with greatness

   i made a complete ass of myself
   interviewing jonathan richman

















Jonathan appeared in the nicely bizarre hit comedy "Something About Mary" about 12 years after this story takes place.  He has a fairly prominent role as a sort of Greek chorus, singing songs that frame and comment on the action.  Cool.

He has also made several appearances on Sesame Street.

The snow was falling gently but in great volume one February night in 1986.  I was well into my year as station manager of KLC, the student radio station of Lewis & Clark College. My predecessor, the infamous Mike Lutz, knowing that I was a recent convert to the music of Jonathan Richman lured me into braving the weather to catch him  that night at the Pine Street Theater (now La Luna). Mike, being the clever guy that he is, suggested I bring a tape recorder on the odd chance we might get an interview with Jonathan.

We figured the place would be deserted considering that most Portlanders are major snow whimps. Au contraire! The place was packed with the faithful. 

Now, if you've never heard of Richman, there are a couple things you need to know. He wrote two songs, Roadrunner (no, not the Warner Brothers cartoon theme but inspired by it) and Pablo Picasso that were highly influential in the late 70's/early 80's punk scene. The Burning Sensations recording of Pablo made it onto the Repo Man soundtrack.  Hoo baby!

Sometime after that period, Richman fell in love and got married. Everything changed. He still wrote music prolificly, but it was stripped of the anger and sarcasm of his earlier tracks. His new world was one of wonder at the minutiae of life -- his take was dead on sincerity that some took at face value and others took as a goof. Instead of a dense electric guitar attack, he used a ukelele, a toy piano, an acoustic guitar and a production technique best described as low-fi, neighbors closet. It worked. 

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers newest album was Rockin' & Romancin', a vinyl wonder that featured tunes like Vincent Van Gogh (the painter theme survived the transition), The UFO Man, and Chewing Gum Rapper.


Back to the concert

Richman fans are a pretty chummy crew. All of us sat down on the floor and as Jonathan did his thing, most everybody sang along and clapped. It kinda sounds dorky as I write it, but there was a very cool vibe that I hadn't really experienced at other gigs. 

After the show Mike and I are feeling pretty good. We ask a member of the crew if we can interview Jonathan for KLC. To our surprise, out came Jonathan. 

It became very clear, very quickly, that in spite of our appreciation for his music-making, that we just plain didn't know enough about Richman to ask any intelligent questions. My worst fear-of-being- unprepared dream was unfolding before my eyes. I made the critical error of inarticulately exploring his transition from his Roadrunner era to his current dead on sincerity.

He didn't want to go there and wasn't offering any help.

Mike tried to bail me out, somewhat lamely, but between Jonathan's one word answers (How was your Australian tour?  Nice.) and our lack of preparation, we were lucky to get away with a half-hearted station promo. I never ran the promo -- whenever I looked at the cassette, all of the humiliation of that moment and a perfectly wonderful concert memory ruined, rushed back to me in a moment. 



barely brushed:  i went down with Joan Rivers   brush