Thursday, March 16, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT JONATHAN by Tim Mitchell (Peter Owen Publishers, 1999)

Ah memories. I remember back in 1976, three whole whopping (gulp!) decades ago when all of a sudden there was this major hub-bub in the rock press going on about some recently-released album featuring a buncha then five-year-old recordings done by a previously-unheard-of (well, at least by me) group called the Modern Lovers. It was like you couldn't escape a mention of these guys just like you couldn't pick up a rag without seeing some comment regarding the Dictators a year earlier, and I gotta admit that for a kid who was just "discovering" rock & roll and listening to loads of quap both good and bad, these Modern Lover guys appealed to me in a totally wholesome way. Not only were the Lovers being hyped as a "teenage Velvet Underground" (and hey, wasn't I a teenbo, and a Velvets-listening one at that?) but their guitarist had short hair (amidst a group that had typical seventies boxboy shag 'dos) and since I was one guy who also had short hair (under threat of parental pain) I could certainly identify with that Beaver Cleaver lookalike more than I could the hot shot stars out there who had the same wild and uninhibited coiffures that I certainly envied! I even recall bringing up this "new" band I heard about in the same kitchen where I was told the supposed fact about George "Superman" Reeves shooting himself in the head and my straight-laced aunt retorted that any band with a name like that was probably "dirty"! Yeah, and this lady let her daughter listen to that Cat Stevens album (BUDDHA AND THE CHOCOLATE BOX) with that disgusting, nauseating and intellectual sexually-oriented number that opened the thing and she's worried about a band with a name like the Modern Lovers?

To make a shaggy dog story even shaggier, I didn't get the album despite really wanting to because it was distributed by Playboy Records, and I thought if my father saw that Playboy bunny logo (albeit small) on the back cover he'd whip the tarnation outta me! Too bad I didn't see those offers for $4.99 cassette tapes that you could get by sending away directly to the record label which were placed in various magazines (cassettes being smaller and thus less-deadly as far as authoritarian bedroom searches go) or else I wouldn't have hadda wait two years to get the thing after just plain ol' GRT reissued it! But then again, money was a scarcity during those days of rock rage, which is why I hadda get a lotta the necessities second hand in the eighties, a time they were sorely needed anyway so why should I complain!

Anyway, this bio of head short-hair Jonathan Richman's now about six years old, so having to wait for the thing that long is akin to me having to wait to buy my faverave albums once they hit the cutout and flea market racks just like I hadda do back when all of this excitement was going down and I felt like I was the only one within a fifty-mile radius who know what it was all about. And hey, it's pleasant enough, but then again Jonathan Richman himself seemed the perfect blend of happy-go-luckiness on one hand and intense brooding on the other and who am I to question why? I mean, all these geniuses are massive contradictions and even Shane Williams said I was one as well (though that doesn't make me a genius), and if anything the Richman who would gleefully take kid drawings eagerly presented to him by Bill Shute's own progeny and then snap "SO WHAT!" at some guy who comes up to him just to say "I'm from Boston too!" does have a strange appeal that I can relate to rather well. That is, unless I was the fellow Bostonian!

Nothing really new here, that is if you've read all of the articles on Jonathan printed in a variety of new wave-oriented pubs like TROUSER PRESS and THE NEW YORK ROCKER for the past three decades, but the little bits 'n pieces I didn't know about sure made for some engrossing pre-bedtime reading. Jonathan's Velvet Underground epiphany (and his days as a groupie for the band) make up the best part of this book, containing lots more detail regarding those pre-Modern Lovers days when Jonathan would wander around Boston yelling at anyone within earshot that he wasn't a hippie. (I particularly liked the information on Richman's early performances and the segment where he was rehearsing full-blast in the basement of his apartment and some un-named member of the Blues Magoos stopped in thinking he was an entire rock group!) And although the book kinda slips for me after the breakup of the original Lovers (the subsequent ones never quite tingled me) there's still enough vim, vigor and verve here to keep you from plunking your copy next to all those unsold college biology texts collecting cobwebs in the bookcase. An engrossing and downright useful tome for the times, at least as far as fitting in part of the puzzle as to exactly what kind of impact the Velvet Underground made on bands world-wide from the sixties until it became "too easy" sometime in the early eighties.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When Jonathan played my neck of the woods in the early 90's, my children (then maybe 4 and 9???)
presented him with crayon drawings they'd made for him to welcome him to Texas, and he was very nice to them. He seemed like a decent, down-to-earth guy. And he really knows how to work an audience...had he been born in another generation he would have been successful in vaudeville or cabaret.
I still have nothing but respect for the man, and I've enjoyed almost every record he's ever made.
Every time he puts something out, it's like getting a letter from that quirky but lovable cousin you wish would visit more often!

Bill Shute