Jo Jo Redux

You know Jonathan Richman: pie-eyed guy in a striped sailor shirt, goofy looking, did the Stubby Kaye/Nat King Cole narrating minstrel bit in There’s Something About Mary. Sings straight from the adenoids, accompanied by his acoustic guitar and a snare drummer, either plaintive love songs so earnest they can make you wince or kiddie songs that no self-respecting kid would stomach.

He’s plied this shtick for nearly 30 years now, and every once in a while — about half of Back in Your Life from 1979, a few songs from 1992’s I, Jonathan, the entirety of the great 1983 Jonathan Sings! — he gets it just right: a new set of songs that marries his knack for childish wordplay and lyricism to adult subjects. This handful of records — and his absurdly enthusiastic stage shows — sustain a cult that will put up with his worst (and he can make your skin crawl) to get at his utterly unique best.

From anyone else, I’d find his act tiresome. Who’d want to listen to anything a 52 year old who calls himself “Jo Jo” has to say? It’s easy to miss the courage and aggression behind his stance, the fact that he came to his arrested development the hard way. For years he faced off angry fans who wanted to hear his “real music”: the demos, produced by John Cale in ’72 and released years later as The Modern Lovers, that guaranteed him his cult, although he refused to play them in concert at all until recently. As often as not, they’d come in yelling for “Pablo Picasso” and leave singing “The Ice Cream Man.”

Some history, then. Sometime around ’69, a teenaged Jonathan heard — and then went straight to New York to meet — the Velvet Underground. He was self-consciously straight, in the late-’60s meaning of the term: he loathed drugs, saw hippies as conformist cowards and celebrated the urban landscape for its brash, tacky energy right when the counterculture was moving towards pastoralism. By yoking the Velvets’ static rhythms and distorted, minimalist rock and roll to his deeply unfashionable world view, he found a way to toughen his message and, in the process, helped to create punk rock. If he had accompanied his early songs with the folky strumming and doo wop harmonies of his later period, he’d be remembered now as that wimpy singer-songwriter with short hair and the funny song about Picasso never getting called an asshole. But with Jerry Harrison’s snarling, smoggy organ and Richman’s two chord fuzz barrage prodded by the taut, charging rhythm section of Ernie Brooks and David Robinson, his music was as aggressive (“What Goes On”- and “Sister Ray”-streamlined and kicking) as his lyrics.

And make no mistake, The Modern Lovers’ early songs were affronts to the hip pieties of their time. “I’m Straight” is no longer startling as a gesture; since Jonathan invented the stance, preppy geeks like Harrison’s later employer David Byrne have taken it to the bank. But the performance makes it clear that there was no irony involved. “I’m certainly not stoned,” Jonathan sneers, dripping contempt for “Hippie Johnny,” that trendy guy who all the girls think is deep, and his band (which comprised three hippie Johnnies in leather pants, long hair and, one assumes, discreet drug habits) answers back with a rush of noise that underlines his frustration and makes the gesture feel heroic rather than merely petty. And in the era of “Father — I want to kill you,” what could be more subversive than a song that sounded like the Velvet Underground at their most amphetamine-crazed yet featured the catchy hook line, “But I still love my parents”?

(While recording their demos in Los Angeles, Jonathan Richman befriended Gram Parsons, a hippie Johnny for the ages. After his overdose, The Modern Lovers played his wake. Just imagine it: Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, hell, maybe even Keith Richards if he wasn’t getting his blood replaced that day, all those cocaine cowboys gathered to mourn the passing of the man who invented country rock then pissed his life away just as the zeitgeist was catching up with him. Who takes the stage? A goofy naïf named Jo Jo and his blaring proto-punk band, spitting out, “If these guys are really that great, why can’t they take this world, and take it straight?” Everyone has their dream concert, the gig they’d give anything to have attended: Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot, Dylan at Newport. This one’s mine.)

The legend around these recordings is that they were too far ahead of their time for release. In fact, the Modern Lovers were the subject of a bidding war among the major labels: “Roadrunner” was obviously a huge hit waiting to happen. However, when the time came to re-record the material for a real debut, Jonathan had started his descent into infantilism. The label backed off when he agreed to record the older tunes but wouldn’t play them live. The band trickled away (Harrison to Talking Heads, Robinson to the Cars) as he insisted that they turn down or turn off entirely.

The demos sat on the shelf until Beserkley, a California independent, signed Richman’s new, infinitely sillier version of the band. They purchased the demos and assembled nine of them into the first version of The Modern Lovers in 1976, just before the release of his first record by the new band.

This first version of the record is what made Richman’s reputation, partly due to cover versions by John Cale and the Sex Pistols. Perfectly paced (especially the second side, which sandwiches two stunning ballads between the band’s three fastest rockers), it’s flawed only in its omissions. “I’m Straight” is absent, as are the rest of the second set of demos recorded by Kim Fowley after the Cale sessions. Two of Fowley’s songs showed up in 1980 on a Warner Brothers sampler and then ten more (mostly badly recorded variant versions of the Cale material) on Mohawk’s 1981 Original Modern Lovers. When Rhino released the Beserkley album on CD in 1989, they added the three most crucial Fowley songs, including “I’m Straight.”

The British label Castle has just reissued the album again, this time doubling the length of the original by adding eight tracks. Included are the three extras from the Rhino version, the two best cuts from Original Modern Lovers (with vastly improved sound) and great alternate versions of “Someone I Care About,” “Modern World” and “Roadrunner.”

This is as close to the perfect version of the material any noncompletist could hope for. It captures every great moment they recorded in the studio (Rounder’s Precise Modern Lovers Order adds some sloppy but exciting live material, including several songs that remain unavailable otherwise) and makes the best argument possible for their status as one of the greatest American bands. My only complaint is pure niggling: there’s a gently loping version of “Roadrunner” from a Berserkley compilation that ends with an astonishing stream of babble — Greil Marcus quotes it verbatim in Lipstick Traces — that would have ended the album on the perfect transitional note to his future work.

These recordings are so powerful they’ve bought Jonathan 30 years of good will from me. He’ll clearly never hit these heights again, not as long as he settles for bands that won’t talk back when he tells them to shut up and turn down. But as idiotic as he can be, there’s something inspiring in his determination to follow his muse, even if it leads him to sing odes to chewing gum wrappers. I’ve seen him perform a dozen times, and I’d be there tonight if he were playing. I always come away from his shows a little depressed that he hasn’t lived up to that first album while being stunned (and a little embarrassed) by his courage: he’s so willing to expose himself, to say something gauche and awkward, to make an ass of himself. Which is to say that he has, in his doggedly idiosyncratic way, delivered on every promise The Modern Lovers made.