Sunday, 7 December 2008

Our time is right now - here in the morning of our lives...

As the days get shorter I'm finding it harder to get stuff done, and am looking forward to the turning of the year and longing for the return of spring.

More and more at the moment I'm turning to the music of optimism. For me, Leonard Cohen's 'Songs of Love and Hate' is the ideal summer album, because after mulling it over during the short dark night one can then run outside just a few short hours later and feel the warmth of the sun again. Stepping into an avalanche is something more easily enjoyed, I find, when one has the freedom to climb out again without having to chip through centuries of permafrost.

During the grey old winter, I yearn for something to put a spring in my step, and find that a bit of Kevin Ayers (long avoided after being made to listen to a Soft Machine album once, but now a firm favourite having discovered that Joy of a Toy is mercifully lacking in freeform jazz!), Robyn Hitchcock (preferably with the Egyptians), The Frank and Walters, or pre-disco Bee Gees does the trick.

Someone I can enjoy at any time of the year, though, is Jonathan Richman, and this live album from 1977 is another album which I adore, and would challenge anyone not to fall in love with on a first listen. He's too ethereal to be summed up by any single one of his many albums, but - even though this is one of his more preposterous efforts - for me it sums up most of the reasons that I fell in love with the man and his music - and what a night out that gig must have been!

Even though they charted within a couple of months of one another, several years passed between the recording of Jonathan Richman's first and second (and only) hit singles, which immediately raised questions about what anyone trying to investigate his ouevre having heard only these should expect.

The first hit - Roadrunner - burst out of the radio sounding like the last great undiscovered riff, although radio dj's also played the b-side - a quieter, acoustic recording which if it hadn't been for the adenoids could have been by someone else entirely.

The second - Egyptian Reggae - sounded like it had been made up on the spot in a miked-up dustbin, though in the context of the parent album, 'Rock and Roll With The Modern Lovers', its production values sound higher than most of the other tracks on there.

By this time he'd already travelled as far musically as many bands would in a lifetime, from ragged keyboard-driven Velvets-influenced riffage to almost the quietest live act anywhere, past or present, and going on to eschew almost any form of amplification regardless of the size of the hall.

On one particularly memorable night at the Town and Country Club in London, with an incarnation of the Modern Lovers consisting of himself on vocals and saxophone and Brennan Totten on guitar and drum (sic), he asked the soundman over and over to turn it down - until eventually only the first few rows could hear, and the T&C felt more than usually cavernous that evening as the sound continued to fade almost to a murmur in the corner.

I first saw the Modern Lovers live at Dingwalls in London in 1983. I stood down the front, transfixed, and it was only afterwards that a couple of strangers pointed out that I'd been standing next to David Bowie - and hadn't noticed. Apparently I also stood next to John Peel at a Fall gig in Cambridge in the 90s. Of both missed opportunities to have said hello to a couple of heroes of mine, it is the latter which I regret most.

For a few years I travelled wherever practical to see him and whichever incarnation of his Modern Lovers were by his side at the time. I even met him briefly outside the Electric Ballroom as we were queueing outside and he wandered past down the road carrying his guitar. I shook his hand and he signed the piece of paper I proffered with the air of someone who wasn't used to being asked for autographs. That was July 4th, American Independence Day, 1985, where he and the Modern Lovers - Asa Brebner and Andy Paley on that tour - were billed to play a twenty-minute set supporting Green on Red. To say that they blew the roof off is an understatement.

It was just astonishing, of the many, many occasions I saw him live I don't think he was ever better than on that night.

In those days I used to smuggle a little cassette recorder into gigs, and have recorded evidence that the shouting of 'Jonathan! Jonathan!' and stamping for an encore lasted not only for the interval between the sets, but through the entirety of Green on Red's performance.

Several years later he played the Acoustic Tent at Glastonbury, and a portion of the audience attempted to dismantle the venue in protest at his being denied the opportunity to play another encore. Someone I was speaking to afterwards described it as being almost as hairy as Reading the year before, when the second stage was practically destroyed because Edwyn Collins had not been allowed to come back on.

People like Eno and David Bowie had reputations for being musical chameleons, but Jojo (as he is known to the initiated), really lived the part, and while until the late 1980s no two of his records sounded very much like the last in terms of their production, just about anything with his name on between 1974's 'Modern Lovers' (released in 1976) and 'Jonathan Goes Country' (1990) are consistently life-affirming and will make anyone with a pulse grin from ear-to-ear regardless of where you're coming from.

Since the early '90s his music has not, in my opinion, been as consistent, although I still buy his albums and would not pass an opportunity to see him live again if it arose.

While his talent is idiosyncratic and erratic, for the last thirty years I've found myself going back to him, and wanting more, and I can't think of any other artists whose body of work offers so much joy yet remain so widely undiscovered.

This album appears to be out of print, selling for ridiculous money at the moment. If you're already a fan then grab it and enjoy. If you've never heard of him then prepare to be blown away - then look out for 'The Modern Lovers', 'It's Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers', 'Jonathan Goes Country', and - from 1996, his last truly consistent album, a complete return to form - 'Surrender to Jonathan'.

Unlike this one most seem to be available, so buy 'em while they're still out there!

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