I Don't Work, I Make Things Up: An Interview with Jonathan Richman
Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Hex Enduction Books: They've got a lot of great desks and chairs at the government center - where do you do your best work?
Jonathan Richman: (Correction handwritten to replace "great" with "grey") I don't really work. I just make things up. Onstage. Offstage. In a motel. In a car. In a house. Walking down the street.
HEB: You're a guitar poet in the troubadour tradition. What poets - musical or otherwise - do you feel are undersung?
JR: (Thanks) I'm not sure anyone is undersung: It looks to me like musicians and the audience who needs them usually eventually find each other. But Van Morrison is my idea of a great poet. Domenico Mudigno(1) too. Kabir, Mirabai, Lala (the last 3, all of India), St John of the Cross, Sor Juana Inez (Mexico), Theresa of Avila (Spain 16th cent).
HEB: What is ecstatic poetry? Who should we read to understand?
JR: Yeah, what is ecstatic poetry? I don't use the term myself. But try the above-mentioned for a start. But if by ec-static we mean free from the normal "stat" (state, status), which is, for most of us I'd say, that rational, thinking "mind" we identify with, then should not poetry be "ec-static" if it is to be poetry at all?
HEB: How did you manage to stay humble and artistically authentic after the colossal success of The Modern Lovers?
JR: I didn't stay humble. Perhaps I have started to become humble. I stayed authentic in music because whenever I've tried anything else it's never come close to working. And The Modern Lovers were not a popular band, at all. We could barely get hired in Boston, and when we did, almost half the time the audience really didn't like us. Especially my singing was what they didn't want to hear ever again. I understood.
HEB: Did you know that first record is one of the most-playlisted records of the streaming kingdom? Does that mean anything to you?
JR: I'm not sure I know much about what streaming is, other than it must be some way that people who use computers share music, right?
HEB: Do you primarily read in print? Books, magazines, newspapers?
JR: I only read in print and handwriting. It's all I have, so far. Am now reading "Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations" by Georgina Howell. I subscribe to "FOREIGN AFFAIRS" and used to subscribe to "The FORWARD" but it got too complicated for me to re-subscribe because it now is "on-line" only or something.
HEB: Thank you so much for scrolling. Are you into any ancient texts?
JR: Yeah, The Bhagavad Gita. Oh! I use the Yogananda translation and explanations, very different from other translations. I read old Taoist stuff: Chuang Tzu, Lau Tzu, old treatises on T'ai Chi, etc.
HEB: If you had to burn a book you love, what would you burn? Why?
JR: I can't imagine why I'd ever have to burn a book. Can you?
HEB: Is there one song you feel more revealed by than any other? Favorite book of revelation of another artist?
JR: All my songs better reveal something or they're just no good. If a song isn't my favorite at the moment I sing it then why sing it? So, whatever I'm singing is supposed to reveal all I have to give right then, even if it doesn't look like it.
Favorite book of revelation by another artist? I just read John Fahey's collection of stories about himself "HOW BLUEGRASS MUSIC RUINED MY LIFE." He reveals. He's also hilarious. Maybe my favorite. And John Barrymore's and Douglas Fairbanks' "Laugh and Live," and "Harpo Speaks" by Harpo Marx and "Ma Route et Mes Chansons" by Maurice Chevalier.
(1) Domenico Modugno, Italian (1926 or something-2000+/-) changed popular music much in 1958 when his song "Volare" became an international classic. He wrote that and made many songs in Sicilian as well as Italian. If you have only heard the song in English, also called "Volare," then you have not heard the song at all. The English words have not a thing to do with the original Italian, for it is not a translation. It's another thing entirely. But that poetry in Italian is something else:
Penso che un sugno cosi non ritorna mai piu,
(I think a dream like this will never return)
Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blue
(I painted my hands and face blue)
Poi, di improviso, veivo dall'venito rapito,
(And, all of a sudden, I took a trip on a kidnapped wind)
E comminciavo a volare nell'cielo infinito.*
*Jonathan didn't translate this line but I will:
"And I began to fly into infinite sky"
Jonathan Richman is a noted American singer, songwriter, guitar-player, and inspiration. You already love The Modern Lovers; his latest LP SA! is beautiful. ("SA the root note in Indian ragas was what Ramakrishna, the much beloved mystic, told his spiritual students to search for underneath all things of this world" - the album's Bandcamp page.)