I had a good time reading Keith Gessen‘s ruminations about Jonathan Richman and being a Bostonian in the Guardian, which is more than I can say for extended portions his novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, which I review in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. (I didn’t get too far into the complex business of how the novel’s characters are largely drawn from Gessen’s life. That’s partly a function of the space allotted for the review, but it mainly speaks to my feeling that, while it’s nice to know if a novel is a roman a clef, the text ultimately is only as good as what’s in it. Ten years from now, you shouldn’t demand that a reader Google up all of this foofaraw in order to better appreciate a work, and any writer who thinks you should isn’t dealing fairly with his or her readers. Scott McLemee sagely addresses all this in his latest column for Inside Higher Ed.)
Anyway! Jonathan Richman! Gessen writes:
The Modern Lovers sounds as if it could have been made yesterday. The music is stripped of everything but the most essential rock instrumentation, and sometimes, as on “Pablo Picasso” (“Some guys try to pick up girls,” it begins, almost ominously, “and get called assholes. / This never happened to / Pablo Picasso. / He would walk down the street, / women could not resist his stare. / Consequently Pablo Picasso / was never called an asshole”) or “I’m Straight”, Richman is barely even singing. Between this and the lyrics, which are funny, self-effacing, often flat-out pleading, all traces of the rock god have been eliminated. I don’t know how much of this is attributable to the fact that John Cale, the VU’s visionary bassist, produced half the album in 1972, but most of it must have been there to begin with. The Modern Lovers is modern in the sense of being continuously modern, of having managed to fall out of time. It seems as if Richman is naked, and speaking directly and immediately to you.