There’s a simplicity and ease to Jonathan Richman — Modern Lovers founder and frontman and overall pop-rock purveyor — that borders on enigmatic. This applies not only to his quirky, whimsical musical worldview, but also to the man himself. Even at 64, Richman exudes an air of boyish wonderment that cannot be fatigued.
It was precisely that wide-eyed curiosity that first led Richman to New York as a teenager. His arrival was inspired by the things he was hearing in the city, namely the Velvet Underground, whose touch is indelibly imprinted on the Modern Lovers’ brief but massively influential body of work. Richman used the seeds planted by Lou Reed and the Velvets to inform his own musical voice and style, but he turned the mood inside out. Where the Velvets were dark and cynical, the Modern Lovers were hopeless romantics, high on the journey of self-discovery that comes with the territory of being young.
Richman long ago closed the book on the Modern Lovers, leaving psychedelic proto-punk at the door in favor of a pared down, guitar-and drum approach that arguably better fits his wistful flare for storytelling. The purity that has long been his hallmark is still perfectly intact, and when the Village Voice heard that he and his longtime drummer, Tommy Larkins, were scheduled to bring their quirky pop sensibilities to the Bowery Ballroom on November 8, we jumped at the prospect of speaking with him to peek a bit behind the curtain. The duo is touring behind a pair of 7″ releases that were put out earlier this year through the Cleveland-based record store/label Blue Arrow, and we wanted to know more about his time in New York, how it inspired him then, and how he feels about the city today.
Before long, we got word that our interview request had been forwarded to the singer by priority mail, Richman’s connection to the outside world runs through the United States Postal Service. He does not do phone interviews; he does not own a computer.
In his handwritten response sent via snail mail, Richman riffed on his short stint living in New York with the kind of romanticism and eye for detail that make his music so treasurable. We could pick apart our favorite bits and pieces, but instead we figured we’d let the Roadrunner himself tell you all about it.
Sorry I can’t do phone interviews but here’s something: I moved to New York when I was 18 to be near the Velvet Underground and that whole Andy Warhol art scene. I thought I would do art with them but what really happened was I spent the 10 or so months I lived there, more or less alone, walking around after work (work was as a foot messenger for Esquire Magazine and before that on Wall Street).
The grand, monstrous scale of the place sticks with me. The Battery on a cold Saturday afternoon in the winter by those ancient ferry buildings with the huge ferry buildings of New Jersey and Staten Island off in the distance and the monstrous fifty-story financial buildings all closed up looming over you. Chinatown nearby on this ten-degree afternoon with the fish and salt smells cutting through the cold air.
Or a winter Saturday morning in that Ukrainian neighborhood at E. 5th and 1st Ave., with the silent old men in those little shops that sell ikons and sell honey and stuff too — with the cold, silent street outside with the rat piss smell cutting even through the six-degree air.
Yah! Bethesda Fountain in the Spring! Chestnuts as work lets out at 5 PM in the late fall! It all still lingers in me! And, as have so many other strong atmospheres, it has affected my ear for sound and music just as it has affected my eye for color.
Here’s a full shot of Jonathan’s letter: