They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
If anybody deserves to be described as “X years young,” it’s Jonathan Richman, who’s been in this world for 61 years as of today. Robert Christgau famously called him “an almost powerless case of arrested development,” but that was before he wrote songs like “The Girl Stands Up To Me Now,” “Let Her Go Into The Darkness,” and “That Summer Feeling,” all of which have true maturity without ever giving up Richman’s trademark unaffected wide-eyed stance. Long after he made an undeniable impact on the rock world with the Modern Lovers, Richman’s become an acoustic troubadour, criss-crossing the country with his musical tales, and has won a fervid following doing so – when he appeared as the Greek chorus of There’s Something About Mary, his fans didn’t think of him as selling out, but congratulated the world on buying in. His is truly a birthday worth celebrating – we’re doing so with the following covers…
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts – Roadrunner (Modern Lovers cover)
Two chords and the exuberant truth – that’s “Roadrunner” in a nutshell. Richman wrote it when still in his teens, and when The Modern Lovers was finally released, the four-year-old recording was still cutting-edge, a direct influence on the punk rock that was to follow. Joan Jett, no stranger to pioneering rocking herself, recorded what may be the definitive cover, with just as much punch as passion.
Phranc – Gertrude Stein (Modern Lovers cover)
Another classic track from the Modern Lovers’ debut was “Pablo Picasso,” where Peter Gunn went Cubist. When Phranc, a self-described “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger,” did her cover, she added a twist – now it’s Gertrude Stein who was never called a… well, you know. Hard to believe, but the song gets even more smiles in this version. (NSFW, just in case you didn’t know.)
The Crowd Scene – When Harpo Played His Harp (Jonathan Richman cover)
Richman saluted other heroes of his in song – Vincent van Gogh, Jan Vermeer, and Walter Johnson, to name just a few. One more hero who got tender respect was Harpo Marx, in “When Harpo Played His Harp.” The Crowd Scene performed this on the tribute album If I Were a Richman; a reviewer on Amazon says that Richman called this his favorite song on the album.
Luca – I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar (Jonathan Richman cover)
“I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar” is Richman’s testimonial to unselfconscious exuberance on the dance floor. This cover by Luca makes a credible case for the song as dance music, complete with four-four beat and synth flourishes. It may not be like Jonathan’s beloved acoustic, but as long as it gets people to shake their hips instead of drinking in sips, what does that matter?
Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste – Galaxie 500 (Modern Lovers cover)
Galaxie 500’s cover of “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste” first appeared on their debut album Today; this version, from their Peel Sessions album, sounds much richer and gives lie to the canard that they had to rely on the studio magic of producer Kramer to get a memorable sound. Certainly Richman’s a cappella original never knew it could grow up to become an epic like this.