Yesterday was also the birthday of Jonathan Richman, famed leader of the Modern Lovers, who is 63 this year. Richman’s existence came to my notice because John Cale covered today’s song on his 1975 album Helen of Troy. The version of the Modern Lovers who created this track, and who worked with Cale as producer to create demos in 1972, was already history by then. Jonathan Richman continues to this day, and his band is sometimes called the Modern Lovers, but it’s not the band on the original album, which included Jerry Harrison, later of Talking Heads, and David Robinson, later of The Cars.
So, though I knew this song, I knew it in Cale’s very insistent and much more abrasive version, with a vocal brusquer and edgier. Didn’t get around to hearing Richman’s take on it till much later—this century. That’s when I came across a used CD of The Modern Lovers album (which was first released in 1976), with bonus tracks, and picked it up and immediately took a liking to the laconic vocal stylings of Jonathan Richman.
There’s a very quirky, kid-like quality to Richman’s writing and singing—even more so after this album. Cale gave to the tracks he worked on that quality that Richman sought—comparable to the three-chord simplicity of many Velvet Underground tracks, but with a sonic richness that comes from the way the parts are brought together. It feels tense and neurotic, because, we might say, when a grown-up person sounds so kid-like—I’m avoiding “childlike” because, though some of his later songs are that, the songs on The Modern Lovers have more of a tough kid edge—we may say that he’s a bit “off.” Richman maintains a pose that makes these songs seem like the worldview of someone about 15 or 16, poised on the big vertiginous plunge into getting a driver’s license (like the song “Roadrunner”) and cruising, wishing the girls he wants to impress “could not resist his stare.”
The talent, ascribed to Picasso, that girls can’t resist his stare is perfect as a dream for that still underage but no longer a child view of things. Inarticulate, awkward, just wanting that the very manifestation of desire and presence would tip the scales in his favor. To try to pick up girls and not get called an asshole—is there any quality more desirable? Any greater proof of manliness or savoir faire or whatever the magic open sesame might be that gets women to “turn the color of an avocado” at one’s mere approach? The song is made even more charming by the little asides: “Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole / Not like you” or “Not in New York.”
Which is a cool way of bringing together the savvy of the artist—Picasso—and the savvy of New York, where the art scene does thrive and where, we imagine, any real artist would immediately be appreciated and, of course, get laid all he wants. To put things even more in perspective, Richman (but not Cale) points out that Picasso was “only 5 foot 3.” That fact and the notion that Picasso drives an Eldorado, a Cadillac and the status car of the cruising burgher, are funny bits that characterize the singer and his idea of what makes a man a man.
The song’s groove has the relentless feel of the horny guy doggedly stalking his babe of choice even as she continues to elude him. Or maybe he’ll manage to make her, and “Be not a schmuck / Be not obnoxious / Be not bell bottom bummer or an asshole.” It seems unlikely, but there’s always another chance. This is nerd rock, even more so than that of Talking Heads, which, come to think of it, Lou Reed’s Velvet’s music could have been if Lou hadn’t been so determined to sample the Wild Side. Think of a song like “Lisa Says” with its “why am I so shy” musings, or even how awkward the smack buyer feels in “Waiting for My Man,” or the jibes at losers of the singer of “Pablo Picasso” variety in “Run Run Run.” One imagines that Richman may well have seen himself in the purveyor of “The Gift,” Waldo Jeffers.
Anyway, it’s springtime, time for flowers and bugs and birds to return, and time for guys to try to pick up girls and get called assholes.
OK, this is it.