Jonathan Richman and the Legacy of Geek Pop
Geekiness in rock music falls into two basic categories: the slightly obsessive and overly aware pop earnestness of Jens Lekman, David Byrne, Gordon Gano, Eleanor Friedberger, and Lupe Fiasco and the self-obsessed, dork-turned-rockstar posturing of Beck, Karen O, Rivers Cuomo, Jarvis Cocker, and Moby. Both personas take up major page space in the rock 'n' roll history book and even have their own 1970s proto-punk forebearers in Jonathan Richman, founding member of the Modern Lovers, and Lou Reed, originally of the Velvet Underground. There's no need to argue the relevance or greatness of either singer, but their legacies are distinct.
Although Reed and his ilk have stuck around and, in some cases, changed the image of popular music altogether, few kids today who hear a Pulp or Yeah Yeah Yeahs song will necessarily be moved to form their own bands like they did thirty years ago without first seeing the whole package: thick glasses, green eyeshadow, ironic haircut, or whatever. Fewer still pay homage without also wanting to knock a victorious dorkus or two off their high horses, just to take their place. Rock stardom these days, especially for geeks, is an emulation-replacement cycle.
On the other hand, the more sincere, even geekier string of pop musicians doesn't inspire rock star dreams the same way. The Fiery Furnaces, for example, always seem so damn approachable, like one of their own fans just decided to fill in on organ for the night. Heck, Pavement's geek prince, Cousin Malky, even wrote a song about the torments of touring with the Smashing Pumpkins, whose Billy Corgan is one of rock's best examples of the star poseur.
Not unlike those who have followed his example, Jonathan Richman's focus on minutiae and his reliance on small metaphors have curtailed his long-term impact or, at least, made his influence hard to measure. His notion of pop music is not particularly marketable and rather unlikely to suddenly be swept up in a big trend. Despite a catalog of great songs as a member of the Modern Lovers and as a solo artist, Jonathan is mostly recognizable as the minstrel-narrator of There's Something About Mary. But attending a Jonathan Richman show makes apparent why he was perfect for a star turn in a hit movie about the importance of sincerity, but why he has a lot less mainstream appeal than the mookish geek rock of the Dan Band, for example, who also got their big break in the movies. Old School, however, is fittingly all about dorks trying to be what they’re not. In the end, charm doesn’t sell like it should.
At Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club on February 5, the audience wasn't as dominated by short, nebishy dudes as expected. Besides a handful of bespectacled girlfriends and wives accompanying the short, nebishy dudes, there were a lot of little kids—it might as well have been a Pancake Mountain taping. Jonathan Richman was perfectly enthusiastic and goofy for this crowd and started off his hour-long set by informing his younger fans that the night's performance would be age-appropriate, meaning no cursing and lots of cowbell. Fortunately, these were the types of kids and parents who didn't stay up late enough to catch something like "Dick in a Box", so few were the wiser.
Jonathan's specific charm is most recognizable when he sings about living with emotions, describing the pretty colors and ugly smells that accompany life—a super geeky endeavor when it comes down to matching feelings to sweaty subway rides and visits to Amsterdam. Completely uncreepy songs about being a fourteen-year-old boy in love with a sixteen-year-old girl sung by a fifty-five-year-old man perfectly transitioned into fan favorites like "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar". And, despite the long breaks between and during songs to preface Spanish or French verses, the audience never got cranky or even raised a voice to call for "Ice Cream Man". After all, by the time Jonathan returned to the stage for an encore at 8:30 PM, it was about time for many of the showgoers to get home for a fantasy baseball draft or knitting lessons. And what could be geekier than that?
-- Ryan Mixtape, 02/25/2007