The very definition of a cult artist, Jonathan Richman has released 19 albums since 1976, with only his first (which was actually recorded in 1971) of significant interest to those beyond his small but dedicated following. And the weird thing is that his first album, The Modern Lovers (recorded as a band of the same name, with the Velvet Underground's John Cale producing), despite being widely regarded as a classic, is not at all representative of the music Richman has made since and has, in fact, been largely dismissed and disowned by its creator.
The Modern Lovers boasted one of the great rock-and-roll singles in the form of Richman's A.M.-radio homage "Roadrunner" (in which he claims to be "in love with modern moonlight"), along with skewed proto-punk like "Pablo Picasso" and "She Cracked." But you can catch a glimpse of Richman's attitude toward this early music on "Monologue About Bermuda," a live cut from the new compilation Action Packed. Reminiscing about performing in Bermuda with the Modern Lovers, Richman remembers seeing a corny 40-something calypso band entertaining the crowd at a club they were also playing and concluding that the Lovers were stiff and too serious and "snotty."
Soon thereafter Richman abandoned the dark side for sunny, innocent (sometimes almost unbearably so), often acoustic-based rock that he later claimed (accurately) had an "outdoor-backyard flavor." Richman's first solo sides can best be heard on the 1986 compilation The Beserkley Years, which opens with a few songs from The Modern Lovers but mostly showcases the recess-ready goofiness of kiddie songs like "Ice Cream Man" and "Abominable Snowman In the Market" and the naked sincerity of songs like "Affection" and "Important In Your Life." Richman arguably reached his pinnacle with the 1983 album Jonathan Sings, a playful and sometimes quite moving record that captures every bit of the summer-camp magic he is perpetually grasping for with absolutely none of the cloying aftertaste.
In later years, Richman has probably been most visible for his role as a sort of Greek chorus in the Farrelly Brothers' film There's Something About Mary. But Richman has never really slowed down much as a recording or performance artist. Released this week, Action Packed: The Best of Jonathan Richman offers a compelling look at late-period Jojo (as fans affectionately call him). The record culls 22 tracks from the seven records Richman cut for Rounder from 1988 to 1995 and shows Richman in experimental mode: Tracks from Modern Lovers '88 showcase an acoustic trio that harkens back to doo-wop and Bo Diddley, while Jonathan Richman and Having a Party With Jonathan Richman feature Richman unaccompanied. The titles tell the story on cuts from Jonathan Goes Country and Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar!, where Richman explores country music and the Spanish language, respectively. But best of all are two songs from I, Jonathan, which see him back with a band in full electric-rock mode.
Action Packed contains plenty of Richman weirdness and charm. He falls for goth chicks on "Vampire Girls" ("I get intrigued when women look sinister/Call me superficial/But I stare at those vampire girls"), road-trips to "Reno" (he doesn't have reservations but still hopes to catch Tom Jones), and ponders geographic differences on "Circle I" ("They don't say 'farm,' they say 'ranch' out West").
But the topic that emerges over the course of the compilation is Richman's call for a change in the way people spend their leisure time, one that's righteous on one level but also gets a little pushy in the way he constantly comes back to it. The title cut pleas for music he can dance to ("If the music's gonna move me/It's gotta have a beat/I don't wanna sit down all night/I've gotta feel it in my feet") and parties where people don't just sit around and talk, while the similar "Cappuccino Bar" chastises patrons "inside talkin'" when he wants to be "outside rockin'." "Parties in the U.S.A." calls for more of them over a sturdy acoustic rhythm that consciously borrows from "Louie Louie" and "Hang On Sloopy," while on "I Was Dancing In the Lesbian," Richman, in my favorite rhyme of the album, leaves a straight bar where people stand around "drinking sips" and goes to the title dive, where people can "shake their hips."
When Richman plays Tuesday night at the Hi-Tone Café, we'll get a chance to see if he can still put his music where his mouth is. If you can leave your world-weariness at the door -- or ignore the simpering simpleness that sometimes undercuts Richman's best work -- a Jonathan Richman show is an invitation to unleash your inner child. Richman is sure going to release his. In the self-written liner notes to Action Packed, Richman, writing in the third person, says that when he was 18 he decided he wanted to make music for a living and that "he promised himself that if it ever became work instead of fun he'd quit that day. And if it ever does, he will."