Jonathan Richman makes music for any day worth living– which is to say, all of them. Often camouflaged in naivete (don’t fall for it), Richman’s observational and deliberate lyrics cross the street to avoid cliche while gently stepping over convention’s curb. Jonathan and his band the Modern Lovers arrived in Boston precisely on the universe’s schedule in the early ’70s, first-generation descendants of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, and today, still performing into his seventh decade, Richman continues to be what he always was– a singer looking inward and outward for songs to sing. For his birthday on May 16th, here are five tracks to look back on while you drive forward.
1. “Roadrunner” (1976)
I’ve been compiling my own personal “100 Greatest Songs of All Time” list for years (it’s hard, man), and “Roadrunner” might just be Top Ten. There may be other songs that capture the teenage thrill of cruisin’ the suburban outer rim (or in my case the rural route) all amped up on rock n’ roll radio and gasoline freedom– but there aren’t (and will never be) any better. It doesn’t even matter that your parents would only let you take the station wagon as far as the Stop N’ Shop (or in my case, the Bait N’ Tackle). You can manage a lot in three verses n’ a chorus.
2. “Summer Feeling” (1983)
We used to get three whole months to dance through sprinklers, sunburn in the dirt, get ice cream-sticky, and discover our new favorite FM anthem (usually from the soundtrack to the latest blockbuster– I’m talkin’ to you Seal!), and now, even as an adult, the nine odd weeks and some change just lacks magic. But if you’re quick and open to it, you can snatch some of it back through freshly mowed centipede, charcoal smoke, and that extra hour when the sun isn’t ready to call it a day yet either.
3. “Corner Store” (1990)
I just recently discovered Jonathan Goes Country, a gem of an album laced with hillbilly classics, modern twang, and the kind of nostalgia bottling only Richman seems capable of. Jonathan creates havens out of brick & mortar, elevating average to Olympian in short strokes of hindsight and ghost smells while giving in to the closest approximation of hate he can muster toward the new mall as he sings, “I spot a trend that has got to stop, and I want them to put back that old corner store.” Change, necessary and inevitable as it may be, can go pound sand.
4. “Tandem Jump” (1992)
In the early days of my daughter’s first steps, this was the latest dance sensation sweeping the kitchen. I’d clap along and make ridiculous faces (you have to or it won’t work) and get extra ready for the “Tandem Jump”… Which we rarely accomplished, but so what.
5. “Ice Cream Man” (1977)
Richman’s superpower is finding the amazing angle of everything. He doesn’t make something spectacular, he just clues you into the wonder that was always there. And you know what? You don’t have to have been bitten by a radioactive spider or escape Krypton’s red sun or build a Swiss Army suit or say a magic word to get that superpower. This eight-minute rendition of “Ice Cream Man” from Modern Lovers Live threatens to never end, and truth be told, I’m always a little sad when it does.