A couple years back, Jonathan Richman released a song called “You Can Have a Cell Phone That’s OK But Not Me.” It is, like most of his songs—”Our Party Will Be On the Beach Tonight,” “Give Paris One More Chance,” “True Love Is Not Nice,” “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar”—fairly self-explanatory. Here he is, onstage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg Friday evening, first of a three-night V-Day weekend stand, singing it, driving home his utter unreachability, to rampant audience delight, reaching us by refusing to let us reach him.
Seriously, don’t bother. “When I’m on the beach/I’m on the beach/No, you can’t call me there,” he insists, strumming his acoustic guitar with a slight droning echo of his beloved Velvet Underground, his deadpan drawl somehow simultaneously whimsical and deadly serious. He cites other moments at which he’s indisposed: “When I’m on a walk/I’m on a walk”; “When it’s breakfast time/It’s breakfast time.” And he concludes with a long, loopy, seemingly improvised monologue about refusing to frequently check in via cell phone with a show promoter in Baltimore as he and his trusty drummer and sole onstage collaborator, Tommy Larkins, braved the recent East Coast snowpocalypse. ” ‘Listen, we might make it, we might not,’ ” Jonathan tells us he told the guy, once, at the onset, from a pay phone. ” ‘Like it’s 1814 or something.’ ” We laugh uproariously. Turns out they made the gig. Which had been cancelled. Due to the snowstorm. “So we didn’t miss nothin’,” Jonathan shrugs, contented. More laughter.
As physical product, “Cell Phone” is available only on seven-inch, just to drive the point home. You really ought to see it performed live, though. Everyone ought.
Jonathan has always been like this: childlike, stubborn, deliberately antiquated, overwhelmingly delightful. “I still love my parents/And I still love the old world,” he muttered repeatedly on The Modern Lovers, his old band’s wildly beloved eponymous debut, released way back in 1976, serving up bone-simple garage-rock jams as Jonathan held forth on road trips, Pablo Picasso, and his aching need for a girlfriend, spelled G-I-R-L-F-R-E-N. Roughly 35 years and way more solo albums than you had any idea existed later, he remains precisely that precocious, that inscrutable, that fussy. Even if he had a cell phone, he wouldn’t talk to you—no interviews. Period. At a Bowery Ballroom show last year, he had the air-conditioning turned off. Too noisy. It was June. And Friday night, midway through “Cell Phone,” someone up front takes a flash photo of Jonathan, who fixes the perpetrator with a 30-second wince/glare—not menacing, just bewildered, apprehensive, annoyed—before veering off-mic mid-verse to politely suggest the shooter knock it off. He is your grandmother’s living room. Don’t stomp around, don’t touch anything, don’t cause a ruckus. Just sit, and listen, and learn.
It’s a simple, elegant, quietly euphoric show: Jonathan with his old-world croon and older-world classical-style guitar, backed by Tommy, who used to just stand there with little more than a snare drum but now sits behind a full kit, chugging along, expressionless, looking a little like Elton John, abruptly awoken. It’s the ultimate Candlelit Romantic Dinner accompaniment, sweet and swooning and gently witty. He likes to sing about artists he admires, from pop stars (Keith Richards, whose beguiling sound is “not exactly the blues, ’cause it’s sorta European, too”) to the great masters (“But no one was like . . . Vermeer!”). Sometimes, he sings in French. Though he’s six weeks or so off at the moment, “Springtime in New York” still kills, all that sensorial specificity: “When the demolishing of an old building/Brings the smell of 1890 to the breeze.” Another delicate ballad, “He Gave Us the Wine to Taste It” (“. . . not to talk about,” goes the rest of the phrase), politely and thoroughly obliterates my entire profession. And for relationship advice, or rather end-of-relationship advice, consult “Let Her Go Into the Darkness,” also self-explanatory. “Don’t lecture her,” Jonathan counsels. “You’ll remind her of her father.”
Climactically, we have the aforementioned “I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar.” (Brief tangent: He also has a song called “My Affected Accent,” apologizing for the haughty pomposity of his youth, e.g., “I said ‘the aforementioned’ when I should’ve said ‘that.’ “) “Lesbian Bar” is the song in which Jonathan does most of his dancing, which is a whole other thing. Watching him dance is indescribably life-affirming: He either waves his guitar around or sets it down entirely before commencing with a gawky, guileless onslaught of light kicks, knee-slides, head-bobs, tight spins, and arm-flailing flourishes, his face fixed in an expression of rapturous nonchalance, a rubber-pelvis’d amalgamation of Elvis Presley, Pee-Wee Herman, and Napoleon Dynamite. Laughter, applause, boundless joy. As a wise man once said, “Prince oughta just fold up his dick and go home.”
Actually, that’s just the physical climax; the emotional climax is “When We Refuse to Suffer,” a long, involved rant against antidepressants, air-conditioning (again!), “the walled-off sterilized apartment,” and other methods we use to shut out the bad stuff that only succeed in shutting out everything. In other words, “We get the discount rate/But we’ve stayed at the hotel we hate.” There’s also a long riff about the cruddy, smelly, algae-choked pond next to the rundown grocery story, how that’s beautiful, too—yet another stench that lets you know you’re alive. It’s nice to be reminded. Shortly thereafter, someone’s cell phone falls from the balcony and shatters on the floor. There are no accidents.