In the rebirth of the Northeastern power-pop scene of the late 70s, one funny voice shone through the rest to become a near cult figure in the world of singer-songwriters. With songs like “I’m A Little Dinosaur,” “Hey, Little Insect,” and “Abominable Snowman in the Market,” Boston native Jonathan Richman and his band, the Modern Lovers, made people scratch their heads in curiosity and tap their feet in enjoyment simultaneously.
Riding high on the success of “Roadrunner” (covered by the Sex Pistols), the single from his first album, 1975’s The Modern Lovers (produced by Velvet Underground veteran John Cale), Richman set out to “reinvent the modern rock n’ roll,” as the Nerf Herder tribute song goes. With The Lovers, containing future members of The Cars and The Talking Heads, he mixed up acoustic and electric grooves with bizarrely poetic and surprisingly catchy lyrics, setting the standard for geeky singer-songwriters from Elvis Costello to Rivers Cuomo of Weezer.
Richman has a penchant for taking mundane daily life (and an inexplicable obsession with supermarkets, it seems), and turning it on its ear by introducing nonsensical characters or unusual viewpoints. After only four albums of top-notch power-pop, The Modern Lovers went their separate ways.
After years as a solo artist, Richman recently enjoyed a semi-return to fame with a cameo role in the Farrelly Brothers’ “There’s Something About Mary,” playing himself in a kind of a Greek chorus minstrel/ narrator role. He also contributed three songs to the hit soundtrack, including the title theme.
Richman’s music, as evidenced by the songs on the Mary soundtrack, is simple, accessible, and usually humorous. Sometimes he could even be mistaken for a Raffi-esque writer of children’s music, with lyrics like these from “Here Come the Martian Martians” from 1976’s Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers: “Well, here come the Martians/ Baking up a Martian cake/ We better find out right now/ What kind of flavor do these Martians make.”
But the insanity of Jonathan Richman is that he wasn’t Raffi. Instead, he turned out to be a great influence on performers of the punk and early new wave scenes, as well as 90s alterna-pop bands like the Violent Femmes and the Talking Heads. Even the Pixies, fellow Bostonites who have gone on to cult-followings of mass proportions, cite Richman as an influence.
Richman will be bringing his music to the Asheville Music Zone on Saturday, March 17. Richman will presumably be performing the way he likes best, with just himself and drummer Tommy Larkins. Simple songs, simple musical arrangement, great music …all of it should add up to make a great show.