By Erin Sherbert
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That song was the first cut off The Modern Lovers, a record that became a myth before it was even released. In 1971, after a brief sally into New York where he sought out the Velvet Underground and a few early incarnations of the Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman and his band -- keyboardist Jerry Harrison, drummer David Robinson, and bassist Ernie Brooks -- took the Velvet's thick, warm hum out of New York and into the suburbs of Boston. It was the dawn of the age of glam, but the Modern Lovers didn't hang around scuzzy cross-dressing speed freaks. Richman sang about what he knew best: girls, shopping-mall culture, silly hippies. At the time, not too many people were doing this.
"Music that was going on after '68 was pretty stupid and pretentious," says Richman fan Calvin Johnson. Johnson, who sings in Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic, among other bands, is one of the current proponents of the innocent geek rock Richman pioneered on his Beserkley albums. In fact, Johnson's career and his 15-year-old record label, K Records of Olympia, Wash., probably wouldn't exist save for Richman's influence. "He stripped it back, built on the foundations of '50s rock 'n' roll, not worrying about whether or not he sounded as good as Traffic."
The band got some demo money from Warner Bros. and A&M in 1972 to record with the Velvet Underground's John Cale, Richman pal Allan Mason, and Kim Fowley, a musician and writer who's produced and written for everyone from the Runaways to the Byrds. "It was a nerd version of Led Zeppelin," Fowley says now. The suits at Warners never got past the "nerd" part of Fowley's equation and shelved the record.
Kaufman, who'd started Beserkley in 1973, took the recordings off Warners' hands and cobbled the songs together into an album. Finally released in 1976, The Modern Lovers -- a crucial, thrilling bridge between the Velvet Underground and the blare of punk in the Summer of Hate a year later -- has in the years since found itself one of the most acclaimed albums of all time and been given an undeniable place in rock's canon. The Sex Pistols recorded "Roadrunner" for their mock documentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle; Harrison joined the Talking Heads; Robinson went to the Cars.
But the album was commercially ignored at the time. The original band had broken up and Kaufman persuaded Richman to come to Berkeley and Beserkley. It was at this point that Jonathan Richman reinvented himself, devolving into what Fowley calls a "lovable human elf bouncing around on a pogo stick."
On the next four records he made for Beserkley, Richman killed the drone and geeked out. The instrumentation was quieted, almost acousticized. His voice, always adenoidal, lost its defiance and became cloying and warm, in an off-pitch sort of way. He sang about the "Rockin' Rockin' Leprechauns," the "Ice Cream Man," and the Martian, Martians. Live, during "I'm a Little Dinosaur" (every other song seemed to have a cute, diminutive "little" in the title), he crawled around on his hands and knees.
Almost everyone around him pined for the old, original Modern Lovers sound. "We ran Beserkley around a kitchen table," says Kaufman. "We're sitting around that table every day, and every day everyone would say [to Richman], 'Why don't you sing what sells? No one wants to hear about butterflies.' " Richman gave them "Hey There Little Insect."
On 1979's Back in Your Life, probably the most substantive and important of his work during this time, Richman returned to a world where Sesame Street and Zoom didn't play on perpetual 24-hour rerun. On songs like the heroic title track, "Affection," and "(She's Gonna) Respect Me" -- where he actually announces, "I'm a man now, not a boy" -- he sings about adult subjects, rejection and emotional consolation. Nobody, not fans, critics, or even those who knew him, really understood how and why he changed his persona.
But there's plenty of evidence -- 25 years' worth -- that the hateful teen was the real aberration. And there are theories. Maybe Richman was simply tired of his old songs. Maybe he just wasn't cut out to be the founder of punk rock. Or maybe his first records -- sincere, deliberate attacks against what his audience expected or wanted -- are the ultimate proof that punk is more attitude than sound. Or maybe he realized something extremely personal about his own life that he felt he had to answer to in his art. "He wasn't as bitter and pubescent as he was when he wrote some of those wonderful, wonderful songs," says Allan Mason. "Constantly, it was a 'turn it down' thing. He wanted to have his words heard."
Richman has answered the bitterness question a few times. In "Affection" he sings about changing from an embittered teen into a young man filled with childlike awe. "But then I relaxed a little/ And I met more folks who liked me/ And they helped me to reach out and give/ And that helped me to get more of affection/ And that helped me to live."