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Old-school lover: Jonathan Richman plays the Vets Hall Friday with his old drummer Tommy Larkins.

The Joy Boy

Jonathan Richman keeps the post-punk rock & roll party going as he and Modern Lovers drummer Tommy Larkins head to Santa Cruz's Vets Hall.

By Alex Gilrane

Sometimes a simple lyric and a simple melody can add up to rock & roll magic. Jonathan Richman knows this. In 1972, a time when pop music was starting to become pretentious and bloviated, he wrote a perfect rock & roll song.
Roadrunner roadrunner!/ Runnin' faster miles an hour. / Gonna drive past the Stop 'n' Shop,/ With my radio on. (Radio on!)/ I'm in love with the modern world! (Radio on!)/ I'm in love with the modern girls! (Radio on!)/ I'm in love wth Massachusetts! (Radio on!)/ I've got my radio on.

On the page it ain't much. On the radio, it'll make you glad to be alive.Jonathan Richman also knows that a really weird idea can sound like pure genius when it's set to the right tune. And so we have "I Was Dancing In a Lesbian Bar" (In the first bar, things were ... alright; but in this bar, things were ... Friday night!), and we have "Pablo Picasso" (Well he was only five foot three, but girls could not resist his stare. Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole.). On the page, maybe just weird. At a show, definitely hilarious fun.Richman fell in love with rock & roll as a teenager, so he moved to New York in 1969 to hang out with the Velvet Underground for a while, and then returned to Boston to start his own band, the Modern Lovers. All of these songs are from the first Modern Lovers album, released in 1976. It was a great time for rock & roll. On the one hand, with bands like the Clash, the music had become more genuinely serious. On the other hand, from the Ramones forward, the music had regained its subversive sense of humor.

The Modern Lovers was a blast, and a pretty big hit on the East Coast—"Roadrunner" was one of the first post-punk songs to get regular airplay. Before the record was even released, keyboardist Jerry Harrison left to join Talking Heads and drummer David Robinson left to join the Cars.

In the 30 years since, Jonathan Richman has put out a dozen or so albums containing scores of songs that range from the brilliantly quirky to the simply beautiful. Stylistically, they're all over the map, from country rock to Spanish faux-folk, but all contain the paradoxical combination of childlike sincerity and smartass irony that is Richman's unique oeuvre.

Throughout, he has maintained a devoted cult following, which happens to include the filmmaking Farrely Brothers, who cast him, along with drummer Tommy Larkins, in There's Something About Mary as a kind of two-man Greek chorus. That's the lineup that will appear at the Vets Hall in a show that is certain to be memorable. At a Catalyst show a few years back, a small but happy audience got a taste of the Richman magic when Richman, apparently overcome with joy, put down his guitar and simply went wild. It was something else.

JONATHAN RICHMAN Friday, Dec. 7, at 8pm at the Vets Hall, 846 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $15 adv/$18 door. (831.454.0478)

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