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(Credit: Rounder Records)

Music

A love letter to Jonathan Richman’s ‘Conan’ performance

@TomTaylorFO

“What is it that makes a performance compelling?” Woody Harrelson once mused, “Well, I guess it’s just the degree of vulnerability, maybe,” he rather uncertainly concluded. Albeit he was talking about acting, in some ways his appraisal might hold true when it comes to Jonathan Richman’s performance of ‘I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar’ on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. It might not be the greatest performance of all time in terms of note-perfect majesty, but Richman knows that greatness is one thing but to be loved is quite another, and in that knowledge, he delivers quite possibly my favourite single live performance of all time.

In keeping with Harrelson’s wise words, behind all the brightly beaming high jinks of the performance, there are passing patches of shady vulnerability. However, Richman brushes these aside and basks in the sun of buzzing spotlight bravura not despite the vulnerability beneath, but in spite of it. Too many people let a notion of dignity get in the way of a good time, but not Richman—Richman strives for pure exultation and remains dignified all the same.

What’s more, all of this seems perfectly in line with the song itself. It’s almost as though he emerged from the Lesbian Bar with some sort of sacred knowledge that eternally added a skip to his stride and a tap to his tootsies, as he bumbles around imparting the godly virtue that farting about is the meaning of life, in the same effortless way that a bee makes the world go round simply by gathering up slurps of its favourite nectar. It would seem that since leaving that mystic Lesbian Bar, our little Richman vowed never to be ‘just okay’ ever again. 

Laissez-Faire? He gives the phrase its meaning. The industrial zone? He takes you there. Wine? It’s not even mentioned in the song but he’s somehow magically pouring you another glass as his hand unzips the screen you’re watching, and he sloshes a glug of good times your way.

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And that, in short, is where the performance exists for me, and I suspect plenty of others—those weekend nights where you’ve either staggered home with good company or you never staggered out in the first place, and it’s not greatness that you’re after, but some everyday God bracing his humility and allowing you to join him on his compelling hip-shaking trip where vulnerability scurries away from the glare of good times. And you sit there contentedly with someone and think this is the sort of moment you’d keep for a memory if you could pop it in a flask.

Bristling with contentment, Richman beautifully elucidates that self-confidence and self-satisfaction are not the same as ugly arrogance as his happy little face urges you to juice life down to the pith, and he does all this simply by being himself. Fortunately, for our sakes, that kindly self also happens to be a fantastic songwriter. Structure might not be poured over but feeling certainly is, and the melody rides home with a similar unhindered euphoria to that moment when the scissors start gliding through the wrapping paper. 

Joyous guitar interludes – which he routinely announces in advance so as not to shock you with his ordinary brilliance – provide more comfort than new sheets. Then comes the grand moment, the pièce de resistance, that hot second reveal of a winning scratchcard: A single leg raise and swivel of such beauty that Louvre closed its doors and a prideful swan that accidentally saw the performance suffered a sudden bout of alopecia—a leg swing of such circular brilliance that it summoned the ghost of Archimedes. And then, it all ends somewhat suddenly, and after a brief pause you say to the screen before you and the nearest and dearest around, with a smile as wide as a million miles upon your goonish face, ‘Well, wasn’t that something’.