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Jonathan Richman

BGN Interview Issue #16 1980

Just before his new tour and after a long stay out of the public eye, Jonathan granted us his ONLY East Coast interview. The following took place on Friday the 13th June, 1980 and we think you'll find out a lot of interesting things about Jonathan & we're happy to be able to bring them to you….

Richman cover BGN - So, you've been living up in Maine?
JR - Yes

BGN - Up in the woods, right?
JR - I was living in a little house in a harbor by some friends. It wasn't that I like harbors so much, there were friends there too. See, what I like is silence.

BGN - Now you'll be moving back into the city though, right?
JR - I'm doing shows right now so I'm just staying at peoples' houses from day to day.

BGN - What about your tour? You're gonna be driving across country?
JR - Yeah, me, Billy Cole and Cathy are gonna drive to Delaware, Maryland then go to Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Bloomington, Indiana. Then we're gonna fly to L.A. and San Francisco.

BGN - Every time you go on tour we never know what to expect from you. So what about this tour?
JR - Frankly, I never know what to expect from myself.

BGN - Well you have a new album coming out also.
JR - Yes, it's called Jonathan Richman Sings.

BGN - What kind of album is it gonna be? Electric or acoustic? Now, I know you're playing electric guitar on this tour.
JR - Well, in honor of this album I'm playing electric on it. I don't play acoustic on it. And this tour I'm bringing my electric guitar because I like what I can do with an electric guitar.

BGN - Like the tour, is it gonna be just you up there?
JR - Oh there's different people on it. Some of the things have a whole sax section on it, some of it has 16 strings with a harp player who used to play in Peter Pan movies. So we've got allkindsa things.

BGN - What are some of the songs?
JR - "Stop the Car I'm Getting Out", "Baby We Can't Go Wrong" and old Bing Crosby song called "Let's Take the Long Way Home", that's the one with the strings on it. Then "Not Yet Three" which is where I talk about things from a two year old's point of view. There's "The Fenway, Where I Dream My Dreams".

BGN - In a lot of your songs you're inspired by nature, like "Hey There Little Insect".
JR - I was scared, in 1973, by insects. I always was a little, so I figured I should talk to them to help myself be not afraid of 'em and if little kids heard it maybe they wouldn't be afraid of 'em. So I just figured I'm gonna realize that they got little hearts inside 'em too.

BGN - "Summer Morning" what about that? It's an incredible song. You can just picture walking through the woods and feeling the breeze on you.
JR - I do too! I feel like someone else did it when I listen to it. You know how that song was done? We did a little thing at practice one day. I said to someone "Give me a time of day." And they said morning. I said "Give me a location." And they said something. "Give me a noun." And someone said 'envelope', and we didn't use that. Then I said "Leroy, give me a chord progression."

BGN - And the song "Afternoon"? I don't understand the "I am, I am" part.
JR - I'm not proud of the way that turned out. Sometimes I would see the trees and they would seem to say something to me. The closest I cold come was they seemed to say "I am, I am". It was intended to be real simply…you know when its real quiet in the middle of a field but you can just hear something. I've heard things speak to me, a little. The American Indians have known this for hundreds of years but I'm just becoming aware of it.

BGN - What about your song "Affection". You treat affection like a really concrete thing, like this table. It's just so important to you, right?
JR - It's THE MOST. It's numero uno. I'm saying people can starve! It's concrete, yeah, like food. People can die….

BGN - I saw you do "My Love Is Like a Flower" at Cantone's once. When you were singing it, it seemed to me that tears were welling up in your eyes.
JR - Sure. Many of my songs have always made me cry. It's just like my movies. I love James Stewart movies because they make me cry. My favorite moment is when I start to cry and the audience does too. It can happen with most any song. I've cried singing "Roadrunner" …any song that gives me a true feeling when I'm singing it. It's feeling.

Jonathan Richman

BGN - Emotions are a very big thing with you.
JR - It's the point. Feelings are the point of the show.

BGN - That's like when you write your songs and perform them. You're not thinking of showing off your talents as a guitarist as much as you're thinking about each note evoking a certain feeling, each chord makes you feel a certain way.
JR - Yeah, that's it. See I wanna…..(Jonathan starts strumming his guitar, making beautifully sad chords…hoping we'd understand.)…It's hard to put it to words but you know what I'm doing right now. I use it as a mood setter.

BGN - That sounds so sad though.
JR - But it's beautiful isn't it?

BGN - Yeah.
JR - Sadness, to me, when it's beautiful leads to happiness. Sometimes I feel both at the same time. There's something haunting in beautiful sadness. Well, it thrills me. Sometimes I get so sad it almost breaks my heart but I love it. I wouldn't trade it. And that's why I can be so happy when I'm happy. You can't take one without the other. In a way it's feeling that counts not whether it's happy or sad.

BGN - Jonathan, how come in everything you do you never follow the normal flow or the normal logic? In 1970 when all the folkies were making money and getting airplay you're playing loud rock'n'roll. As the music scene gets louder and more electrified you do just the opposite. Where do you get your direction from? Why do this when everyone else is doing something so different?
JR - Well, what moved me to start playin' was The Velvet Underground…and the Stooges too. Both of these acts really inspired me.

BGN - When's this?
JR - '68, '69. The Velvet Underground was first in '67. But I have fun being contrary too. Always have but I also just play what I like.

BGN - What made you go through this progression of less and less noise?
JR - I got calmer. I've been growing up, simply. Loud tones are good for getting out hostilities and aggressions. I'm not as defensive as I was when I was 19 or 20.

BGN - What kind of music do you listen to?
JR- - I listen to just a few songs and listen to them over and over again. Like "Blueberry Sweet" by The Chandeliers which was made in 1956. "Down In Cuba" by the Royal Holidays from, like, '57. Then I listen to old Diablos from '54, '55, '56.

BGN- You have a strange rapport with your audiences. When you're up there it seems like you're baring your soul. The audience talks to you during your soul. It's totally different from any other band.
JR - Good. That's just the way I like to be with people.

BGN - What about your fans? They write to you a lot and send you presents….dinosaurs?
JR - That's right. Birthday cards from all over the world. A lot of them write me long letters and they say "For some reason I felt I should write you." They send me long letters and they say "Somehow I senses you wouldn't mind." And of course they're right, I don't mind. Maybe they sense that I'm a friend.

BGN- You've been described as a "lovable eccentric". Do you consider yourself to be one?
JR - No. I'm an individual but I don't think I'm eccentric. I don't like that word. It sounds like some old man. You know what I mean? Like "Oh James, I know it's 80 degrees but I need my rubbers today." Like, oddball. Richman interview

BGN - But your lifestyle seems to be so different. The impression we get of you IS strange. You're really into health foods and all that.
JR - Well, you see I eat what I like. Let's put it this way; I love my body so that would incline me more towards what people call health foods. I don't like that word. I used to, but I was misunderstood, too. I wrote "I stay alone, eat health foods at home"….but…(long pause)…that was a little snotty though. I love to eat, let's put it that way. Also I can't say I'm not a health nut cause I work out all day long and I can't say I'm not into health foods cause I am. It ain't discipline. I don't say I must. I crave exercise and I love health food. I have a jump rope and I love it.

BGN- What are your feelings on religion and life?
JR - I love people and I love life; that's my religion.

BGN - Do you believe in reincarnation?
JR - Yes.

BGN - Pink carnations? Pantheism? Do you see God in a tree or a flower?
JR - When you know how I feel about nature…don't forget "Roadrunner" was a nature song…I don't just see God in a tree I see God in a….see in a way it hasn't changed in ten years: then what moved me were power lines and that's what "Roadrunner" is about. Now I say I'm in love with the trees but it's the same idea. I love the trees more. I couldn't appreciate then when I was 18 or 19. I was too conditioned the the way.

BGN - You were brought up in Natick, in the suburbs. There are trees there.
JR - They were surrounded by J.M. Fields (old department store - ed) and Value Mart and that's the way I saw trees.

BGN - Oh, did you live near that shopping center on Rt. 9 in Natick?
JR - That's right. That's my original Stop & Shop; Rt. 9 and Rt. 27.

BGN- Well, you may not have strong religious beliefs but what about all the strange telepathic things that happen between you and people you know? They'll be talking about you and you'll call up in the middle of the conversation. Do you believe in telepathy or any kind of mind control?
JR - Yes, some people accuse me of using it intentionally but ladies and gentlemen, I'm innocent! But I never said I didn't have strong religious beliefs, I just don't belong to any one particular kind. Take "All Day, All Night, Angels Watchin' Over Me", that's how I feel. I also feel "Amazing Grace" and "Springtime" that song is religious to me too. I think there are angels watchin' and they're sometimes helpin'. There's things that guide me to certain places at certain times. I feel it day to day. Ya, incidents like you described happen to me all the time. I believe in telepathy, I believe in angels and I believe that people have this little radar and I've seen it a lot in my life.

BGN- Who do you get your direction from in life and music? Does your song "Pablo Picasso" give us an idea? Do you love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no you don't love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?
JR - I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn't have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought "well Pablo Picasso, he's only 5 foot 3 but he didn't let things like that other him". So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking 'Why am I so scared to approach these girls?' That was a song of courage for me.

BGN- What about Cézannes? In "Girlfren" you mention him.
JR - That wasn't the paintings again. It was "I go to the room where they keep the Cézannes" - it rhymes with girlfren…more or less.

BGN - Jonathan!!!
JR- I swear I don't know much about his paintings.

BGN - What about when you say in the song "Well, I can look through the paintings…" That's one of the big things about his stuff. You can look through his paintings and at a point they become truly three dimensional.
JR - Do you know what? Until you told me that this second I never knew that. I only knew I liked his tablecloths….Oh no…that's Matisse I like! Oh you see it could have been Renoir! I remembered this room where they used to keep the Cézannes and these girls used to walk through when I was about 18. Here's Jonathan, he's just come back from New York to Boston and he's still got that sad look on his face. Nice college girls, they have nice fat asses and everything. Jonathan's just sitting there mooning with these sad eyes hoping to look so sad they'll want to talk to him or feel attracted. …think he's some kinda artist. Oh, I've tried everything! I look sad naturally but I played it up. I got any mileage I could out of it. Since then I've stopped. Bein' in the Modern Lovers gave me more self confidence. So by the time I was 21 I stopped doing a lot of this mooning around shit. Also, the guitar tone changed and the volume dropped. Don't forget; looking sad and playing loud have a lot in common. They're both loud expressions. I wanted to be noticed when I walked into a room when I was 18. I would scratch myself right down my arms to be noticed. I put paintings in stores in Harvard Square when I was 16 and I would write my phone number on the back of them 'cause I wanted people to call me up and talk to me.

BGN - You painted?
JR - Yes. I wanted to talk to people! You see what I'm saying? I was desperate for people!

BGN - Is it that you couldn't find anyone like you out in Natick?
JR - That's right, yes. I could not find any people who understood me very well. I'm, in a way, proud that I went to such extremes. See I'm not a bit ashamed. I went to the extreme of playing on a stage knowing that I only knew two chords and didn't know how to tune a guitar. I didn't care. I wanted to talk to people.

BGN- Well that IS admirable.
JR - But I had no control over it. I had to do it, it was me. I had a passion. I wanted affection. I wanted respect. I wanted contact.

BGN - So in a sense what you're saying is you always were kind of different?
JR - Well I never thought I was different see. I thought it was what everyone wanted and some people admitted it and some didn't, dig?

BGN - When you were young you never had that feeling of "Oh boy I'm so different I can't stand it!"?
JR - Ah, a little but I got used to being kind of an outcast early. But I didn't feel that it was my fault. I felt different but not inferior because of it. And that's different. And I did notice as a 5 or 6 year old that I was unusual in that way. So that goes way back.

BGN - Well, what about William Blake, are you into his poetry?
JR - Well when I was in England one time I did a TV show and the people there cxompared me to William Blake. I didn't know too much about him then. Two people presented me with two books of his poetry. Well, I've gotten to like him since then. This TV show started with someone reciting his poetry and it was so beautiful to me that it made me cry. Right there on TV. It was "Little Lamb That Made Thee…."
(Jonathan starts to cry now and there's a long pause)... it was the way he rhymed and everything…I'm crying now just thinking about him…
(more silence while J. cries) was the way he rhymed.

BGN- What about your song "I'm a Little Dinosaur" and stuff; do you think they're childlike? Because that's what's said about Blake too.
JR - I'm an adult. I love life. These songs make me cry.

BGN - You like crying?
JR - I don't bother to like it or dislike it. I just cry.

BGN - A lot of people do say that your songs are childlike and are written for kids.
JR - But they're not. My songs are written for everyone. Let's put it this way: my songs aren't just written for adults like other rock'n'roll. I do like to include children.

BGN - What do you think of kids?
JR - I've played a lot for kids. I've played in day care centers. I have for years. I love playing for 10 month old babies. I also play in old age homes.

BGN - You have a real distinctive voice. You know this, right?
Jonathan shakes his head yes but won't open his mouth.

Jonathan Richman

BGN - Do you like it?
JR - I've gotten used to it.

BGN - What happened when you first heard it, like on a record?
JR - It was when I was in second grade. I was…mortified!!

BGN - Well, it couldn't have sounded so deep.
JR - Oh well, if you heard my voice in second grade you'd pick it out. It stood out. It always sounded like this.

BGN - So, Jonathan, do you think you're a real ham?
JR - Grade A, pure pork, U.S. #1.

BGN - I saw you in D.C. and you wore a white shirt, unbuttoned and tied high on your waist. Were you trying to look sexy?
JR - I was trying to look comfortable. Like I go through little fashion trends…my own, needless to say. No, I wanted to look romantic…you know, like one of those swashbuckler movies but not like a tease. Like Mutiny On The Bounty or something like that.

BGN - But when you take your shirt off on stage and you get cat calls from the audience Jonathan, you love it.
JR - Yes I do. But you know it gets hot up there! 105, 110! Some stages get real hot! Pause….Of course I've also worn a vest with no shirt when it was 35 degrees out so why lie about it. Face it, I'm a man from the word go.

BGN - Well Jonathan, here you are, you're not like I thought you'd be. You're not interested in Picasso or Cézannes like I thought. IS there anything you are particularly interested in?
JR - Yeah, a lot of things…if I could think of what they are. I can't think of 'em right now. We'll come back to it after a while. I must be interested in something.

BGN - You said the same thing in your Varulven interview and never came back to it.
JR - Well if I couldn't think of anything in 5 years I'm probably not interested in anything!"


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