Satirical homesick blues

Jonathan Richman | Forum London
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The Independent Culture

A prolonged obsession with The Velvet Underground early in life does not bode well for a happy future. As a youth in Boston, Jonathan Richman was motivated by The Velvet's garage punk, but substituted his own innocent vision of the universe to their view of the New York demimonde.

A prolonged obsession with The Velvet Underground early in life does not bode well for a happy future. As a youth in Boston, Jonathan Richman was motivated by The Velvet's garage punk, but substituted his own innocent vision of the universe to their view of the New York demimonde.

Perhaps that's why, at the age of 49, the ever abstemious, health-obsessed JR is on stage singing songs that offer relationship and counselling advice. Whenever, that is, he's not beseeching his audience to throw off their shackles and join him in some odd but endearing dance moves.

It has been a long journey from the classic John Cale produced debut album Jonathan Richman And The Modern Lovers to his latterday cult status. There are many who will maintain that Richman has never come close to the insights and musical accomplishment of that first record.

But this attitude overlooks one of the great maverick spirits and stereotype debunking figures in rock'n'roll. Richman majors in candid, half spoken word, half sung songs which steer a fine line between poetic and whimsical. That he keeps it all on course is down to the engaging personality and keen instinct honed over many spontaneous performances.

Although he still makes occasional outings with a band, for this all-acoustic show he was accompanied only by drummer Tommy Larkin. Beginning with the 1977 instrumental top five hit "Egyptian Reggae", he introduced what was, even for longtime Richman followers, the evening's major surprise. He began the twisting, grinding dances which take place with throughout the set. Sometimes he strummed his guitar while he did it, at other times, there was only the sound of Larkin bashing out the beat while he was getting down.

The odd thing is that the show worked, driven by an infectious zest for life rooted in the simple but skittish music - in its way, as effective as the Modern Lovers' proto-punk roar. Regressing way past The Velvets, back to the timeless throb of Buddy Holly's Crickets, Richman's tour of his past took in selections from his Goes Country collection, a "Pablo Picasso" which was still a very funny and pointed response to jock culture, "Dancing In The Lesbian Bar", which inspired an audience frug marathon and a heartfelt "Talk To The Girl", a tender reminder of his effectiveness as the Greek Chorus in the Farrelly Brothers' movie Something About Mary.

The ability to combine the comic and the serious was to the fore in "You Can't Talk To The Dude" where, employing a ventriloquist's style, he delivered a conversation between himself and a girl stuck in a destructive relationship. But "Surrender" was laugh-free and swoon-worthy, a reminder that while he may have Velvet roots, he still nurtures a heart of pure pop gold.

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