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Wide-eyed wonder

Jonathan Richman does not build walls

Jonathan Richman to sing next week in Olympia. Press photo

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Years ago, when I was making my first little excursions into the world of the deeply nerdy and wonderfully heartfelt world of artists like They Might Be Giants, Daniel Johnston, and Jonathan Richman, my dad would poke fun at me by pointing out the frivolity and randomness of their song topics.

"All these people just look at a pencil and write little ditty about it," my dad would say. I'd get huffy and defend their artistry, and typically throw in something about him not getting it.

One day, though, I saw an interview with Jonathan Richman where he literally and excitedly talks about finding a candy wrapper on the ground and immediately writing a song about it, and I had to admit defeat - to myself, because I would of course never give my dad the satisfaction.

The truth is, Jonathan Richman has always written songs about the little things that leap into his mind. Sometimes, these thoughts manifest themselves as odes to abominable snowmen or mosquitoes, and sometimes the things that pass through his head are about the very nature of finding and keeping love. Richman is a man who has never shied away from keeping his heart permanently perched on his sleeve, and he shows no signs of ever building up a wall.

Richman's penchant for romanticism has evolved, over the years, from his proto-punk days with the Modern Lovers - where he found himself in opposition to the drug-happy culture of the early ‘70s, declaring himself drug-free and therefore more deserving of getting the girl than that Hippy Johnny fellow - to his transition into the whimsical troubadour who never stopped striving for love and happiness in all its messy, sometimes heartbreaking glory.

As a songwriter, Jonathan Richman's work has always had a childlike wonder about it, but he stops short of naivete. Yes, he keeps yearning for the things that make this world a wondrous place to be, but he never wore blinders. As he's gotten older - now a 64-year-old man with salt-and-pepper hair, but still with that gleam in his eyes - his mind has increasingly turned to death and aging and what happens when your friends leave for greener pastures. While these topics might sound painful or depressing, Richman proves on albums like 2010's O Moon, Queen of Night On Earth that you can steer into sadness and melancholy without involving the miserablism that so many singer-songwriters lean on.

Part of the levity that still defines Richman's output has to due with his continuing fetishization of genres like rockabilly, tropicalia, and an increased fascination with European styles. His modest tenor range remains youthful and vulnerable, imbuing his songs with that familiar sense of searching that lent "Roadrunner" that feeling of adventure that made it an all-time great driving song all those many years ago. The aforementioned "I'm Straight" gains much of its stomping power through Richman's increased confidence that builds to a macho shout by the end of the song; it's the transition from the shy boy leaving a voicemail that starts the song to the cocksure frontman leading his band in a rallying cry that ends the song. This dramatic tension between youth and maturity defines much of Richman's best output.

Jonathan Richman is a national treasure who's been writing and performing some of the most winsome and unique music out there for over 40 years. When he makes his return to Olympia - a town that adores Richman more than most - he would love to see you in the audience, singing along to his tender, wide-eyed songs of love and the sometimes devastating power of life.

Of course, sometimes he just sees a neat-looking candy wrapper on the sidewalk that he'd like to tell you about, and that's good, too.

Capitol Theatre Backstage, All Ages, w/ Tommy Larkins, Thursday, June 11, 7:30 p.m., $12, 206 5th Ave SE, Olympia, 360.754.6670

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