Born in Boston and raised in Natick, Massachusetts, inimitable singer, songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Richman founded the The Modern Lovers, a hugely influential proto-punk band, in 1970 at age 19. The original group included keyboardist Jerry Harrison (who later joined Talking Heads) and drummer David Robinson (who later joined The Cars) and the band recorded nine studio and four live albums, developing a die-hard cult following while receiving widespread critical acclaim. The group’s 1976 debut album, The Modern Lovers, is widely regarded as a rock-and-roll classic, recognized across the globe as a positively ground-breaking, seminal release.
Since the late 1980s, when the second incarnation of the Modern Lovers disbanded, Richman has released 18 solo albums, each featuring his unmatched blend of laid-back songs with minimal instrumentation, both acoustic and electric (although these days he plays only acoustic). He is renowned for his wholly unpretentious approach to his art, the consistent optimism and evocative romanticism of his lyrics, his endearingly childlike perspective and delivery style, and for songs that are firmly rooted in rock and roll yet deeply influenced by music from around the world. Richman’s playing and songwriting style has been described as “whimsical” and “innocent,” and in a 2015 interview he was quoted as saying, “I don’t write, really. I just make up songs.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, Richman expanded his popularity far beyond the well-established cult following he’s always had by making several appearances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, doing a cameo in the 1996 Farrelly Brothers film Kingpin, and being in several scenes of the 1998 Farrellys’ film There’s Something About Mary, in which he and his long-time drummer Tommy Larkins sang the theme song in Greek chorus style while making comments about the plot itself. “Roadrunner,” the opening track on the Modern Lovers’ debut album, was in the soundtrack for the 2003 movie School of Rock, with the director, Richard Linklater, calling it “the first punk song” and saying it thus deserved to be included along with the other classics in the film. Richman’s song “As We Walk to Fenway Park” is on the soundtrack of the Farrellys’ 2005 comedy, Fever Pitch, and the Modern Lovers’ original version of “Roadrunner” plays in the opening sequence of the 2021 documentary, “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.”
As for musicians who’ve recorded Richman’s songs, the list is long, and there’s no doubt that it will continue to grow. The Sex Pistols and Joan Jett were among the first well-known artists to cover “Roadrunner,” and Burning Sensations’ distortion-heavy version of “Pablo Picasso” (also from the Modern Lovers’ debut) was featured in the 1984 cult classic, Repo Man. Velvet Underground founding member John Cale included a punchy version of “Pablo Picasso” on his 1975 album, Helen of Troy, Iggy Pop has performed the song in countless live shows, and David Bowie included his own sleek version on his 2003 record, Reality. In 1984/5, Echo and the Bunnymen’s live sets often included “She Cracked” from the Modern Lovers’ debut and, in 1984, Siouxsie and the Banshees released their version of it in their box set, Downside Up.
Along with maintaining his touring schedule, Richman released albums regularly throughout the 1990s, including the Spanish-language ¡Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! (1994), You Must Ask the Heart (1995), Surrender to Jonathan (1996) and I’m So Confused (1998). In 1993, he contributed the song “Hot Nights” to the AIDS-benefit album No Alternative and, in 1998, he released a live album of Modern Lovers recordings from the early 1970s, Live at the Long Branch & More.
In the early 2000s, Richman released Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow (2001) and Not So Much to Be Loved as to Love (2004), in addition to a rare live filmed performance, Take Me to the Plaza, on DVD (2002). His most recent albums include Ishkode! Ishkode! (2016), SA (2018), Just a Spark, On Journey from the Dark (2021) and Want to Visit My Inner House (2022).
(by D.S. Monahan)