If he were a rich man

Oct 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

Today was garbage day in my neighborhood. Like most mornings, I was fumbling around, searching for sort-of-clean clothes, feeding the cat, spilling coffee everywhere and getting my stuff together for work all at the same time, when I heard the garbage truck outside. I ran downstairs to make sure I got my bin from the side of the house to the curb so it wouldn’t miss the truck’s sweeping mechanical arm. But when I opened the door, I saw the garbageman moving my bin from the side of the house to the curb for me. I was stunned. Not only was he going above and beyond his garbageman duties, he gave me the most brilliantly happy smile as I thanked him.

And now, as I sit down to finish my story on Jonathan Richman, I can’t get that vision out of my head. Though I hear the pay is quite good, I don’t think anyone would argue that city maintenance has got to be one of the most thankless and gross jobs out there. And here I am grumbling about having to write a story about someone I really respect who wouldn’t grant my request of a few minutes for an interview. But the garbageman smiled! Well, that’s a Jonathan Richman song if I’ve ever heard one.

A few people moaned when Modern Lovers parted and made way for Richman’s somewhat left-turn troubadouring solo career. I didn’t. Granted, I was 12 when his self-titled debut came out and I didn’t really discover his music until a few years later, but when I did, I could hear that early punk urgency and transcendental lyricism in his more recent work. Plus there were all these other wonderful oddities and endorphin stimulators that allowed it to stand on its own as something brand-new and so him.

His latest album, Her Mystery Not of High Heels, released on Vapor Records (the label started by Neil Young and his manager Elliot Roberts), has all the subtle humor, blatant humor and bitter, heartbroken seriousness his fans have come to love over the years. It comes out Tuesday, the day after his performance at Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig.

Richman reintroduces his Latin side in Her Mystery, the last five songs sung in Spanish, with flamenco flourishes. Most of his music has this innovative, yet highly danceable quality, whether it’s a spicy salsa number, an insurgent punk strut or a silly folk song. He’s always been an accidental innovator. While he was trying to make Modern Lovers sound like the Velvet Underground, something new and exciting emerged, the beginning strains of what would become punk and New Wave. Members of that band — Jerry Harrison and David Robinson — eventually went on to join Talking Heads and the Cars, respectively. And while Modern Lovers’ music and Richman’s solo work aren’t necessarily ingrained in the minds of the masses, they do have a tendency to surface here and there in everyday life, because they come from every part of life — love, loss, gain, exhaustion, energy, spontaneity, etc. There was that time my friend was trying to convince me to go with her to “this great new bar” she had heard about instead of some “lame party,” as she sang “I was dancing in the lesbian bar waohh waohh.”

My friends always think they’re being original when they sing “Not Just a ‘Plus One’ on the Guest List Anymore” when I take them with me to shows I’m reviewing. And a few summers ago, many of us were delighted to see Richman stroll in and out of the frame in There’s Something About Mary, in which he played the hit movie’s musical narrator.

Many of his songs have that “silly little thing that happened on the way to the bus stop” quality to them. If you were annoyed by my garbageman story, you might not like a lot of Richman’s songs. You might even wonder why he bothered. But if you can appreciate honesty and those random breezes that inspire you to jump up and click your heels, you won’t be able to get enough of the guy.

I imagine he might be that kind of person you pass by on the street who catches eye contact for a little too long. If you were just passing by, you might think about it for a second and then forget the encounter. But if you were sitting on a bench for four hours, watching him interact and connect with those around him, you’d realize his fly-by-whim eccentricity. But then again, if you were sitting on a bench watching him for four hours, you might have to question your own motives. Maybe you’re the quirky one!

I have to imagine all this, because like I said earlier, Jonathan doesn’t do interviews. Which is sad, because I can imagine a really interesting conversation, one that’s a bit barricaded like the urgent bass oomph, tense guitar and jittery keyboards of Modern Lovers, but relaxed, goofy and uncontrived, like his solo work. But then again, sometimes imagining is just as good.

Melissa Giannini attains new heights of lyricism each week in these pages. E-mail [email protected]