I didn’t get married until I was almost thirty. I had put it off for years, knowing I wasn’t ready to be a mature adult family man. I felt that, approaching thirty, it was past time for me to shake off the childish things, but the fact is, I still wasn’t ready. I was a musician, playing in bars, drinking too much, hoping for fame and acclaim as a singer-songwriter.
I was 31 when my first daughter was born, and still I was unsuited for parenting. I got a straight job but continued to play music in bars. My daughter made it through and is now thriving, but that first marriage didn’t survive. I’m trying to make up for that now, by being a late-blooming good grandpa. Still playing music, though.
“Leprechaun Rock and Roll” Jonathan Richman, right out of the box with his group The Modern Lovers, was a pre-punk sensation, an influence to the punk movement that grew up just after the debut album’s release. But by the time the punkers were seizing the Zeitgeist, Jonathan had moved on. His 1977 album Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers was a big step away from the punk ethos and sound. The songs were still simple and guitar-based, but the guitar was acoustic and the vocals, rather than raw and menacing, were naïve and playful. In addition to warbling his own songs, like “Ice Cream Man,” “Leprechaun Rock and Roll,” and “Dodge Veg-O-Matic,” Jonathan even covered “The Wheels on the Bus.” He is the quintessential arrested adolescent, has only become more so over time, and has maintained a loyal following of those who prize the naïve sense of wonder and the carefree spirit that come across in his songs.
One of the best shows I ever saw was Jonathan Richman’s performance, backed by his long-suffering sidekick, drummer Tommy Larkins, at a small Dallas club. The main reason this show stands out is undoubtedly that I attended with my oldest daughter, who was thirty years old at the time. See, I had played the Rock ‘n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers album for her and my youngest daughter when they were little, and the three of us sang and danced along with it. We had our moves and backup parts down, and still occasionally put on Jonathan and regress together.
So there was that history, even though Jonathan only played one song from the album at the show. But there was also this fascinating display of naivety as Richman strummed his nylon-string guitar, sang his fanciful lyrics, and riffed as things popped into his head. Tommy dutifully followed his bandleader’s fits and starts, slowdowns and speedups, and transitions into different keys or even completely different songs. Jonathan Richman really does seem free of any of the boundaries his performer peers operate inside. Is it all an act? I really don’t know. I don’t want to know. Let my daughter and me believe Jonathan Richman’s just a perpetual kid finding his way, musically, through the dangerous world.
“I Won’t Grow Up” This song was a standout from the 1954 musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. It was written by Carolyn Leigh and Mark “Moose” Charlap (now there’s a nickname that he probably wanted to outgrow). Of course, it was a grown woman, Mary Martin—age 40, who played Peter and sang about refusing to become a man with a moustache. (Safe bet for Ms. Martin.)
A favorite version of the song is also by a grown woman, Rickie Lee Jones, on her charming covers album Pop Pop, which seems to be themed around a return to innocence, with its cover taken from a kiddie novelty.
“Dat Dere” Another playful song on RLJ’s Pop Pop is her take on the 1960 jazz tune by Bobby Timmons. Oscar Brown, Jr., wrote the baby-talk lyrics that Rickie Lee slides into so naturally. Timmons also wrote “Dis Here,” and both songs were a big part of Cannonball Adderley’s rise as a soul-jazz pioneer.
I marvel at the fluidity of “Dat Dere”: Its instrumental versions, especially Cannonball’s, are swaggery and hip. Add in Brown’s child’s-point-of-view lyrics (“And mommy, can I have dat big elep’ant ober dere?”), and the character of the song changes completely. And yet, I love it equally with and without the words.
“When I Grow Up” The mere fact that The Beach Boys have been saddled with their youthful moniker well into their dotage is noteworthy. They ditched the surfer shirts when they went through their hippie phase and never went back, but every audience member at their shows regresses several decades—a roomful of boys and girls who are on the AARP subscription list.
Brian Wilson was already twenty-two when he wrote this song of angst about entering adulthood. “Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid?” And now, in his seventies, he’s still like a child, a spacey child who gets lost in daydreams, who needs to be handled by a grownup.
“Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” They Might Be Giants: even the name is defiantly juvenile. TMBG is two Johns, Flansburgh and Linnell, who met in high school. They recorded cassettes in the early-to-mid-eighties, along with songs for their popular “Dial-a-Song” service (call the number, get an original song).
These guys are like class clowns, recording their wacky songs like a cutup throws his jokes out there, hoping for a reaction. Some TMBG songs fall flat, just like some of the class clown’s gags always do, but like the jokes, the songs are short; if one doesn’t grab you, you move on to the next track. They pull off some jejunity: “We Want a Rock” is an obvious pun, but works; “The Mesopotamians” is a “Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees”-style band song for a band of, yes, Mesopotamians; “James K. Polk” is a cute history lesson with a theremin ride. A bonus track on the reissue of their first and second albums features a recording of a group of schoolkids singing “Particle Man.”
Great Song Titles: In addition to “Hope That I Get Old Before I Die,” their song titles include “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” “Rabid Child,” and “Hide Away, Folk Family.”