This story originally appeared in the February 1993 issue of Spin, which was partially written and guest-edited by members of the SNL cast. Read interviews and stories from comedy icons of the era–Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, Tim Meadows, Lorne Michaels and others–in our package of highlighted stories from the issue.
Jonathan Richman is everyone’s high-school boyfriend, or certainly the guy you wished had been your high-school boyfriend. He’s the guy who made you laugh all the time and was a little too weird, the guy the teachers worried about. Will he learn a skill? Should we direct him toward college or shop class?
Well, Richman did learn a skill. From the wide-eyed (Velvet) Underground spark of his landmark 1976 art-punk debut, The Modern Lovers, through less aggressive, more romantic paeans to dancing, baseball, and, of course, love. Jonathan’s music has touched my heart and the hearts of countless others. His latest record, I, Jonathan, is his favorite yet, and is rapidly becoming one of mine.
Richman is very wary of interviews and doesn’t do many. But somehow he agreed to do one with me, probably because I’m not a professional journalist and I have no idea what I’m doing. He spoke to me on the phone from his house in Northern California, where he lives with his wife, Gail, and their 17-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.
Julia Sweeney: Many of your songs have a very wistful and nostalgic feel to them. Do you think your childhood is a very big influence on your life?
Jonathan Richman: I just remember more of it, it seems.
Sweeney: Your albums get more and more childlike as they go along.
Richman: When I started out, I was kind of lonely. In fact, I wrote a [press] biography called Jonathan Richman’s First 20 Years in Show Business, and it talks about exactly this. When I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody, and that’s when this trend started. I was about 22.
Sweeney: Are you misunderstood?
Richman: Yeah, I am. Partly because, even when something’s serious, I think it’s funny, so people think I’m putting them on, even though I really mean it.
Sweeney: What kind of music are you listening to now?
Richman: Nolan Strong and the Diablos, an R&B group from Detroit, popular from around 1954 through the mid-’60s. Sam Cooke, Maurice Chevalier, Marty Robbins, John Lee Hooker, old rock’n’roll from the ’50s and ’60s.
Sweeney: Do you like children’s folk songs?
Richman: Do you know why I made up some of my funny songs? Because I went through children’s folk songs, and I didn’t think they were good enough. I just write them like I am talking to anyone else; I don’t make special allowances. That’s why I don’t like songs written for children by adults.
Sweeney: Describe your ideal vacation.
Richman: Me and my friend Scot Woodland [who plays drums and sings backup on I, Jonathan] are going to go to the Mojave desert, and we’re going to take sleeping bags, and we’re going to rummage around desert washes where pack rats and stuff live.
Sweeney: Do you like you travel a lot?
Richman: Well, I love the desert; the Mojave is one of my favorite places. When I was 19, I went to Masada in Israel, and I saw the desert for the first time and fell in love.
Sweeney: Is that when you realized that you didn’t love New England best?
Richman: That’s when I realized that there were other places.
Sweeney: Have you traveled around Europe?
Richman: Oh yeah, I’ve played in about 20 countries: Italy, Spain, Greece, France, all over.
Sweeney: Anywhere in the East?
Richman: No, not really.
Sweeney: It seems as if the Japanese would love you.
Richman: Oh, that’s so far east I was calling it west! Yeah, I’ve played in Japan, in Nagoya, in Tokyo, in Osaka, and Fukuoka. It was one of my favorite, favorite places.
Sweeney: You write some of the most romantic songs, such as “My Love Is a Flower (Just Beginning To Bloom).” Are all those about Gail?
Sweeney: Oh, I wish it was me.
Richman: But it ain’t, it’s too late now.
Sweeney: I’m the worst interviewer ever.
Richman: No, you’re not. I’ll tell you what a bad interview is. A bad one is when you have to dust them off, and they’ve just come out of Oxford like they were buried in 1788 and they’ve had the same tweed suit on since, like, 1922. This is fine, this is light and breezy, this is a beach party.