(Originally appeared in Crawdaddy! Magazine)
Jonathan Richman isn’t known to talk about his music or his personal life in interviews. In fact, he’s a notoriously hard man to get an interview with. He’s one of my musical heroes, so if all I can score from him is 20 minutes of looking into each other’s eyes, I’m doing it.
I get Richman’s phone number from a publicist at the San Francisco International Film Festival since they’re presenting a silent film from 1921 entitled The Phantom Carriage, and Richman is booked to accompany the film with a live score.
Richman’s answering machine is him playing a few riffs on guitar, then a beep. It actually says more than, “This is Jonathan Richman, please leave a message.” It’s like his music: joyful sing‐a‐longs with a sprinkle of longing, moments of loneliness and despair.
When he calls back, he remembers me from my earlier attempt at interviewing him, and I quickly explain, like I’m in a speed dating rotation and giving my resume to a girl looking at her watch, that I want to meet with him and talk about The Phantom Carriage.
His accent is slightly Boston, very nasally and bordering on a teenage boy calling his high school crush for the first time to ask her to the winter dance.
I mention a newly opened café half a block from my apartment in San Francisco to meet at, and he tells me he knows where it is. I’ve heard conflicting stories that he either lives in the Glen Park neighborhood or Mission District of San Francisco. I’m still not sure, but knowing the café’s location gave a huge clue that he lives very close to me.
Richman is in a handful of about five musicians who I’ve always wanted to interview. I tell the owner of the café that I’ll be there with Richman next week. I get a blank look. “The guy who plays the guitar in the film There’s Something About Mary,” I say.
The café owner knows who he is and has no other reference about the legendary Jonathan Richman, whose band the Modern Lovers influenced the punk rock movement of the late ‘70s and new wave of the ‘80s with songs forever embedded in our culture like “Roadrunner” and “Pablo Picasso,” both of which have been covered many times.
I tell friends, I tell acquaintances, I tell anyone I can that I’m interviewing a musical legend and one of my heroes. Ninety‐five percent of the time I have to bring up the film reference for them to get it. But the five percent who do know about music and the importance of Richman, and also his reluctance to interviews, are impressed.
I even come across some Jonathan Richman sighting stories. One time he was going through his divorce and brought his guitar to Doc’s Clock and played at one of the tables. He’s San Francisco’s Sasquatch without all the hair.
“I’m not going to talk that much,” Richman warns me on the phone.
“No problem,” I say, thinking I’ll be the first interviewer who will really crack open Richman with my understanding eyes and open body language that I’ve learned from my therapist. “Yes Tony, I sing about my personal life. My divorce was a mess. I want to tell you how I feel about these things. I have artistic blocks, here’s how I get through them. My creative process goes like this. I have a new girlfriend, she understands me and we have very open communication. I get scared on airplanes. I’m mad about what’s going on in Haiti. I’m not a religious man, but I’m very spiritual,” I fantasized.
Richman walks into the café. His head is lurched a bit forward, and he wears a tweed jacket with a messenger bag. He looks like a very cool substitute teacher, one that the class will be able to manipulate so they can goof off all period, while Mr. Richman sits at the desk and gazes around the class. As he walks, it’s almost like he’s trying to make himself invisible.
He buys a cookie and a ginger tea and sits across from me. I’m immediately intimidated. I bite my tongue to remind myself not to ask about his creative process or his place in music history or his personal life or what a genius I think he is—all things I learned while doing research before our meeting, knowing that he’ll cut the interview short and leave.
When on stage in front of hundreds of people, Richman controls the crowd and is completely in his element. When we’re sitting across from each other he looks like he wants to crawl out of his skin.
He opens the wrapper from the cookie and I ask if he’d like to eat before we begin.
He shakes his head vigorously, “No, let’s start,” he says.
The San Francisco International Film Festival got in contact with him with the idea of scoring a silent film.
“Sean (Uyehara) from the San Francisco International Film Festival called up and asked if I wanted to score a silent movie, and I said, ‘maybe, whatchu got in mind?’ ‘We got these old movies from the 1920s that need scores and you know the old scores are either hard to find, or they’re all scratched up or they don’t got ‘em’. And then he said they have a bunch of movies and he named about ten titles and I said, ‘what’s that one The Phantom Carriage about?’ and he told me and I said, ‘send me that one,’ so he sent me a copy of it and I watched it and I said, ‘sign me up’.”
Richman laughs nervously and nods his head before taking another bite of his cookie. I become obsessed with the cookie and start to see it as my hourglass of time slipping away and when he finishes the interview will be over. Fortunately he took small bites.
“What was it that drew you to the film?” I ask. “I like the movie, it was a great movie,” Richman says.
I ask him what the film is about and he gets angry, “I hate it when people tell me what movies are about. I don’t think anything is about anything. I think songs and movies, whenever they come, you gotta hear them. They ain’t about nothin’. You gotta see them.”
Two thirds of the cookie is left and Richman looks at my notepad. I intentionally write my questions in code and so sloppy on all of the interviews I do so the person I’m interviewing can’t figure out my notes. I need to keep him in the interview, so I ask if there will be a band or will it be just guitar and percussion.
“There’s going to be, like, we’re going to have trumpet and clarinet and strings and bells,” Richman says, “people from around here, Ralph Carney (woodwinds), Ara Anderson (trumpet and baritone tuba), we’re going to have Katharine Clune (violin) and Nick Carlin (cello) and we’re going to have Lee (Kusmer) and Cliff (Reilly) on bells and Beth Custer is involved with the scoring and orchestration. So yeah, there’ll be a lot of people.”
This isn’t the first time that Richman has scored a film, but it’s the first time for a silent film. “It’s different from other kinds of films, because you’re responsible for a lot. Like, ‘cause there’s no dialogue, the players’ eyes and faces say a lot and you feel like you’re sort of responsible for bringing that out a little bit,” Richman says, “I like it.”
The screening is at the Castro Theater, and I ask Richman where the band will be set up and if they’ll go through a PA.
“If I knew I wouldn’t tell you. I don’t want to know. Everyone will find out at the same time,” Richman says.
I look at his cookie and we’re at 50%.
Richman is working on new material for an upcoming release. “We’re recording some stuff. I’m going over to Spain to record some over there. And we’ll record some when we get back, too,” he says. I get the feeling he’s ready to finish, and I feel tense, so I try to sound intelligent and completely dork out with a question about his feelings for censorship in the media.
“Do you have any opinions regarding the different organizations in the country who keep freedom of speech down like,” I say, and can’t think of any other organization than, “the PMRC?”
“I really don’t know enough about it, I don’t think. I couldn’t even tell you what those initials stood for,” Richman says, and I feel like I’m slipping on ice and decide to fall flat on my face:
“Remember the Tipper Gore and the whole Jello Biafra thing?” I say. A clock ticks in the background, every second is a thud.
“Everybody should love that because all that does is help people sell records so why fight it?” Tick, tick, tick. “What else do you have going on that you’re passionate about?” I say.
“Oh, whatever, lots of stuff. You know. Patios. Building patios for people,” Richman says, “I’m getting into ovens, too. I’ve been doing patios and occasional steps, real small staircases, real small. But, I’m going to get into bread ovens and things like that.”
“When you say bread ovens, I picture adobe type stuff,” I say.
“Yeah, they’re made out of stone. Put the bread in there, wood fire and heat it up,” Richman says with a nervous giggle.
His cookie is almost done, and I remark on how energy‐saving the ovens could be since I read in my research that Richman has a car that uses bio‐diesel fuel.
“I’d like to make ones that wouldn’t use much wood and would get good draw so they’d be real efficient. That’d be the best kind to get,” Richman says.
I resist the urge to slam my hand on the remaining part of the cookie to keep the interview going.
I ask him why he chooses to live in San Francisco. “It’s a good place. Too many things to say. It’s great around here,” Richman says. “What’s the difference between here and other places you’ve lived, like Boston?” I ask.
“That’s where I grew up. They’re not the same at all, they’re totally different kind of places. Some people think they’re similar, but I don’t. They feel different to me,” Richman says, “You know, I’m not an expert on any of this stuff. I’ve lived in LA before. San Francisco feels different. It does feel different.”
Richman asks me where I grew up, and he’s all of the sudden comfortable to put the spotlight on me. I tell him how many generations go back on my dad’s side in San Francisco and how my grandfather emigrated from Norway to the Mission District, which opens up a way to ask about his ethnicity.
“Well, I’m Jewish,” Richman says. I ask if he believes in the religious aspect of Judaism.
“I don’t know what I do. I just sort of hang around. I just don’t know nothin’,” Richman says, “That’s all I can think about. I guess we’ve talked about the movie, huh? Like we’ve already talked about it, so we might as well wrap it up I suppose, huh?”
I feel like I have two left feet, but I’m still completely honored that Richman spent over 20 minutes with me.
At the Castro the following week, Richman and his band are set up stage right. There’s a smile on Richman’s face that doesn’t go away from the moment I see him outside talking graciously to his fans. It’s still there when he’s at the side of the stage waiting for the organ player to finish his introduction. Almost every screening at the Castro Theater starts with a live musical introduction from the Wurlitzer pipe organ. The band sits at their positions and there’s applause that trickles to silence. Everyone waits. A girl screams from the crowd, “We love you Jonathan,” and he turns around and blows her a kiss. The audience laughs and applauds. Sean Uyehara introduces the special event and the curtain opens. Roll film.
The next week I find out that The Phantom Carriage will be released on DVD through Criterion, and there are talks of bringing Jonathan Richman into the studio to score the film, just the way he did live at the Castro Theater.