The last time Jonathan Richman came through town, an RFT writer who shall remain nameless concocted a complex theory about Richman's role in the film There's Something About Mary. This theory revolved around the idea that Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins were making a visual metaphor about the perils of relationships as they perched in the tree outside Mary's apartment. Swaying above the ground, assured of a painful fall if something went wrong, Jonathan sang his melancholy song about stumbling through love's pitfalls, and the precarious nature of his location mirrored the risks of extending your love to another person -- or some crap like that.
When asked whether he agreed with this oh-so-clever theory and his role in crafting it, Richman was more than happy to put things in their proper perspective: "Here you see this movie with people pulling out their things and farting all over the place, and you're gonna look for metaphors like that? Here people are vomiting all over the universe and making gigantic farts, and you're looking for metaphors about relationships? What are you thinking out there? No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I have no idea, but I doubt that it had anything to do with that. I don't know what they were thinking. I don't know what you're thinking."
Yeah, Richman has a way of cutting to the quick of things, whether it's in the confines of a crisply sketched song about the joys of ice cream or in setting straight another dewy-eyed journalist. But then again, that is his forte. His albums are deceptively simple affairs, packed chock-a-block with shining gemlike songs about matters of the heart. His 2001 release Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eyeshadow explores the familiar terrain of relationships, but Richman's subtle, often elegant guitar work and arrangements, as well as his finely honed lyrics, slice through cliché to reveal old ideas in a new light. "She laughs just like you do when you're five years old," he sings in the title track, capturing in one well-turned phrase the exuberance love grants. "When demolishing a building brings the scent of 1890 to the breeze," from his song "Springtime in New York," touches on both destruction and creation to sum up the spirit of the city in its too-brief private moments. He offers the plain but heartfelt advice "But for a better tomorrow, couples must argue, couples must fight" in "Couples Must Fight," acknowledging that relationships are not built on happy walks and stolen moments alone.
Richman's ability to conjure depth and truth in the briefest of phrases, the simplest of words, implies a craftsman's attention to detail and a strong work ethic as a writer. But Richman maintains that his best work comes when he just makes it up: "I make up songs -- sometimes I make up verses -- just whatever. That's why I say a lot of times the stage is the best place for me to make up stuff."
This love of making it up as he goes along results in a live show that's spontaneous and freewheeling, and judging from his past appearances at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, one of the last great audience-participation shows. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, his disarming grin and drummer Tommy Larkins' snare/cymbal/tambourine setup, Richman leads the room through sing-alongs, outbursts of modern dance and the occasional Spanish-language version of one of his older numbers. The evening is conducted without so much forethought as even a playlist, and Richman wouldn't have it any other way. "It just works better," he says, "especially since I make up stuff a lot and change keys and just mess around with everything. With two guys, you don't gotta practice."
And you know how bad practicing is. "Oh, it's terrible," he says mischievously. "I tried it once -- it was horrible. You wouldn't like it: Don't do it. There's no need to take all this so seriously. What's the next question?"
Richman gives part of the credit for his show to the inscrutable Larkins and his ability to keep up with his bandleader's sudden flights of fancy. It takes an accomplished drummer to know when the chorus breaks are coming in an impromptu seventeen-minute version of "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar," but after more than 1,000 shows with Richman, Larkins has gone beyond telepathic. "He's done it so much, he's sick of it," Richman says, "and they're all in 4/4 time mostly, so you can't screw up too bad. He's just playing a bunch of stuff back there and it all works out somehow."
Richman takes advantage of another break in the conversation to talk up Michael Moore's new film, Bowling for Columbine. One of the questions Moore raises in the film is "Can a person be influenced to action by music?" Richman's body of work has its share of depressing moments, but it also offers joy and delight. Richman acknowledges that music is a powerful force but says that to claim it makes people take certain actions denies the power of the listener: "You can't predict. You can't just say, 'Well, since this song is about this subject matter, then the person is going to act in such a way.' There's no logic to it.... Some music is depressing to some people; that's why I say it's not cut and dried. For example, my own music, some people say, 'Oh, that was a really happy song you wrote,' and I say thanks, except I'm thinking they don't realize how sad that song was. I mean, who's to say what's depressing music? You don't even know. Sometimes you can tell, but sometimes you can't. It might be depressing for you, but it might make someone else really happy. I don't think people need to worry about that so much. People already had a spirit before they turned on the record player. Nothing can really take over, I don't think. It's just a record. If you don't like it, just turn it off."
It's that inner spirit that Richman has been singing about for years, that feeling inside that makes you fall in love, makes you want to sing or dance or shout or lock yourself in your room and listen to Velvet Underground records for hours on end -- that's what Jonathan Richman records feed. Maybe he can't coerce or shape that inner spirit, but he can certainly nourish it.