BGN Interview Issue #16 1980
Just before his new tour and after a
long stay out of the public eye, Jonathan granted us his ONLY East Coast interview.
The following took place on Friday the 13th June, 1980 and we think you'll
find out a lot of interesting things about Jonathan & we're happy to be able
to bring them to you….
BGN - So, you've been living up in Maine?
JR - Yes
BGN - Up in the woods, right?
JR - I was living in a little
house in a harbor by some friends. It wasn't that I like harbors so much,
there were friends there too. See, what I like is silence.
BGN - Now you'll be moving back into the
city though, right?
JR - I'm doing shows right now so I'm just staying at peoples' houses from
day to day.
BGN - What about your tour? You're gonna
be driving across country?
JR - Yeah, me, Billy Cole and Cathy are gonna drive to Delaware, Maryland
then go to Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and Bloomington,
Indiana. Then we're gonna fly to L.A. and San Francisco.
BGN - Every time you go on tour we never
know what to expect from you. So what about this tour?BGN - Well you have a new album coming
JR - Frankly, I never know what to expect
JR - Yes, it's
called Jonathan Richman Sings.
BGN - What kind of album is it gonna
be? Electric or acoustic? Now, I know you're playing electric guitar on this
JR - Well, in honor
of this album I'm playing electric on it. I don't play acoustic on it. And
this tour I'm bringing my electric guitar because I like what I can do with
an electric guitar.
BGN - Like the tour, is it gonna be just
you up there?
Oh there's different people on it. Some of the things have a whole sax section
on it, some of it has 16 strings with a harp player who used to play in Peter
Pan movies. So we've got allkindsa things.
BGN - What are some of the songs?
JR - "Stop the Car I'm Getting
Out", "Baby We Can't Go Wrong" and old Bing Crosby song called "Let's Take
the Long Way Home", that's the one with the strings on it. Then "Not Yet Three"
which is where I talk about things from a two year old's point of view. There's
"The Fenway, Where I Dream My Dreams".
BGN - In a lot of your songs you're inspired
by nature, like "Hey There Little Insect".
JR - I was scared, in 1973, by insects. I always
was a little, so I figured I should talk to them to help myself be not afraid
of 'em and if little kids heard it maybe they wouldn't be afraid of 'em. So
I just figured I'm gonna realize that they got little hearts inside 'em too.
BGN - "Summer Morning" what about that?
It's an incredible song. You can just picture walking through the woods and
feeling the breeze on you.
JR - I do too! I feel like someone else did it when I listen to it. You know
how that song was done? We did a little thing at practice one day. I said
to someone "Give me a time of day." And they said morning. I said "Give me
a location." And they said something. "Give me a noun." And someone said 'envelope',
and we didn't use that. Then I said "Leroy, give me a chord progression."
BGN - And the song "Afternoon"? I don't
understand the "I am, I am" part.
JR - I'm not proud of the way that turned out. Sometimes I would
see the trees and they would seem to say something to me. The closest I cold
come was they seemed to say "I am, I am". It was intended to be real simply…you
know when its real quiet in the middle of a field but you can just hear something.
I've heard things speak to me, a little. The American Indians have known this
for hundreds of years but I'm just becoming aware of it.
BGN - What about your song "Affection".
You treat affection like a really concrete thing, like this table. It's just
so important to you, right?
JR - It's THE MOST. It's numero uno. I'm
saying people can starve! It's concrete, yeah, like food. People can die….
BGN - I saw you do "My Love Is Like a
Flower" at Cantone's once. When you were singing it, it seemed to me that
tears were welling up in your eyes.
JR - Sure. Many of my songs have
always made me cry. It's just like my movies. I love James Stewart movies
because they make me cry. My favorite moment is when I start to cry and the
audience does too. It can happen with most any song. I've cried singing "Roadrunner"
…any song that gives me a true feeling when I'm singing it. It's feeling.
BGN - Emotions are a very big thing with
JR - It's the
point. Feelings are the point of the show.
BGN - That's like when you write your
songs and perform them. You're not thinking of showing off your talents as
a guitarist as much as you're thinking about each note evoking a certain feeling,
each chord makes you feel a certain way.
JR - Yeah, that's it. See I wanna…..(Jonathan starts strumming his guitar,
making beautifully sad chords…hoping we'd understand.)…It's hard to put it
to words but you know what I'm doing right now. I use it as a mood setter.
BGN - That sounds so sad though.
JR - But it's beautiful isn't it?
BGN - Yeah.
JR - Sadness, to me, when it's beautiful leads to happiness. Sometimes I feel
both at the same time. There's something haunting in beautiful sadness. Well,
it thrills me. Sometimes I get so sad it almost breaks my heart but I love
it. I wouldn't trade it. And that's why I can be so happy when I'm happy.
You can't take one without the other. In a way it's feeling that counts not
whether it's happy or sad.
BGN - Jonathan, how come in everything
you do you never follow the normal flow or the normal logic? In 1970 when
all the folkies were making money and getting airplay you're playing loud
rock'n'roll. As the music scene gets louder and more electrified you do just
the opposite. Where do you get your direction from? Why do this when everyone
else is doing something so different?
JR - Well, what moved me to start
playin' was The Velvet Underground…and the Stooges too. Both of these acts
really inspired me.
BGN - When's this?
JR - '68, '69. The Velvet Underground was
first in '67. But I have fun being contrary too. Always have but I also just
play what I like.
BGN - What made you go through this progression
of less and less noise?
JR - I got calmer. I've been growing up, simply. Loud tones are
good for getting out hostilities and aggressions. I'm not as defensive as
I was when I was 19 or 20.
BGN - What kind of music do you listen
JR- - I listen to
just a few songs and listen to them over and over again. Like "Blueberry Sweet"
by The Chandeliers which was made in 1956. "Down In Cuba" by the Royal Holidays
from, like, '57. Then I listen to old Diablos from '54, '55, '56.
BGN- You have a strange rapport with your
audiences. When you're up there it seems like you're baring your soul. The
audience talks to you during your soul. It's totally different from any other
JR - Good. That's
just the way I like to be with people.
BGN - What about your fans? They write
to you a lot and send you presents….dinosaurs?
JR - That's right. Birthday cards from all over the
world. A lot of them write me long letters and they say "For some reason I
felt I should write you." They send me long letters and they say "Somehow
I senses you wouldn't mind." And of course they're right, I don't mind. Maybe
they sense that I'm a friend.
BGN- You've been described as a "lovable
eccentric". Do you consider yourself to be one?
JR - No. I'm an individual but I don't think
I'm eccentric. I don't like that word. It sounds like some old man. You know
what I mean? Like "Oh James, I know it's 80 degrees but I need my rubbers
today." Like, oddball.
BGN - But your lifestyle seems to be so
different. The impression we get of you IS strange. You're really into health
foods and all that.
- Well, you see I eat what I like. Let's put it this way; I love my body so
that would incline me more towards what people call health foods. I don't
like that word. I used to, but I was misunderstood, too. I wrote "I stay alone,
eat health foods at home"….but…(long pause)…that was a little snotty though.
I love to eat, let's put it that way. Also I can't say I'm not a health nut
cause I work out all day long and I can't say I'm not into health foods cause
I am. It ain't discipline. I don't say I must. I crave exercise and I love
health food. I have a jump rope and I love it.
BGN- What are your feelings on religion
JR - I love
people and I love life; that's my religion.
BGN - Do you believe in reincarnation?
JR - Yes.
BGN - Pink carnations? Pantheism? Do you
see God in a tree or a flower?
JR - When you know how I feel about nature…don't forget "Roadrunner"
was a nature song…I don't just see God in a tree I see God in a….see in a
way it hasn't changed in ten years: then what moved me were power lines and
that's what "Roadrunner" is about. Now I say I'm in love with the trees but
it's the same idea. I love the trees more. I couldn't appreciate then when
I was 18 or 19. I was too conditioned the the way.
BGN - You were brought up in Natick, in
the suburbs. There are trees there.
JR - They were surrounded by J.M. Fields (old department store
- ed) and Value Mart and that's the way I saw trees.
BGN - Oh, did you live near that shopping
center on Rt. 9 in Natick?
JR - That's right. That's my original Stop & Shop; Rt. 9 and Rt. 27.
BGN- Well, you may not have strong religious
beliefs but what about all the strange telepathic things that happen between
you and people you know? They'll be talking about you and you'll call up in
the middle of the conversation. Do you believe in telepathy or any kind of
JR - Yes, some people accuse me of using it intentionally but ladies and gentlemen,
I'm innocent! But I never said I didn't have strong religious beliefs, I just
don't belong to any one particular kind. Take "All Day, All Night, Angels
Watchin' Over Me", that's how I feel. I also feel "Amazing Grace" and "Springtime"
that song is religious to me too. I think there are angels watchin' and they're
sometimes helpin'. There's things that guide me to certain places at certain
times. I feel it day to day. Ya, incidents like you described happen to me
all the time. I believe in telepathy, I believe in angels and I believe that
people have this little radar and I've seen it a lot in my life.
BGN- Who do you get your direction from
in life and music? Does your song "Pablo Picasso" give us an idea? Do you
love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no you don't
love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?
JR - I read about him when I was 18.
I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who thought were attractive.
I was afraid to approach them. I didn't have too high a self-image. I was
self-conscious and I thought "well Pablo Picasso, he's only 5 foot 3 but he
didn't let things like that other him". So I made up this song right after
I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face
and I was thinking 'Why am I so scared to approach these girls?' That was
a song of courage for me.
BGN- What about Cézannes? In "Girlfren"
you mention him.
- That wasn't the paintings again. It was "I go to the room where they keep
the Cézannes" - it rhymes with girlfren…more or less.
BGN - Jonathan!!!
JR- I swear I don't know much about his paintings.
BGN - What about when you say in the song
"Well, I can look through the paintings…" That's one of the big things about
his stuff. You can look through his paintings and at a point they become truly
JR - Do you know what? Until you told me that this second I never knew that.
I only knew I liked his tablecloths….Oh no…that's Matisse I like! Oh you see
it could have been Renoir! I remembered this room where they used to keep
the Cézannes and these girls used to walk through when I was about 18. Here's
Jonathan, he's just come back from New York to Boston and he's still got that
sad look on his face. Nice college girls, they have nice fat asses and everything.
Jonathan's just sitting there mooning with these sad eyes hoping to look so
sad they'll want to talk to him or feel attracted. …think he's some kinda
artist. Oh, I've tried everything! I look sad naturally but I played it up.
I got any mileage I could out of it. Since then I've stopped. Bein' in the
Modern Lovers gave me more self confidence. So by the time I was 21 I stopped
doing a lot of this mooning around shit. Also, the guitar tone changed and
the volume dropped. Don't forget; looking sad and playing loud have a lot
in common. They're both loud expressions. I wanted to be noticed when I walked
into a room when I was 18. I would scratch myself right down my arms to be
noticed. I put paintings in stores in Harvard Square when I was 16 and I would
write my phone number on the back of them 'cause I wanted people to call me
up and talk to me.
BGN - You painted?
JR - Yes. I wanted to talk to people! You see what I'm saying? I was desperate
BGN - Is it that you couldn't find anyone
like you out in Natick?
JR - That's right, yes. I could not find any people who understood me very
well. I'm, in a way, proud that I went to such extremes. See I'm not a bit
ashamed. I went to the extreme of playing on a stage knowing that I only knew
two chords and didn't know how to tune a guitar. I didn't care. I wanted to
talk to people.
BGN- Well that IS admirable.
JR - But I had no control over
it. I had to do it, it was me. I had a passion. I wanted affection. I wanted
respect. I wanted contact.
BGN - So in a sense what you're saying
is you always were kind of different?
JR - Well I never thought I was
different see. I thought it was what everyone wanted and some people admitted
it and some didn't, dig?
BGN - When you were young you never had
that feeling of "Oh boy I'm so different I can't stand it!"?
JR - Ah, a little but I got used to being kind of an outcast early. But I
didn't feel that it was my fault. I felt different but not inferior because
of it. And that's different. And I did notice as a 5 or 6 year old that I
was unusual in that way. So that goes way back.
BGN - Well, what about William Blake,
are you into his poetry?
JR - Well when I was in England one time I did a TV show and the people there
cxompared me to William Blake. I didn't know too much about him then. Two
people presented me with two books of his poetry. Well, I've gotten to like
him since then. This TV show started with someone reciting his poetry and
it was so beautiful to me that it made me cry. Right there on TV. It was "Little
Lamb That Made Thee…."
(Jonathan starts to cry now and there's a long pause)...
it was the way he rhymed and everything…I'm crying now just
thinking about him…
(more silence while J. cries)...it was the way he rhymed.
BGN- What about your song "I'm a Little
Dinosaur" and stuff; do you think they're childlike? Because that's what's
said about Blake too.
JR - I'm an adult. I love life. These songs make me cry.
BGN - You like crying?
JR - I don't bother to like it or dislike
it. I just cry.
BGN - A lot of people do say that your
songs are childlike and are written for kids.
JR - But they're not. My songs are written for everyone.
Let's put it this way: my songs aren't just written for adults like other
rock'n'roll. I do like to include children.
BGN - What do you think of kids?
JR - I've played a lot for
kids. I've played in day care centers. I have for years. I love playing for
10 month old babies. I also play in old age homes.
BGN - You have a real distinctive voice.
You know this, right?
Jonathan shakes his head yes but won't open his mouth.
BGN - Do you like it?
JR - I've gotten used to it.
BGN - What happened when you first heard
it, like on a record?
JR - It was when I was in second grade. I was…mortified!!
BGN - Well, it couldn't have sounded so
JR - Oh well,
if you heard my voice in second grade you'd pick it out. It stood out. It
always sounded like this.
BGN - So, Jonathan, do you think you're
a real ham?
JR - Grade
A, pure pork, U.S. #1.
BGN - I saw you in D.C. and you wore
a white shirt, unbuttoned and tied high on your waist. Were you trying to
look sexy? BGN - But when you take your shirt off
on stage and you get cat calls from the audience Jonathan, you love it.
JR - I was trying to look comfortable. Like I go through little fashion trends…my
own, needless to say. No, I wanted to look romantic…you know, like one of
those swashbuckler movies but not like a tease. Like Mutiny On The Bounty
or something like that.
JR - Yes I do. But you
know it gets hot up there! 105, 110! Some stages get real hot! Pause….Of
course I've also worn a vest with no shirt when it was 35 degrees out so why
lie about it. Face it, I'm a man from the word go.
BGN - Well Jonathan, here you are, you're
not like I thought you'd be. You're not interested in Picasso or Cézannes
like I thought. IS there anything you are particularly interested in?
JR - Yeah, a lot of things…if
I could think of what they are. I can't think of 'em right now. We'll come
back to it after a while. I must be interested in something.
BGN - You said the same thing in your
Varulven interview and never came back to it.
JR - Well if I couldn't think of anything in 5 years
I'm probably not interested in anything!"