Tue 28 Feb
words and photo: ROBIN WILKINSON
From the darkness, came Jonathan. Emerging in early-70s New York, Richman’s band The Modern Lovers were in thrall to the Velvet Underground’s primordial garage-throb, as heard on two-chord classics like Roadrunner and Pablo Picasso (who, in Richman’s recollection, “never got called an asshole”). However, where the VU chronicled a subterranean world of seedy glamour, Richman pursued an altogether more wholesome and prosaic world-view, castigating perma-stoned hippies on I’m Straight, or encouraging frazzled public-sector workers to “rock all night in the government center”.
Thirty-plus years later he strides on stage with a wide-grin, the happy-sad eyes of a religious devotee and a salt and pepper beard: the only thing, besides perhaps his comfortable-looking trousers, that belies his 60 years on the planet. Backed by a drummer, he launches into No-One Was Like Vermeer, a typically atypical choice of subject matter, and I’d hazard one of the few times that Clwb Ifor Bach has been the venue for a disquisition on the tonal range of a Dutch Master.
Over time his voice has matured, from the Modern Lovers-era adenoidal yelp to a mellow, plaintive baritone. Though his music has mellowed too, the punk ideology remains in a stripped-back sound – a drummer and a Spanish guitar that he frequently drops so as to gesticulate along with the lyrics and an unyielding personal emotional truth that sees him mocking his attempts at youthful insouciance (My Affected Accent) and romantic conquest (Not So Much To Love As To Be Loved). Like a Shakespearean clown, Richman offers amusement and insight in equal measures, even during the same song: in Bohemia he invites laughter at the pretentious artwork of his youth, whilst celebrating his parents who nurtured his youthful creativity.
After aborting a song telling (in Spanish, with English translation) the tale of a young man’s inadvertent trip to a brothel he moves the microphone and drum-kit to be closer to the audience. All night he is nothing but inclusive, gratefully playing requests and performing a shuffling, shamanistic dance in a thwarted effort to encourage audience participation: “If you’re not going to dance with me”, he implores, “you may as well at least keep time.”
Richman is sweet, but never cloying. Pain is allowed into his world but, as in the song Refuse To Suffer, as a counterpoint to enable you to savour the richness of life. Sipping on a carton of milkshake he recounts, with typical wide-eyed fervour, that nowadays his favourite thing, besides making music, is stonemasonry. This seems appropriate: using universal and commonplace items to create something timeless and beautiful.