Jonathan Richman doesn’t believe in air conditioning. He doesn’t think that our comfort is worth expanding the ozone hole for, and he feels that “when we refuse to suffer,” we “cheat feeling.” Fair enough, but the motionless ceiling fans above the Great Hall in Toronto, whose floors are slick with sweat, are a bit of a kick in the ass. Sandwiched between my boyfriend and a pair of loudmouthed forty-somethings who are yelling out song requests and botching the titles (“play Summertime Feeling!”), watching Jonathan make eye contact with the audience and wiggle through his dance routine, I’m torn between primal rage and tears of joy. Don’t get me wrong—I take Jonathan’s words as gospel. Living them is a different story.
JR was one of the great discoveries of my life. One of the hardest parts of growing up is realizing that life is actually pretty good, that what seemed like serious pain was really boredom and sexual anxiety. At sixteen, having obtained a fake ID, and, with much effort, convinced someone to sleep with me, I was content. It wasn’t easy. For one thing, I could finally see my musical heroes for what they were: petulant children with undiagnosed personality disorders. Nevertheless, my record collection remained a monument to unwarranted self-pity. When I found Jonathan, I found the idol I should have started with. Whereas most rockstars’ songbooks read like manuals for fucking up your life, JR’s is the ongoing autobiography of a satisfied person.
Being a JR fan is something like watching a stranger’s life on webcam—we’ve seen him mature from punk rocker (as lead singer of the Modern Lovers) to doo wop enthusiast, live through marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Good-natured and forthcoming as a matter of principle, Jonathan Richman has engaged his audience in a thirty-five year conversation. Sometimes it’s just small talk (“My Jeans”), other times it’s anecdotal (“I was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar“), but it’s always pleasant. Even at his lowest moments, he remains clearheaded and familiar: take “Not Just a Plus One on the Guest List Anymore,” an up-tempo rundown of his wife’s reasons for leaving him. His voice cracks just a little when he holds the final note.
At first I thought Jonathan was a novelty act—most serious musicians don’t cull their lyrics from the minutiae of their lives, after all—but I was missing the obvious. With Jonathan, there’s nothing to get, which is refreshing when you’ve been weaned on Billy Corgan and Thurston Moore. In the early days of my JR obsession, having read the reviews (critics tend to call him “faux-naïve”) and listened to his early records, I suspected that “Jonathan” was a persona. Regardless, when I found out that he was playing a three-day stint at the Lula Lounge, I figured that he wasn’t the kind of guy to turn down a teenager’s request for a fanzine interview. A friend and I arrived early at the venue and approached the promoter, Gary Topp, who granted our request without hesitation. We had no idea what to ask Jonathan, but we bonded over vegetarianism. He suggested we go for dinner.
Jonathan called me the following evening. My mother asked me who it was and what he wanted; I told her that the middle-aged singer from There’s Something About Mary had invited me out for supper. She panicked. Of course, she didn’t need to: Jonathan is the only fifty-something I can think of who could go for dinner with a couple of teenaged girls in absolute innocence. I sat to the left of Jonathan and ate hunan tofu on rice. He talked when he had something to say and smiled otherwise. When the meal was over, my fortune cookie read, “Stop looking forever—happiness is sitting right next to you.”
I spent the following year in a state of apple-cheeked optimism. It was the simple fact that people like him existed, that it was actually easier to be happy than to be hung up on petty disappointments. I prided myself on my positivity, and took heart in the fact that Jonathan Richman would have disapproved of all the jerks who gave me attitude.
And six years later, I’m one of them. The only difference between me and my teenage self is that people with shitty attitudes are now one of the many targets of my anger. But sweltering in the heat generated by hundreds of strange bodies, stifling the urge to spit in the beer of the obnoxious manchild to my right, I know that life could be much easier if I just grew up. Watching Jonathan Richman hip-bump his guitar, I hold out hope that if I keep listening, I’ll get over it.