By Daniel Kohn
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Jonathan Richman has been listening a bunch to Aqnazar, a one-named, timeless-voiced singer/accordion player from Tajikistan. It's not the easiest stuff to find, so he thought you might want to know the website for Aqnazar's French distributor: www.budamusique.com.
Jonathan hadn't made it past the "www-dot" part, though, before being interrupted by peals of laughter from his household, this because web addresses spring from his mouth about as often and easily as live kangaroos do. He does not care for computers, has never used one, nor to my knowledge has he previously uttered a word of the computer-speak the rest of us take for granted. "Anything for Aqnazar," he explains.
It's a changing world. When Jonathan and his long-suffering drummer Tommy Larkins appear at the Santa Ana Gypsy Den this Sunday and Monday, longtime fans may be equally surprised to see them tooling around in a Mercedes-Benz. Jonathan's never much stood for luxury items, but again he has a ready excuse.
"It's an old diesel Mercedes, and I'm running it on bio-diesel. You can run it with pure vegetable oil if you convert it for about $700, but you can run it as it is on this fuel called bio-diesel, which is mostly vegetable oils and some alcohol. So I'm running on no petroleum products. If it spills in your garage and your animals lick it, they won't even get sick. It's non-toxic! How about that!"
Bio-diesel is clean-burning, frees us from foreign oil, comes from a renewable source (mainly corn and soy) and, Jonathan says, smells like fried stuff.
Does it come falafel-scented?
"You need the converter for that."
I used to wonder if Jonathan was an idiot. At Anaheim's Beggar's Banquet record store in the late '70s, we laid in a pile of his cutout Berserkley label albums for $1 apiece, so we slit a few open. Oh, the merry laughs we shared with customers, listening again and again to this naive nerf singing about little dinosaurs, true love and how it was the morning of our lives. Har de har har.
Then one day, sort of like what happens when you watch the Reverend Gene Scott long enough, I realized, "This guy is lots smarter then me." Everything I truly valued in rock & roll was right there: magic, adventure, rhythm, mystery, intimacy, emotion—without the amped-up armor or smug poses most rock was dressed in then. And he had life figured out. His song "Affection" said everything one really needs to know in life, which he pretty well reiterates in the title of his upcoming Vapor label album, Not So Much to be Loved as to Love.
When I first interviewed him in the early '80s, the first thing he said was "If this starts sounding too much like an interview, I'm hangin' up." His songs may be open, naked and direct, but his interviews have tended to be famously less so, with good cause. Critics' misquotes and preconceptions aside, he's been guarded in talking about anything that could intrude on the rapport that occurs between listener and song, which oftimes seemed to be most things.
Maybe he's decided songs are more durable than that. Talk a good song to death, write books about it, drag it through a Hummer commercial—it'll still hit your heart. Or maybe these dire times are impelling him, as they should us all. Whatever the reason, he's talking—andsinging—about things he hasn't previously.
On his recent concert DVD, Take Me to the Plaza, for example, you'll find him voicing his opposition to the war in Iraq with the song "Not in My Name." Tuesday, he's playing a benefit in Hollywood for Voice of Democracy, also featuring the documentary Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War, Green Party firebrand Medea Benjamin and others. Jonathan's added his name to the anti-war organization's masthead, alongside Noam Chomsky, Dustin Hoffman and others. (You'll find heaps of info at www.vodemocracy.org.)
"Not in my name, indeed," he says of the war the Bush administration has foisted on the world. That his songs now venture into the topical "surprises me, too. All I know is that what I have to do with my songs is tell how I feel. That's all I've ever done. As long as it's how I feel, then to me it's one of my kind of songs no matter what the subject is."
After living for a long time in ultrarural parts of northern California, he moved a few years ago to the Bay Area and is loving it, from being able to sit in with musician friends and absorb new musical styles to taking to the streets in the anti-war demonstrations.
"It's really satisfying to be able to feel a part of things and not just read about it. If you only read the major newspapers and watch TV news, I don't think you're seeing how America really is. I think it has a whole lot more little groups trying to help one another, a lot more unity and communication, than you would believe, given what you see on TV. On Martin Luther King Day, it was great to see the Longshoremen support the Safeway strikers in Southern California, but you didn't see that in the news much.
"Lots of good things are going on. Medea Benjamin is part of an organization called Global Exchange. Among other things, they insure that the products sold in their stores are ones where the people who made them get a fair working wage: fair trade, not to be confused with free trade. I think when Americans learn about the difficulty other people have getting paid what they should, there's a certain number who will respond to that."
I mentioned something about how Wal-Mart is driving the whole planet the other way, to which he rightly responded, "Yes, but they'd be helpless if people didn't shop there. You can't just blame corporations because every advantage they have—advertising, lobbying—they got through having money, and they got the money from people buying their stuff. I'm saying the buck stops here, with us Americans. If we don't like it, then we've got to make sure we don't use or support it. That's why I'm driving the bio-diesel car now."
We got on the subject of a bootleg DVD of live Rolling Stones performances from the early '60s and how maracas just aren't deployed as well these days. I get maudlin if left to dwell on how much more fun things used to be.
Many of Jonathan's songs wax nostalgic for days gone by, but he's not anxious to see them come back. When he lived in the Sierra hinterlands, one of his far-flung neighbors was the great activist folkie U. Utah Phillips, who was prone to point to advances in racial and women's rights, organic foods, and such, and suggested, "Maybe we're winning and we don't even know it."
"That's the exact phrase I keep in mind," Jonathan said. "Name an era, pick a year that seems like fun. That Stones stuff was made in 1963-64, right? At that time, black entertainers in Las Vegas couldn't stay at the hotels they were performing at. It was the same time the freedom riders were murdered in the South. Some things may have been better then, but a lot of things were definitely worse."
The media, of course, has changed, as in: good luck hoping to ever hear anything good on commercial radio again.
"So? There are still a lot of things that people can do. People give shows in their houses. There are always ways around things. It's not time to despair."Not So Much to be Loved as to Lovewill likely be released in April or May, and it will feature Jonathan and his nylon-stringed guitar, Tommy on drums, the wondrous sometime Tom Waits sideman Ralph Carney on horns, and Miles Montalbano on bass. It's got an atmosphere, Jonathan says, and if you've seen his live shows, you know he knows a thing or two about atmosphere.
So what about the songs?
"Some are in Italian. Some are in French. Some are in English. That's about it."
But wait, there's more. How does the CD compare with his live shows?
"It's easier to put in your pocket."Jonathan Richman, with Tommy Larkins on drums, performs at the Gypsy Den, 125 N. Broadway, Ste. D., Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840. Sun.-Mon., 9 p.m. $10. All ages; They also perform in a benefit for Voice of Democracy at Laemmle's Fairfax Theater, 7907 Beverly Blvd., Hollywood, (310) 842-8794. Tues., 7:30 p.m. $10.