Johnathan Richman at The Aladdin Theater Nov 8
Written by Pete Banjo on November 13, 2013
Johnathan Richman live at The Aladdin Theater – Portland, OR November 8, 2013
I have to admit I didn't know who Johnathan Richman is. I had sort of heard of his most famous project – The Modern Lovers – as a kind of proto-punk folk rock weird thing with purposefully strange and funny lyrics. I had no idea that was so huge, but the show was completely sold out. A good third of the audience were people in their late 20's and 30's, and the rest were a range of older folks who likely were fans of him since early in his career.
As with most shows of artists appealing to people over a certain age (editor's note: myself included, which is people over 30), the back half of the auditorium and the balcony were full of people sitting down. But there was a throng of dancing and hooting and hollering folk about 200-strong crowded around the stage who were obviously feeding off his infectious energy like easy-going vampires of an alternate Big Lebowski dimension where people apparently said "hippie stereotypes be damned … this is who we are and we like it that way just fine."
What do I mean by that kind of nebulous Big Lebowski's "dude" energy? Allow me to set the stage; pun intended. The man on stage carries a classical Spanish-style guitar. He's dressed in a loose white 70's-style peasant-shirt kind of billowy thing and tighter black pants. He's got that thin-older-dude-with-mojo energy as he sways and rocks with a knowing wink that seems to say to everyone: "Hey, I'm not an actual sexy rock star and we're far too cool and knowledgeable to buy into that trope 100%, but I'm going to fully exist in that trope with 5% detached irony and about 95% self-aware swagger as I commit to this as fully as possible." He plays very competent but relaxed and often simple finger guitar parts to his song/spoken word pieces about how funny and weird and precious life and freedom are. The drummer he shares the stage with is also in a 'relaxed but competent' groove … but even more minimalist.
Then the singing stops. The drums keep their basic groove. The guitar is put down. And Johnathan Richman proceeds to dance in the most self-assured awkward series of 'vouge'-ings you could imagine. Not for a few seconds. For over a minute. Think that kind of odd Morrisey-when-he-was-with-The-Smiths-with-flowers-in-his-pants kind of thing combined with Calvin Johnson and Ian Curtis' dance moves. It's that kind of strange and awkward yet confident. The crowd eats it up. He continues to break into this kind of 'stop everything I want to dance now' routine about once every song. And the crowd loves it every time. I would roll my eyes and give up on this except as far as I can tell: he invented this stage persona. Morrissey and Ian Curtis and Calvin Johnson and every other awkward-but-not dancing anti-hero of rock copied HIM.
Now to the songs. If you're not familiar – they are musically simple spoken word pieces about a particular kind of easygoing wine-drinking wry and sardonic sense of philosophy you'd expect from an older bunch of surprisingly wealthy hippies. The proto-punk nature of things shines through in the free-flowing clusters of curse words as he literally damns the man and tells hypothetical uptight people to go F themselves – that and the very stripped down basic three-chord music. I sound like I'm not buying it. Except I am. You can tell he believes what he says (half of it is half-improvised) and his truly odd stage persona does work.
Trivia I learned tonight: Lou Reed taught him how to play guitar. Not in a roundabout inspirational way. In a physical literal way. If this sounds remotely interesting to you – you should check him out. People who claim him as an influence include: David Bowie, Iggy Pop, The Velvet Underground, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Violent Femmes, They Might Be Giants, Weezer, Frank Black, Jens Leckman, and more …
-DJ Pete Banjo
(all photos by Lee Meredith)