That Summer Feeling

James O'Brien

When Jonathan Richman takes to First Avenue's mainroom stage Sunday, he will be fishing for love. Again. Since first setting out on his late-night drives with the Modern Lovers and "Roadrunner," to "Affection" and "That Summer Feeling," to more recent songs featuring such bald-faced professions as "I want people to love me like I love" and "True love brings up hurt from when you were five years old," it's clear that the 53-year-old Jojo can't get, or give, enough love. The title of his new album, fittingly, is Not So Much to Be Loved As to Love.

Which, I suppose, is merely the human condition, no matter how old the human. When I hear Richman's open-hearted love and pain these days, I'm reminded of something Leonard Cohen said: "The older you get, the lonelier you become and the deeper the love you need. Which means that this hero that you're trying to maintain as the central figure in the drama of your life--this hero is not enjoying the life of a hero. You're exerting this tremendous maintenance to keep this heroic stance available to you, and the hero is suffering defeat after defeat. Finally, one day you say, 'Let him die--I can't invest anymore in this heroic position.' From there you live your life as if it's real--as if you have to make decisions even though you have absolutely no guarantee of the consequences."

Obviously lonely (but fighting it) and in need of deeper love (and not giving up), Richman lives his real life by getting all naked and vulnerable and asking for what he needs. Night after night he sings, "Don't ask me about love, 'cause I'm the wrong guy/I don't know how love happens, and I don't know why." Well, after all these years, I think I know it when I see it, and I'm here to say that for one night anyway, I saw Jonathan Richman surrounded by love, giving and getting like few other hearts I've encountered, and I come today to remind him and you and me of what that summer feeling felt like.

It was in the winter, the winter before last. I was doing a journalism fellowship in California, at Stanford--a nice place to visit for the books, solitude, and narcotic bubble of academia, but a wasteland for live music. The only original live music venue around was a small campus coffee shop/study hall that hosted regional bands on Thursday nights. Which was fine by me, because I'd burned out on going out and writing about music full-time, and I was enjoying the silence. But by January, I was starting to itch for the sound and lights.

On the last Wednesday of January, I was sitting in a class, reading the student newspaper, when I saw a listing. All it said, typed, as I'm sure it was, into a small "upcoming events" calendar by an aspiring entertainment journalist who had received the press release via fax or e-mail and who had no idea of the magical data he or she was entering: "Thursday, 1/30, Jonathon [sic] Richman. Coffee House."

I was stunned. I hadn't seen a flyer or heard a word. Could Richman--the only human to have been covered by the Sex Pistols and to appear on Sesame Street, and one of my all-time favorite troubadours, be storming the ivory tower to bring a jolt of cool, cool water to my musical desert? Clearly it was a cruel hoax. I stuffed the clip into my jeans, and, the next morning, phoned the coffee shop.

Me: "Is Jonathan Richman playing there tonight?"

Bored coffee shop student: "Yes."

Me: "What time does he go on?"

Her: "10 o'clock."

Me: "Is there an opener?"

Her: "No."

Me: "How much is cover?"

Her: "It's free."

I hung up and sent an e-mail to the group of international journalists I'd been hanging with for the previous five months. I tried to describe the instant appeal of Jonathan, said something about "quirky" and "big-hearted" and tried, as I'd done so often in my life as a professional music cajoler, to find some kindred spirits and to get someone, anyone, to come and go with me. Only a couple had ever heard of him, but a few said they'd try to show up.

I got to the coffee shop early with my friend Hannah, who had spent the previous six years covering war and peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and got a table up near the front of the stage. We were joined by Arieh, a Jerusalem war correspondent who from experience knows more about terrorism than any Johnny-come-lately American, and his wife, Linda; Alberto, a Rome-based correspondent who once came upon a trench full of children in Bosnia, dozens of them, all with their throats slit; Armando, a reporter/editor from Paraguay whose daily beat is governmental corruption and death, and his wife, Maria Jose; and more friends from Bombay, Beijing, and South Korea. By the time the music started, we were a table of about a dozen.

Pitchers of beer were purchased and poured. Talk was of the Mideast, North Korea, world wars, polo, literature, music, the future. A few minutes before 11:00, Jonathan walked through the crowd in a polo shirt and jeans, followed by his drummer, Tommy Larkins. They took to the living-roomish stage to hoots from a few faithful in front, while the students in back barely looked up from their books and highlighters.

As he grinned out over the small crowd, I wondered how his act would translate to our group, whose tastes ran the gamut from indie rock to Punjabi, the Beatles to Bali. My concerns were immediately quelled, for as Jonathan once sang, "If the music's gonna move me, folks, it's gotta be action-packed." And so it was: He opened with "You Can't Talk to the Dude," hip-thrusting and grinning his way through the stops and starts and wisecracks, his charisma blowing away the sound of the latte machine and cash register. Our table was floored.

I watched his eyes the entire show, and he returned my gaze from time to time, almost as if to acknowledge that we were in on the same jokes. He did "19 in Naples," "Everyday Clothes," "Pablo Picasso," "Back in Your Life," and one about being infatuated with a beautiful woman in a beautiful dress, the verses of which he sang in Spanish, Italian, English, French, and Hebrew, which drew appreciative howls and claps from our little UN enclave. After exactly one hour, he was done.

Everybody wanted to meet him. Not even close to being star-struck, our world-weary citizens descended on him at his post-gig CD-signing table. Armando and Maria Jose spoke to him in Spanish. Arieh and Linda asked him if he'd heard the Israeli guitarist David Broza, whose name he wrote down on a piece of paper. Alberto spoke to him in Italian, and in that moment the two fiftysomethings looked like long-lost brothers. I'm not very good at the backstage thing, but on my way out I placed my hand on his back and said, "Thanks, Jonathan."

A few of us walked out into the warm winter night and looked up at the California stars. Arieh, who started his day talking on San Francisco public radio about the elections in Israel and the war in the Mideast and ended it by clapping along to Jonathan doing "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar," looked up at the sky and said, "God, I'm going to miss this."

I can still see his face, glowing and living out poet Sidney Lanier's line about music being "love in search of a word." If the guy responsible for it doesn't know what love is by now, somebody should talk to the dude.

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