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WORTH TAKING TO HEART : Jonathan Richman's Quirky Kind of Love

November 22, 1990|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

It takes a special kind of enthusiasm to create a world of one's own.

But then, Jonathan Richman is nothing if not enthusiastic. Consequently, this singularly quirky rocker lets his imagination wander a bit more freely than the average songwriter.

Consider how Richman once envisioned the moment of mankind's first extraterrestrial contact: "Here come the Martian Martians, riding on their Martian bikes/Now we've got to find out right now, what kind of ice cream do these Martians like?"

Or consider Richman's way of pondering issues of aesthetic appreciation. A few albums ago, Richman wrote a fetching song celebrating the vibrancy of color in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh--and another song celebrating the same qualities in a grimy, discarded chewing gum wrapper.

Flip through the Richman songbook and you'll also find heartfelt expressions of fondness for his wife, for his guitar, for a '50s doo-wop group, and for an old-time fastball pitcher. Clearly, this is a person of many and varied enthusiasms, as well as considerable innocence.

All in all, it's not a bad way to approach the world, and it has a serious basis in morality. Quirkiness aside, the message of kindliness and hospitality embraced in "Martian Martians" is worth taking to heart, and "Chewing Gum Wrapper" is an echo of William Blake's esteemed aesthetic dictum "to see the world in a grain of sand."

In an age when to be hip is to be coolly ironic, Richman's high romanticism and childlike playfulness are enough to make ironists snicker or gag. But even they should have respect for what Richman, now 39, accomplished in his first incarnation as a storming young electric rocker fronting the original Modern Lovers.

Richman, raised near Boston, formed that band in the image of his first inspiration, the Velvet Underground. A collection of demo tapes cut in 1971-73 by the first Modern Lovers lineup--which included future Cars drummer David Robinson and future Talking Head Jerry Harrison--surfaced in the mid-'70s, in time to help inspire the punk rock movement (last year, critics for Rolling Stone magazine ranked "Modern Lovers" 52nd on a list of the 100 best albums of 1969-1989).

By the time that album was released in 1976, Richman had moved on to a quieter, more offbeat style of music, drawing heavily on doo-wop and rockabilly as he crooned in a terminally nasal-scratchy voice. His most recent album, "Jonathan Goes Country," veers in yet another direction.

By an odd coincidence, Richman, who now lives in Northern California, has emerged, probably unwittingly, as a sort of rock poet laureate for Orange County. In "Walter Johnson," Richman celebrates Orange County's greatest native ballplayer for his pitching prowess, but even more so for his sportsmanship and his humane attitude: "A season's just a season, and a game is just a game/Walter Johnson cared about people more than he cared about fame." And in "Fender Stratocaster," Richman extols the joyful sound of the famed rock 'n' roll guitar produced in Orange County.

Who: Jonathan Richman.

When: Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 9 p.m. With Skid Roper.

Where: Bogart's, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach.

Whereabouts: In the Marina Pacifica Mall, just past the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Westminster Avenue. Take the San Diego Freeway to the Seal Beach Boulevard exit, go left, then right on Westminster and right again on Pacific Coast Highway.

Wherewithal: $12.

Where to call: (213) 594-8975.

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