A real American idol
As reluctant as he is, could Jonathan Richman be America’s greatest pop star?
A lot of people don’t watch American Idol because they get too embarrassed for the contestants. Especially in the early episodes, when the infamous panel is still separating the wheat from the chaff—cutting down (and often breaking down) with extreme forthrightness contestants with even the slightest weakness in their game. The worst aren’t the bad singers. The worst are those who can sing but are trying way too hard to act like whatever they think the judges will like. You can smell the insecurity/insincerity, and the judges can smell the fear/blood.
Upon first introduction to a Jonathan Richman performance, it’s also hard not to feel a little embarrassed. As he sings about how “if they keep bein’ snobs about it/ They ain’t gonna get what they wish they had/ and that’s affection,” it’s easy to imagine someone in the audience shifting uncomfortably on his barstool as Richman punctuates the sentiment by earnestly nodding at him as if to say, “you know it’s true.”
But as Chico’s Duffy’s Tavern prepares to welcome back its favorite son (-in-law: Richman is married to Duffy’s co-owner Roger Montalbano’s daughter Nicole) for one of his regular, anticipated appearances, his initiated show-goers know that those first pangs of embarrassment are not being felt for the man on stage at all. The mid-song dance breaks and unabashed sentimentality well up within the fan on the stool, embarrassed for himself for wasting so much time not being more like, well, Jonathan.
And that’s when he’s hooked you. Every successive exposure to his brand of clear-eyed human observation chips away at the protective exterior that most of us hide ourselves within, and from there the deceptively masterful performer has connected on the deepest of levels with his audience.
“And it brings up hurt from when you were five years old”
—"True Love Is Not Nice”
In a recent telephone interview I badgered the legendary troubadour with questions about his new live DVD Take Me to the Plaza (on Vapor Records, filmed by former Chicoan Miles Montalbano, who’s Richman’s brother-in-law). Richman plainly explained, “I don’t tour in support of stuff. … We are doing it just to play.”
And as I pressed him on how he went about making set lists from his expansive canon of music, he politely responded with the directness of someone who has been asked these same kinds of music biz questions a thousand times over: “I just play.”
Of course that’s the secret to his success. Throughout 30 or so years of consistent musical output, from the pioneering group Modern Lovers to the love songs in There’s Something About Mary, Richman has kept his head down and played through it all.
“What’s been a through line through all the incarnations is his charm,” shared Roger Montalbano, “his sincerity, the feeling that he has for life and the joy of living.”
A friend of mine, who had just seen Richman for the first time, recently likened his performance to that of a shaman. In the sense that his audience goes through a rite of passage, with Richman leading the way to a more open, no-bullshit way of living, the tag sort of fits.
So, back to American Idol.
When Simon takes the time to actually extend the courtesy of real advice to dismissed contestants he’ll usually tell them he doesn’t believe they’re being honest. In that sense, I’d love to see what they’d make of the pointed and unadorned delivery of Richman as he sings from his "Let Her Go Into the Darkness": "Well, she’s back with her old boyfriend/ he don’t challenge her, he don’t contend with her." If you ignore the fickle, flavor-of-the-moment pop climate and judge him in terms of not hiding from the world and projecting a real person, Jonathan Richman nearly stands alone as an American idol.