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Monday, June 07, 2004
In the liner notes to Rounder's "Best of Jonathan Richman," the Modern Lovers story is told in an odd third-person style by Jonathan himself. At one point, relating the process of recording the ML demos that would become the main recorded legacy of that band, he talked about how he ("Jonathan") was unhappy with the songs while recording them, and that you can hear that unhappiness in the recordings.

To be honest, I never could until just recently. Before, they simply sounded too different, in their silliness and enthusiasm and simplicity, to be boring or unenthusiastic at all. But now I hear it. Who knows why--maybe I've just given it enough spins to be able to hear the details, or maybe my life situation's changed. Whatever the reason, I'm listening to "Roadrunner" and Jonathan just sounds so unengaged, so distant, aside from maybe some of the bits at the end; the whole vocal style reminds me of how you might sing at a rehearsal where you just wanted to be able to work out the song and didn't want to strain your voice too much, the sound not of a spirited studio session but of the 1000th repetition of a familiar song played for no one but yourself. It comes through, too, in the incredibly lazy guitar solos in "Pablo Picasso," the same kind of "Whatever, I'm just gonna do this, OK" kind of attitude.

And, to be honest, it annoys me. It seems to betray the song. "Roadrunner" demands ecstasy, doesn't it? Without ecstasy it's repetitive and plodding; with ecstasy the whole thing soars, feels like driving and listening to the radio, a great feeling to be sure. There doesn't seem to be any ecstasy in this performance (specifically, the one leading off Rhino's Modern Lovers disc), just the plodding. But it feels ecstatic anyway. Why is that? Is the song so good that you just can't lose that feeling of transcendence? Or is it just ecstasy replayed, a feeling of perfection (also recalled in the aforementioned liner notes as, if I recall, "as good as the Stones" at some performances) remembered in leisure and conveyed onto tape purely by rote? Is the ecstasy, in other words, simply inherent in the composition, or is it learned by the performers and then gradually frittered away?[1] I tend to think the latter based on the blargh-inducing Sex Pistols cover, but I could, of course, be wholly mistaken.

It annoys me because he seems bored with the song, and that is wholly a betrayal of what deserves, as you might say, every possible opportunity to thrive. They are delicate things, these songs, and hampered by poor performances or a lack of enthusiasm, what's hidden may not be able to come out. Moreover, it seems a stupid sabotage of what you've chosen to create and develop and rehearse: this thing you think worth the effort to rehearse and perfect and perform, you can't put a little more effort into the vocal delivery to really convey the kick that I hear hiding beneath its surface? Why not? Who do you think you are?

The problem with this, of course, is that the kick does come through, and since it does come through, I have to ask if this is a "despite itself" lucky break kind of situation where through diligent promotion and focus and analysis outside observers have seen the rightness of these tunes and have forced everyone to see how incredible they are, or is it a situation where Jonathan's distance and remove actually enhances the song's effects, or at least enhances our ability to receive them. Since the negative case is not as interesting and already explored, let's consider the positive case.

I think Richman's delivery on these songs sounds unremarkable in its remove because it is so typical, both of certain rock singers of the past and of the vocalists of the punk bands that the Lovers supposedly inspired. From the past it takes the idea of coolness rather than Pentecostalism; Roy Orbison rather than Little Richard, Buddy Holly rather than Jerry Lee Lewis, if you will. The vocalizations, the tics and filigrees, are all understated and controlled, projecting an attitude of, first, not-caring, but second, total mastery. More on this shortly.

To the future it gives, arguably, boredom, that thing that was such a huge part of punk's "philosophy"--"I'm So Bored With the USA," "Longview," etc. etc. The attitude it wanted to project was that of the teenager feeling trapped in a situation too small for them, and so thus bored in a way that is full of energy: nothing to do so we'll fuck shit up, unable to prove myself so I'll judge everyone. Sexually frustrated, trapped and tired: doesn't this describe a good bit of Modern Lovers?

But but but: is it boredom, or is it contempt?[2] Sure, I can wittily pin the contempt on boredom as a consequence of the adolescent lack of opportunity, but isn't it a force in itself? And isn't it, moreover, a better description of what Richman's doing in these performances? There's a contempt for the song, the recording process, and arguably the rest of the band. That same contempt is already there lyrically in a lot of the songs ("Straight," "She Cracked," and somewhat more abstractly in "Pablo Picasso"), but where it isn't there already, where there's celebration, Richman often adds it in to his performance, and it's only overcome in the most extreme of moments, such as the end of "Roadrunner" or the tenderness of "Hospital." And isn't contempt kind of bracing sometimes? Isn't it a wonderful thing when it's targeted well? For instance: "Common People." For also instance: "Radio Radio." See what I'm saying? But the weird thing about turning boredom into contempt is that, based again on the liner notes as well as a live track called "Monologue About Bermuda," Jonathan was actually contemptuous of the contempt; it was the snotty tone of a lot of the songs he'd written that was repulsing him. So how does that work? Arguably it was just a gut reflex that he wouldn't engage in later (certainly there's no disgust on "Government Center"), but I think that mix of boredom and contempt, the way they intermingle and inform each other, is a big predictor of what was to come.

It is a trick, I think, a thing to do, and a thing that can work. And, too, the idea of writing songs and then performing them while being bored of them may also be a trick, if not actually the trick. To reference an earlier post, it's writing at #1 (initial excitement) but performing at #4-6 (frustration/dissatisfaction/unhappiness). Performing a song while hating it? How can that work? Well, the fact is that for many bands this is how such songs are often performed, and this is indeed one of the big differences between solo electronic acts and multi-member bands: the process of refining a song is less sitting around and playing with the little bits and more playing the whole thing over and over again until you get it right, until it gets "tight." And when you've played it that many times, you're almost never going to be at #1; you can hope for #7 (acceptance), and certainly there's a transcendence in feeling everything come together just so, but 90% of the time you're either going to not want to play the song but do so anyway because the audience or other band members want to play it, or be OK with playing the song but do so mostly by rote. At a certain point of familiarity, even the passion you inject will be somehow mechanical ("ecstasy replayed"). Now, this is OK--we all know I'm down with the mechanical. And, really, the way the performer and the audience regard a performance can differ widely--lately I've usually been not too psyched about how I play, but audience members generally seem somewhat giddy in their perceptions. But it doesn't change the fact that you're bound to have some contempt for a song when you've played it more than 50-100 times, and this is, most likely, the situation in which we as audience members are going to hear it.

So what I want to ask, I guess, is if this boredom, this distance, this lack of ecstasy in otherwise ecstatic compositions and even experiences is necessarily a bad thing. Certainly the idea repulses me, and I'm still annoyed that Jonathan couldn't manage to get a representative take down for the ages. But at the same time I have to acknowledge that it does work. Why? Well, I'm not exactly sure.

That said, it's worth bringing back the fact that this attitude did infect punk, and that it didn't always work in that arena. For every instance I can cite of contempt working, there are 10 others when it didn't, when the contempt itself tends to inspire contempt of the original contemptor. I can't help wondering what punk would have been like if "Roadrunner" had been recorded with the enthusiasm it deserved, if a generation of kids were inspired to write songs they felt passionately about and to perform them in the same fashion. Certainly this happens sometimes, but it doesn't seem to be the way to go, by and large. Whither Pentecostalism, musically speaking? Emocore did it, but it did it in a weird way. Noise rock does it, but with a lot of extraneous stuff. In both cases there is the fire, the snake-handling, the speaking in tongues, but there is no Bible. For some people, this might sound like a good thing, and certainly it can be at times, but why always? Where's the faith with the fire? Where's the story with the song? Here and there and all about, but not, not, enough.

[1] Or, even, commanded away by the singer/songwriter? Hmm...
[2] "I see you stupid people out looking for delight / Well I'm so happy I'm feeling so fine / I'm watching all the rubbish / You're wasting my time."