Originally published in Synthesis Weekly: August 2015
On August 21, 2015 I was afforded the opportunity to interview musician Jonathan Richman at his northern California home. I arrived at his house a bit nervous. I’d been wanting to meet with him for a long time, and given the fact that he (quite famously) doesn’t grant interviews, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Adding to my nervousness was the fact that I hadn’t prepared any questions. Normally I would have a list of talking points to hit, with a general outline to guide the conversation. But when I called the number on his business card and asked if he’d be willing to take a meeting with me, I hadn’t expected him to agree so readily, let alone suggest we meet in fifteen minutes.
So there I was: really nervous, fairly unprepared, but mostly just excited. This is my first attempt at offering the audio version of an interview I’ve done, and I’m so happy to be able to make this one available to you. While we sat outside in his backyard, he held a guitar in his lap while his two dogs laid at his feet. At one point one of them (who happens to be deaf), started barking pretty loudly, but other than that, the audio came out reasonably clear. Jonathan graciously agreed to let me interview him, on the condition that I keep his answers unedited. Usually I’d make an effort to edit the transcribed interview for clarity or continuity, but his feelings being what they are about the subject, I felt it important to try to preserve as much of the original conversation as I could.
Jonathan has a gentle air that makes him appear almost cautious, but it’s pretty clear that directly under the surface is a seemingly limitless supply of unfettered joy and creativity. Listening back to this interview, I can definitely hear that come through in his voice and the stories he tells, so I’m really happy to be able to share this with you. I would recommend listening to the audio version of this interview, available here.
With that, please enjoy my interview with Jonathan Richman.
AM: Um so, some of the-I mean… again, I didn’t really prepare.
JR: Good, good. I like that better.
AM: Alright. So I’ve read that you’re really into poetry. Or at least you used to be? Can you talk a little bit about that?
JR: Yes. Yeah, um. I love Rumi. Do you know who Rumi is?
AM: Yeah, R-U-M-I, right?
JR: Yeah. Rumi, Spanish poets. A guy named Jose de la Espronceda, of the 19th century in Spain. [Jonathan lists more names, quickly, which I can’t transcribe, as my Spanish skills are rudimentary at best.] Italian poets, French. Um… Chuck Berry was poetic. Loads of people, poetic.
AM: How does that work its way into your music writing?
JR: It doesn’t. I don’t write, really. I just make up songs.
AM: Oh ok.
JR: And so, they’re different-um, I think you either gotta… You know, some people sing- The Velvet Underground were very poetic.
AM: Love The Velvet Underground.
JR: Yeah, so…
AM: Lou Reed.
JR: Poetry, if you love it, it works its way into your conversations and into anything you do. I think.
AM: I’ve also read that you were into astral planes? Or… is that accurate?
JR: Well when I was 19 I made up a song, where I… actually… the truth is, I don’t know enough about those things. (Laughs). I’m actually trying to get along on this one. (Laughs). I’ll tell you this, I’m not into the other kind of planes.
JR: Yeah, big old airplanes. They go too fast.
AM: How do you prefer to travel?
JR: My favorite way would be walking. Bicycle. Or the practical way, what we do, is we use just a minivan.
AM: Ok. What other kinds of artwork do you make?
JR: Oil painting. And stuff. And bread ovens and things.
AM: Is it, Arcane Masonry, right? [Arcane Masonry is Jonathan’s side business]
AM: I was curious because I’ve read that you don’t own a computer?
AM: I’m curious how that kind of… I don’t know, I guess anti-technology, is that fair to say– well not ‘anti’ but–
JR: Well I don’t know, maybe.
AM: And how that has worked its way… because the Arcane– I don’t know, I’m interested in words.
JR: Oh yeah, well I do old style stuff. In fact it does sort of work in. The same things that… the reasons that I don’t have a computer, is the same reasons that I don’t use power tools when I do masonry.
AM: Oh really?
JR: Yeah. I have a few. But I only use them in dire emergency. Generally, I work in silence. I don’t use even a radio when I make ovens. I work outside, and I can understand why you wouldn’t like working inside. Cause I love working being outside. I was working earlier today on a garden wall for extended family. And I just built Nicole’s Dad, Rog, a walkway. You can see it, it’s over at his house. I built that. And um, I work in silence. I don’t like electronic things so much cause they make not only a lot of noise, but they make it all the time. You know how those electronic things have little clocks attached to them? So then your life never stops. It never can just be zero miles an hour. It’s always going a certain amount. Everything is time sensitive.
AM: That’s interesting. Are you into transcendental meditation at all?
JR: Not the transcendental part.
AM: No? Just the meditation?
AM: It seems like something that would go along well with that.
JR: Yeah it does. Not that I’m against transcendental stuff, I just don’t know what it means.
AM: Well I believe it’s when you have a mantra that you repeat over and over, and you’re not supposed to tell it to anyone…
JR: Yeah I don’t know about that stuff, I just do regular meditation. Just sit in silence.
AM: Are you still involved with the music industry? Are you backing away from it at all?
JR: I still make my living doing it. It’s what I do.
AM: Do you still enjoy it?
JR: If I don’t, I have to quit. When I was 17 years old I made myself a promise, that if it ever became work, I’d have to quit. Because I don’t believe in music like that.
AM: What are you working on right now?
JR: A new album, downtown. We’ve got songs. In fact, we’re going to sing a few of the songs, you know that butcher shop thing? [Referring to a local theater show]
JR: A lot of the people who sang on the new record, Miles, who played bass on it, a lot of the people who played on the new record are going to be there… I’m going to do a little bit I think on Sunday night. For about a half hour there will be singers who sang on the records. Actually, before you go I’ll give you a copy of the two singles. So yeah, I still make records and play. I’m taking the summer off, but not for long. We were just out on the road, and we’ll be on the road again soon.
AM: Where did you grow up?
JR: Outside of Boston, Massachusetts.
AM: What did you parents do?
JR: My dad had a few jobs. He was a traveling salesman. He represented food chains that sell to the military. Which is a slightly different… some of the companies are the same. But the military has its own grocery stores. So he would be a salesman to military grocery stores. And the military bases would sometimes have their own bingo games on Friday nights, so he had a sideline of bingo prizes and things. And that’s how I got a guitar. It was a ten dollar guitar lying around the house, and he said, hey John, you want this guitar? It was in the shed, and I’d just go: [at this point, Jonathan starts strumming the guitar and laughing] For hours, just enjoying the sound. And I was transfixed by it. And I just started making up stuff.
AM: Oh yeah?
JR: Like Pablo Picasso. Not so long after I started to play because… [He starts playing again, and laughing]
AM: How old were you when you started to make up songs?
JR: Fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen and through there.
AM: Did you write lyrics?
JR: Well I didn’t write much. I just made stuff up. Songs like Roadrunner were never written down.
AM: Do you still remember any of the songs you first made up?
JR: Yeah, yeah. [Starts playing & singing] School vomits on its students and expects them to eat it, school vomits on its students and expects them eat it, they’d call one immature if he were to tell them he didn’t need it. School vomits, school vomits….
AM: I like it. It could be the anthem of 2015.
JR: So anyway, that was the anthem of 1967. (Laughs). And I first started playing these songs out in public in March of 1968.
AM: Where did you first play?
JR: Just coffee shops, outside, anywhere anyone would let me play.
AM: And what was the reception like?
JR: People ran away.
JR: Yeah. It was. Because I didn’t tune the guitar. I just plugged in amplifiers, and played loud… (Singing) It’s called vomit!!!!
AM: That’s amazing.
JR: Yeah, well they were pretty amazed. And they ran. They knew when the gettin’ was good, so they just ran out. And I would play in front of people on big Sunday shows out in the commons in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a thousand people. And people by the hundreds would run away with their hands over their ears.
AM: So what made you stick with it?
JR: Well (laughs), two hundred stayed! And I was thinking, all right! Some people actually stayed! I knew what I sounded like. I didn’t expect everyone to like it.
AM: That’s strong confidence to have at that age.
JR: Yeah I was confident. And I just wanted to do it. I got to express myself in public.
AM: So who instilled the confidence?
JR: I wonder who. Because I had it when I was a kid.
AM: Very self assured?
JR: In some ways. In front of people. In second grade, I’d say: Miss DeRosa, the children look bored, you want me to tell them a story? (Laughs). The thing was, I had no story. I had no idea what I was going to say. Whatever it was, I was just going to make it up.
AM: Did she ever say yes?
JR: No. Once Miss DeRosa was at the blackboard doing sums there, telling people 13+2, 8+1, how much is that, and I just yelled from my seat, just [yelling] YEAH SO ANYWAY THEN MY MOTHER CAME HOME AND I GOTTA, AND WE DECIDED, and I would just yell stuff. And she didn’t turn around. She wasn’t going to dignify this behavior, and I yelled, MISS DEROSA, CAN’T YA HEAR ME? And she doesn’t turn around, she drops the chalk in one hand, she drops the eraser in the other hand and just looks up at the sky and says, In my sleep I hear you. (Laughs).
AM: Teachers worst nightmare!
JR: Yeah, I was. Yes.
AM: So dad was a traveling salesman, and mom–
JR: And my mom eventually became a remedial reading teacher. She went to school when me and my brother were teenagers. She went and put herself through more graduate school and got her teaching credential, and started teaching remedial reading at another high school.
AM: You have a brother, any other siblings?
JR: No, just my younger brother.
AM: Are you guys close?
JR: Um, sometimes. Like yeah, we like each other.
AM: What does he do?
JR: He’s been an expert in computers for thirty or forty years.
AM: Oh! So I could see why–
JR: Everyone in my family and friends, about 60% of them are not just into computers but some of them are people who’re writing textbooks on them.
AM: Really embracing it..
JR: Well not just embracing it. They’re pros a lot of them! A lot of other friends of mine, they invent accessories for cell phones. These are a lot of my closest friends and family members. So I don’t care. They can do what they want. I just do what I want. And, that’s one less that I have to use!
AM: True. Tell me about growing up.
JR: What do you want to know?
AM: What was the environment like? How old were you when your mom went back to school?
JR: I was in my teens. The suburbs…
AM: Outside of Boston?
JR: Yeah, about fifteen, twenty miles out. Ask me a question about them and I’ll tell you.
AM: Have you been back in recent years?
JR: Yes. It’s changed a lot. It was about 18,000 when I was there, now they’re about 50 or 60,000 those same towns.
AM: Have you been back to the same house? Is it still there?
JR: Not in a long time. The neighborhoods are different because kids used to hang out. There were always people walking up and down the streets, throwing firecrackers. There were more little teeny stores. Little shops like bubblegum type shops that have been put out of business by bigger stores now. They were these little five and ten cent stores. Almost on your block. The zoning laws were different. And every neighborhood would have these things.
AM: That sounds great.
JR: It was. And you’d go in there and get a 7up on a hot day, and the smell of bubblegum, and it was these dark, mysterious little places where they knew you. You’d ride your bike up and it was a mysterious, fun childhood. And you’d ride your bike all through these towns with names like Newton Lower Falls and Wellsly… and you’d throw your bike down, and hardly ever did bikes ever get stolen. Once in a while. But you just threw it down. Once in a blue moon you’d walk out of the drugstore to find out it was stolen. But so little that you didn’t usually think about locking it. And you’re driving through these strange little–every six miles there was a different town. Sort of like here to Durham. And then another town after that, and another Durham after that. But a little more built up. A little more going on, like each town would have its own record store. Each town would have its own little teeny record store. It’s own little five and ten. It’s own pizza joint. You know. And there were a lot of Italians. So it was good. (Laughs). And each town would have its own little scene happening. Each town would have a few bands that would play at the high school. And so it was mysterious in the sense that you would just, these hot lazy afternoons, where you’d ride your bike, and in silence. No one had anything. TV only had two little black and white channels, three of them. NBC, ABC and CBS. Most of the time they didn’t have stuff that kids wanted to watch. So you only watched a few cartoon shows, or adventure shows, couple hours a night. And that was it. And those were big TV watchers. And you spent most of your time outside! After dinner, everyone played- there were no fences. Between houses like this.
AM: Were houses this close?
JR: Yeah! No fences. This close or closer. And you’d just have, someone would have a ball. And you’d be five or six years old, and you’d play Rover, Red Rover, Come On Over. And you didn’t even know these kids. And you were welcome. And they weren’t even necessarily nice kids. It was just the way everything was. That’s what would happen on every block. If this was a summer night back in the fifties or early sixties in a town like that you would hear riots of laughing and people chasing the ice cream truck, people chasing the mosquito truck, cause no one knew any better. But kickball in the street, baseball, wiffleball. There would be games up and down. People, not everyone was nice. Sometimes bigger kids would say bullying stuff, but then you had friends sometimes to counteract that, and sometimes you didn’t. But whatever it was, there were people everywhere, there were people walking. Because there was nothing to do in their house. There was no air conditioning. Air conditioning was for the Rockefellers. There was no air conditioning. And it got muggy and hot there. It was litle 95 degrees, but sweaty, sweaty! No one was in their houses. So you were outside! Old people were on their porch or something. Drinking a cold drink. But there was no air conditioning.
AM: So what made you decide to settle in northern California?
JR: It was quite a while; the record company I was with at the time was there, and… started with family, and ended up just staying here. I love it. And I like it hot. (Laughs).
AM: So no college, you were just traveling around…
JR: Well no I went to New York City almost immediately.
AM: After high school?
JR: Yeah, I wanted to be part of that whole scene. With Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. And I knew them already.
AM: Wow, really? How did that happen?
JR: An amazing… well. I was wandering around looking for people in Harvard Square, and I ran into the right people at the right time.
AM: What were they like?
JR: Nice. They were really nice. They knew that I was dead serious about learning, so they were really nice to me.
AM: What did you want to learn about?
JR: This world of art. This world. The music like The Velvet Underground made. Like what caused it. [At this point his dog began barking loudly] What kind of scene was it.
AM: So what caused it, in your mind?
JR: Just life? That’s too big of a question.
AM: What kind of contemporary music do you listen to?
JR: You know, they showed that movie Amy. I’d never heard much about Amy Winehouse. But wow, she was great! And she made up her own songs.
AM: She had an amazing voice.
JR: And those songs, the way she phrased…
AM: So you went to New York…
JR: Yeah, and hung out there, with all those people. And I learned, one of the things I learned is that I’d have a better chance of putting a band together if I went back to Boston. So I did.
JR: Because I knew people there. And I realized I needed a band.
AM: What was the day-to-day atmosphere like with Andy Warhol?
JR: He was so nice. I would just visit. He changed once he got shot, he didn’t work with hands on, on his own work the way he did before. He had very nicely invited me after I finished high school to come down and be a part of the film scene.
AM: That’s amazing.
JR: It was. But there wasn’t that much to do. He wasn’t doing his own work the same way. It was different. And pretty soon I realized there just wasn’t that much for me to do there. But I worked to support myself. I worked odd jobs like being a messenger, and this and that. And so I did and I would hang out with some of the people in that scene late at night and just go to places to dance, I always loved to dance. And so, then I realized I wanted to put a band together and I moved back to Boston.
AM: So you go back to Boston, and you put a band together, what happens then?
JR: Well, then it happened.
AM: Just traveling around?
JR: Boston, yeah we played.
AM: What do you think, if anything, is missing from the current cultural ethos. With all the technology there’s no anonymity. Everything is so accessible. What’s missing?
JR: Well to me, it’s not missing, because I don’t use it.
AM: What’s lacking?
JR: Well I’m not sure if anything’s lacking, because it can’t be 1957 anymore. It can’t be 1981 anymore. This is what’s happening for people now. So for some people this is great. People are communicating, there’s some anonymity because of all this electronic stuff. People… at least until it gets wrecked, people can still anonymously post stuff, so people can express hidden and deep dark thoughts in a way they never could before. Different groups can say, oh you’re having this health problem, I’m having this health problem too. So I’m not sure it’s all bad. All I know is, for me, I just like to walk around real slow and learn things from people the way I do which is I just walk up to people and ask them. This must be serving some purpose, or else 4 trillion people wouldn’t have them.
AM: What excites you about learning now?
JR: Sheet music, a lot. Debussy, Ravel, Eric Satie, people like that. Music of India excites me. Music of France and Spain. Naples. Some of the poetry I like is poetry from Naples. [He starts singing]. The sun gave responsibility for the day over to the moon. He says look, I’m going home, you take care of all the young lovers.
AM: Have you traveled to India?
AM: Is it because of the planes?
JR: That’s a good question. Right now, I’ve just had no… I’m just staying home. But India is a place that I’d love to go.
AM: Lastly, I just have one more question. What’s the hardest time you’ve ever laughed?
JR: Wow… cause I can think of some… I… um… a few of them aren’t that long ago. Sometimes we play that game where one person writes one thing, but they can’t see what the person before them wrote, then you hand it around the room. Sometimes I’ve laughed so hard I’ve almost choked playing that game. And that happens. Let me see… some recent movie we saw over at the Pageant, I forget which one it was. Something I thought it was so hilarious, but I can’t remember it… but maybe it’ll come to me. Playing that game, called Exquisite Corpse… but a few other things like that sometimes. But that’s one of them. There have been more. Let’s see. When I was a little kid it happened a lot, but the challenge is to think of one that’s happened recently. Playing that game, it’s happened… Oh I think there might have been some times at some recent parties. I think at some of the parties we’ve had around the neighborhood, I can remember a few moments. Sometimes I’ll bring my guitar to some of the parties, and we’ll have so much fun singing [he starts playing]
You know just singing songs and then some other person you don’t expect starts singing, and then other things happen. I remember laughing and laughing. I think that’s the most recent time, at recent parties around here. I brought my guitar and people you don’t expect to sing, sing. And amazing things happen. People changing the melodies in amazing ways, and it just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.
AM: Anything else you want to add?
JR: No, this has been great just like this. You ask a lot of questions that people don’t ask, so I talked about stuff I don’t usually talk about.