Songwriter and professional eccentric Jonathan Richman—with or without his Modern Lovers—has always been a sort of poster child for arrested development. Sure, his ’70s garage-rock outings and Velvet Underground affiliations have earned “JoJo” the dubious “Godfather of Punk” moniker, even though his persona is more akin to children’s crooner Raffi than, say, Darby Crash.
Despite the gritty beginning, he became the troubadour who wants to play nice. With his slight stature, unruly curls and baggy suit jackets, Richman has always looked like a little boy wearing his dad’s clothes, which is exactly how a middle-aged guy who’s known to crawl around a stage while singing about little dinosaurs should look. That is, of course, when he’s not dropping his guitar to scissor kick like he’s a proto-punk Pee Wee Herman.
Despite being in his late fifties and sporting a salt-and-pepper goatee, Richman’s Peter Pan persona might be more relevant than ever: These days cultural critics are giving youngsters endless grief for refusing to drop their videogame controllers long enough to take up adult activities like getting saddled with a sub-prime mortgage and squeezing out a few pink monkeys. In a recent column published in The Dallas Morning News, writer Kay Hymowitz dealt young, single men the most recent blow, dubbing them the “child man” whose emotional development stalled somewhere during eighth grade gym class— while women are taking over the world. Interestingly enough, a few months prior to Hymowitz’s piece, Details writer Simon Dumenco chastised men for dating the surplus of women flagrantly shunning maturity by subscribing to Teen Vogue, relying on the excessive employment of emoticons and using the word “like” as a verbal placeholder.
Richman is kind of an unspoken advocate for those pushing 30 and beyond who eschew PTA meetings and
Neighborhood Watch for weekly pickup games of kickball and appointments to visit our favorite comic book store. His discography is also the perfect soundtrack for the frustrations, pratfalls and histrionics of eternal teenagers’ emotionally retarded attempts at love. Given his gentle demeanor, in the 1998 track “I’m So Confused” he makes an overwhelming fear of commitment and intimacy sound pretty damn endearing. On “Abdul and Cleopatra,” off 1979’s Back in Your Life, Richman chronicles the emotional unavailability resulting from idealizing the unattainable: The Abdul character spends a year cleaning his humble tent in the hopes that the most famous and desired woman in the world will come to nest. Or, in JoJo’s words, “Abdul yearns for Cleopatra…Abdul takes her or he takes none.” Delusion is only romantic when you’re too young to know better.
On the track “True Love Is Not Nice,” JoJo pretty much sums up the quiet pathos of his 30-plus-year career, lamenting that “…it brings up pain from when you were 5 years old.”
That it does, JoJo. That it does.
March 4 & 5 (with Vic Chesnutt), Music Hall of Williamsburg, 66 N. 6th St. (betw. Kent & Wythe Aves.), B’klyn, 212-260-4700; 9, $15.
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