Bye bye old world
Some things are ephemeral. Take Lucky the Beaver, the cartoon rodent that made a brief appearance in the panels of Jack Elrod’s comic strip Mark Trail before getting unceremoniously returned to the wild. “Soon he sees a growth of aspen trees,” Elrod wrote before adding this grammatical marvel: “And he also sees other beavers and possibly new friends.” Bye bye, Lucky.
Other things, like Jonathan Richman, are more permanent.
Richman, the one-time frontman of the Boston’s marvelous Modern Lovers, has been a Northern Californian for decades. For a long time, Richman lived in Grass Valley, so for a while we got to claim him as a semi-local, but after the checks came in from his performances in the Farrelly Brothers films Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary, he was able to move to San Francisco.
But Richman really is a citizen of the world, which he demonstrated at Marilyn’s on K on Saturday night, breezily quoting from three Romantic languages (French, Italian and Spanish—apologies to fans of Portuguese and Romanian) in addition to English. Some might call it “showing off.” In one song, “Let Her Go Into the Darkness,” Richman swerved between all four languages. Others, like the old Modern Lovers’ monochord punk standard “Pablo Picasso,” sounded like they’d been reworked to sound right at home at Tapa the World.
Singing in his deadpan voice over an acoustic Spanish guitar, Richman was accompanied by longtime drummer Tommy Larkins, whose finessed beats bore the imprimatur of an old jazz pro. Now, Mr. Richman may not be Enrico Caruso, but his voice does have a certain lived-in charm, and sometimes he really nails a tune. But after a while the songs all start sounding pretty similar, or at least the chord progressions do, to his opener, the sweet “Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow.”
Some musicians get petrified in amber as they mature, while others become bored with the old one-four-five and begin augmenting their playing with nifty jazz comps and other sweetening of technique. Richman has followed the latter path.
One moment was especially poignant. Richman sang “Old World,” with its waxing rhapsodic about ’50s apartment houses bleak in the 1970s sun. “I still love the old world,” he warbled. “I wanna keep my place in the old world, keep my place in the arcane language.” But that’s not how the song ends; it finishes with the line “All right, now we say bye bye old world, gotta help the new world.”
One block west, the clothing store Joe Sun and Co. had closed its doors earlier that day, forcing dozens of fashion-reticent locals to scramble for a comfortably funky alternative to shopping mall haberdashers. Over at the corner of 10th and J streets, the venerable Rodney’s Liquors was being transformed into the, ahem, slightly more pretentious Parlaré Euro Lounge, while across 10th Street an alien spore was busy working its sinister transformation inside 928 J Street, once a building that housed nonprofits, soon to be a chic hotel.
Midway through Richman’s show, Marilyn’s was invaded by a large, loud party of suits stumbling into the wrong bar. They soon left, and for a brief moment our old world triumphed over their new one.