Jonathan Richman’s Boston

By: - Monday, Mar 17, 2014 - 2:04pm

The wonderful Jonathan Richman is playing three shows at the Middle East this week: Wednesday, March 19; Thursday, March 20; and Friday, March 21. This article relates a few thoughts on his Boston-centric songs and offers a recommended listening list.

4055694316_bbc62c909b_b Photo: Mark and Allegra/Creative Commons

Jonathan Richman is the greatest of all Boston tunesmiths. There. I said it. Someone had to.

Perhaps it’s not such a controversial statement. After all, his legendary number celebrating car rides through the Boston suburbs, “Roadrunner,” is currently being considered for the official state song of Massachusetts. There’s some cred. But ask a random on the streets of Boston about Jonathan Richman and you’ll most likely just get a scratch of the head in return. It’s a damn shame if you ask me. Because through his unique and evocative compositions, Mr. Richman has created the most poignant portrait of this great city one can find in the American songbook.

It’s ironic that “Roadrunner” was competing with Aerosmith’s “Dream On” for the state song title. You really couldn’t find an artist further away from the glittery and greasy arena rock of Steven Tyler et al. Whereas Aerosmith’s music is about being big and loud with a cocky attitude, Jonathan’s is about simply being sincere and kind. About living life with equal parts a naive optimism of youth and a saddened nostalgia of old age. Perhaps not the recipe for a stadium-packing tour, but some pretty good ingredients for an intense cult following (especially when you add a bit of charisma and mysteriousness, which is the case with Jonathan).

Born in Natick over 60 years ago, his path has taken him from Velvet Undergound groupie and proto-punk phenom to wisened chanteur, from obscurity to even greater obscurity, and from the romantic glow of the big screen (he was the troubadour guy in There’s Something About Mary!) to the dim of America’s smallest and dankest music clubs. Jonathan and his loyal sidekick/drummer, Tommy Larkins, incessantly travel throughout the U.S. and the world from one tiny venue to the next with their improvised, stripped down performances. A Jonathan Richman concert is an exercise in his philosophy (perhaps giving a more real meaning to his “cult following”) of rejecting modern-day distractions and replacing it with real human interaction. This means no air conditioning (let’s soak amidst our natural odors however strong and foul), no complex stage lights or sound effects (just a guitar, a three-piece drum kit, and some jingle bells), no cell phones (hey, he doesn’t even own a computer), and dancing (always dancing!).

This philosophy  shapes Jonathan’s Boston songs and it’s what makes them so special. They really aren’t songs about Boston itself but more simply strings of fleeting memories and impressions tied to a place – that place being Boston. They most often recount solitary walks littered with simple appreciations of the world around him.  We accompany him on a springtime jaunt from Jamaica Plain to a Sox game in “As We Walk to Fenway Park in Boston Town,” taking time to pause and contemplate the wind blowing through cat tails in the Fens. We are reminded of the brief late afternoon glow that sets  upon the Public Garden on a particularly lonely narrated city tour in “Twilight in Boston.” We share in a teenage-angtsy stroll under  the stars in a deserted Downtown Crossing in “Fly into the Mystery.”

The places mentioned in these songs (the Public Garden, the victory gardens, Filene’s) aren’t as important as the specific emotions and memories associated with them. Many of his songs in recent years have, in fact, moved away from trying to capture any of this with words and just present musical sketches (like “Leaves on the Sidewalk After the Rain,” “Winter Afternoon by B.U. in Boston,” or “Sunday Afternoon”). It’s this simplicity that makes his Boston songs so incredible. They communicate impressions charged with very personal meaning – one that starts as Jonathan’s but, as listeners and as Bostonians, becomes our own. Through them we can relive our own personal Boston story books and, hopefully, be reminded of the need to take out the ear buds occasionally and just appreciate the simple beauty of being here.

Eight Jonathan Richman Boston Songs You Need to Hear:

1) Twilight in Boston, on I, Jonathan (1992). “Because I’ve spent many walks, lonely walks in the twilight, all through Boston and those suburbs…”

2) The Fenway, on Rockin’ & Romance (1985). “…Nowhere do I feel more at home, it seems, then on the Fenway, where I dreamed my dreams…”

3) Roadrunner, on The Modern Lovers (1976). “I’m in love with Massachusetts, and the neon when it’s cold outside…”

4) Fly into the Mystery, on Rock ‘N’ Roll with the Modern Lovers (1977). “…it’s eight o’clock in Boston, and Filene’s has just locked up. It’s so good to see the sky clear up this way. There’s the stars, we haven’t lost ’em.”

5) Winter Afternoon by B.U. in Boston, on O Moon, Queen of the Night (2012). “…in the winter in Boston, afternoon, nothing sadder than that…”

6) As We Walk to Fenway Park in Boston Town, on Fever Pitch Soundtrack (2005). “Walking from the Arbour way, when spring has come at last. The trees are in their glory, as the taxis rush on past…”

7) Girlfriend, on The Modern Lovers (1976). “…four o’clock in the afternoon in the Fenway, I have my heart in my hands…”

8) Maybe a Walk Home from Natick High School, on Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (2005). No lyrics here. Just music.