I, Jontathan, A Perfect Album

The Modern Lovers are one of those bands, like the Velvet Underground or the New York Dolls, whose influence is infinitely greater than their fame. Part of this has to do with the short flash that was their career, with their only recording, the seminal and mind-blowing eponymous Modern Lovers, being released after the band had split. (It's eponymous and posthumous. Yay!) The album, culled from recording sessions with former Velvet Underground member John Cale (he would also record the Patti Smith Group's debut a few years later) as well as other recordings, is a proto-punk masterpiece, one that captures perfectly the feeling of being a teenager in America. I still remember hearing the opening track, the anthemic "Roadrunner," and identifying whole-heartedly with its aura of reckless abandon and love for the transfomative power of rock and the seeking of an America that probably never existed.

After breaking up, the band members went their separate ways. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison went on to play in Talking Heads, the drummer played in the Cars, a couple of other guys probably got jobs pumping gas somewhere and Jonathan, the key songwriter and guitarist, kept the Modern Lovers name, releasing a slew of light, fun albums that were the polar opposite the frenetic, elegiac, and sometimes brooding rock of the Modern Lovers. Basically, he saw punk rock coming and ran the other way. He's most recognized a the troubadour in the film, There's Something About Mary. You know, the guy singing in the tree and on random street corners? Yeah, that guy.

Some of Richman's later albums are almost crippled by their naivete and self-consciousness, though I, Jonathanis not one of those albums. This album, while maintaining a spirit of fun and lightness, adds just enough depth to perfect it. It walks that fine line between stupid and clever that the boys in Spinal Tap were talking about.

The album starts with "Parties In the U.S.A.," a song that borrows (though it goes to lengths to acknowledge its thievery) more than a little from the song "Hang On Sloopy," by... the McCoys (thanks, Google). It's a fun little song about parties, but it also serves as and introduction to the theme of the album, an undercurrent of longing for the past. Richman seems to say that the parties we had when we were younger just aren't happening, maybe because we've changed, maybe because the world has changed or maybe, and most likely, they weren't as great as we remember them being. Or maybe they are wand we just haven't found out how to throw them. Richman postulates that there could "be block parties of which I know not?/Wild beach parties around some open flame?/I know there's got to be parties, I bet there's a lot. But the U.S.A. has changed somehow that I can't name." While we may not be able to find them, they may exist and maybe, just maybe, there's hope for us after all.

The next track is a fun throwaway. It's called "Tandem Jump." There's a great intro with Jonathan as a parachute instructor telling his new jumpers, "When those doors open you will be scared..." after the sound of a door opening and which the band all make "whooshing' noises and act scared.

Next up is "You Can't Talk to the Dude," a song to a woman in a relationship with a creep. How can you not love a song with lyrics like "Your sense of humor has gotten worse/Now that you live with a guy who can't converse/You can't talk to the dude/Well he's set in his way/Got a bad attitude/When you say what you say./You can't talk to the dude/And things will never be right/Until you go." Again, it's a kind of goofy song, but the underlying idea of settling for someone that is just no good is there, peeking out behind chuckle-worthy lyrics. When did we forget the things we wanted when we were younger? Is it too late to remember them?

Following that, we get "Velvet Underground," a tribute to one of Richman's obvious influences. It even includes a pretty decent impersonation of Lou Reed singing "Sister Ray." Richman manages to encapsulate the Velvets in one line: "Sounds as stark as black and white stripes," adding that to him, the band was "America at its best." Later years would see Pavement doing a similar tribute to R.E.M. with their contribution to the No Alternative benefit compilation: "Unseen Power of the Picket Fence." Richman seems to hint that there will never be another band like the Velvets, one that typified rock & roll in every movement. He's probably right, but who knows?

Next up is my favorite song, "I Was Dancing In the Lesbian Bar," a fun little song that asks the question, "when did people all of the sudden get so serious and where can I go to have a good time?" The answer, at least in this song, is in one of those bars for "the ladies." Again, the theme of nostalgia for a simpler time is carried through. Why can't we just relax? Why do we have to hunt for things, for places where we can unwind? Has America changed, or have we as a person, as a people?

"Rooming House On Venice Beach," is next, detailing an old place Richman rented. "Nowadays I hear that the rent is steep." It's almost like Richman's taking a look back and saying, "Remember that? That was fun. Why can't we have fun like that anymore? Or can we?" Which begs us to ask ourselves the question, "Can we?"

The next track is the best one by far and the most themeatically explicit tracks on the album. It's called "That Summer Feeling," and it's a heartbreak of a song. I'll quote it in its entirety:

That summer feeling/That summer feeling/That summer feeling

When there's things to do not because you gotta
When you run for love not because you oughtta
When you trust your friends with no reason nada
The joy I name shall not be tamed
And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

When the cool of the pond makes you drop down on it
When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it
When the teenage car gots the cop down on it
The time is here for one more year
And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

If you've forgotten what I'm naming
You're gonna long to reclaim it one day
Because that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

And if you wait until your older
A sad resentment will smolder one day
And then that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
And that summer feeling's gonna taunt you
And then that summer feeling is gonna hurt you
One day in your life.

When even fourth grade starts looking good
Which you hated,
And first grade's looking good too,
And you boys long for some little girl
That you dated
Do you long for her of for the way you were?
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

When the Oldsmobile has got the top down on it
When the catamaran has got the drop down on it
When the flat of the land has got the crop down on it
Some things were good before and some things never were
But that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

Well when your friends are in town and they've got time for ya
When you were never hanging around and they don't ignore ya
When you say what you will and they still adore ya
Is that not appealing, it's that summer feeling.
That summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

It's gonna haunt you
It's gonna taunt you
You're gonna want this feeling inside one more time.
It's gonna haunt you
It's gonna taunt you
You're gonna want this feeling inside one more time.
One more thing...

When you're hanging around the park with the water fountain
And there's the little girl with the dirty ankles cuz she's
On the swings, you know, and all the dust is kicking up
And you remember the ankle locking
And the way she flirted with you
For all this time, how come?
Well that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

You'll throw away everything for it.
You'll throw away everything for it.
One more thing...

Well when the playground that just was all dirt
Comes haunting.
And that little girl that called you a flirt
Memory comes taunting
You pick these things apart they're not that appealing
You put them together and you'll get this certain feeling
And that summer feeling is gonna haunt you
One day in your life.

It's gonna haunt you
It's gonna taunt you
You're gonna want this feeling inside
One more time.

I love summer, but I don't know if it's summer that I love or the idea of summer. The shorts and the flip-flops and the swimming and the sun. The vacations and the beach and the days that unwind themselves forever. I am haunted by this idea even now as autumn starts to creep its way into my life. "When even fourth grade starts looking good, which you hated." "Do you long for her or for the way you were?" What are we nostalgic for when we start looking back? Is it "the good old days," or a "good old us?" But did that "good old us," even exist? And if we were happy and carefree then, why not now? What's stopping us?

After getting all serious on us, Jonathan drops "Grunion Run," on us, a surf-type instrumental that cleanses the palette and sets us up for the penultimate track, "A Higher Power," which poses the proof for some higher being as love. "They say that magic and the science world collide/but Einstein saw me looking at her and he joined my side." Just when the world looks bleak, like your life isn't going to be as good as you'd like to remember it to have been, love comes along and reminds us that it's possible to reclaim that fire we felt in our youth. That there's still magic left in this dark old world.

And once we're reminded of that, we can relax and take a walk down memory lane with "Twilight In Boston." Since this album's been a walk through our collective and personal past, Jonathan walks us through his hometown on an idyllic, idealized night. There's a moment in this song where, when describing the Victory gardens, Richman nonchalantly adds, "one of my favorite parts of town." For some reason, it grabs me. You feel the longing in his voice, the desire to be somewhere where he feels at home. There's an honesty there that's refreshing, as he longs for his hometown on an album full of songs about longing. The question that it invariably brings up is, "Where is that place for me? Have I found it? If it's not here, where is it? Or is it here and I just don't realize it?" I fear that sometimes I focus too much on where I was or where I'm going that I sometimes forget to enjoy where I am.

For me that's the message of I, Jonathan: enjoy the now. The past is dead and buried and the future still yet unborn. All we have is now. Seize it and enjoy it. Carpe diem and all that jazz. Whatever you do, don't get lost in the false comfort of the past or get so uptight about the possibilities of the future that you miss all the good parties.

If there's an underlying theme in I, Jonathatnm it's this: Just shut up, relax and, for goodness' sake, shake your butt every now and then.

1 comment:

Candace said...

This is a great album! Glad to hear all your innermost thouhts on it! Dude! I love ya! exclamation point!!