplugged approach that amplifies the weight of Richman's incredibly simple and straightforward lyrics. The venue's air conditioning and any extraneous lights and noise-making units are shut off at his request. The guy doesn't even travel with merch. Part of the Richman magic is his ability to disarm listeners with a wide-eyed and anodyne approach. However, despite his gift for engaging the audience, it's almost entirely a one-way interaction. Requests are rarely acknowledged, and the obligatory screams of "We love you, Jonathan!" are greeted with a nod and a wry smile at best.
At least half the audience at most shows is an ageless mob of obvious devotees, jotting down the set list for posterity, and probably for discussion on a message board the next day. They're not exactly the kind of people who need to be reached through interviews with a local alt-weekly. A good deal of the other attendees come to hear the mid-'70s classics from Richman's former band Modern Lovers. Those people will most likely leave disappointed. His sets very seldom reach back further than 20 years.
Regardless of their age, Richman's songs are all singularly devoted odes to specific people, places and things — they almost resemble kiddie tunes in their reflection of Richman's unconditional love of life. One minute, he's crooning the praises of a woman's natural beauty ("Because Her Beauty Is Raw and Wild"), and the next he romanticizes misery as a necessary function of life ("When We Refuse to Suffer"). He's also prone to throwing in tributes to heroes like Keith Richards or Johannes Vermeer.
That said, if suffering is so crucial to the human experience, why not suffer through an interview with the Scene for a few minutes? Well, maybe because that would probably feel like work, and the last thing the world needs is for Jonathan Richman to quit his job.