by Josh Gross
There was no opening band at the Neurolux on May 30, just a solo performance from Jonathan Richman. And he was supposed to start at 9 p.m.
At about 9:10 p.m., he was jogging up 11th Street looking flustered. Richman rounded the corner into the alley, ducked in the back door, hustled onstage and up to the mic and then just started playing with no announcements or introductions. Approximately half the audience was still outside on the patio, unaware that he was starting.
It was the beginning of a truly strange performance.
Richman made a name for himself in the mid 1970s with his band The Modern Lovers, punk pioneers that were a major influence on the The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Cars, The Talking Heads and many more. Richman's rare combination of a raw sound and lyrics devoid of the peacock feathers so common in rock spoke to people. But since those salad days, he's kept the lyrical style and swapped the music out for acoustic ballads.
Richman crooned over the soft hum of a nylon-string guitar, accenting his tunes about growing up in the Boston art crowd with flamenco flourishes, and occasionally singing in French or Spanish. He was accompanied only by a minimalist drummer with a kick, a tom and several congas. Sometimes Richman wandered away from the mic, letting his acoustic guitar fade back in the mix.
But Richman has the awkward movements and disconnected gaze of someone who has experienced serious head trauma. His lyrics are almost childish in their sincerity. The only possible comparison is Daniel Johnston, but Johnston is mentally ill and Richman is just a seriously strange dude who people oftentimes think did a few too many drugs, despite being a pioneer of the straight-edge movement. For awhile, Richman put down the guitar and started dancing with a set of jingle-bells. It was so captivatingly surreal that I didn't think to pull out my video camera until it was over.
The performance was so charmingly awkward and bizarre that anyone who happened into Neurolux who was unaware of Richman's legacy might've thought: "Who brought their weird uncle to an open mic?" Especially when Richman introduced a song about how he affected a fake William F. Buckley accent to sound sophisticated, but now—40 years later—wanted to apologize for it.
"I should have been bullied for it more than I was," Richman said.
Where the introduction ended and the song began was a fluid concept, but it didn't take long for him to have the audience singing back to him about his fake accent. Then he hummed a little tune he said was 400 years old and he got from a German children's book.
"I don't know exactly what it means, but I use it to say goodnight," Richman said.
Then as quickly as he arrived, Richman threw his guitar back in its case and left the stage for the back door. But the audience wasn't having it. They howled until he came back to play a few more.