Jonathan Richman’s Open Mic Nights

Ted Scourtis worked at E.U. Wurlitzer from 1967 through 1970. He’s a musician, writer and frequent witness to Boston rock history

I don’t remember exactly what year it was when a teenage Jonathan Richman started showing up at the local Boston hoots (today’s open mics) but it was probably in the mid- to late-sixties. He’d show up at coffeehouses such as the Unicorn, Catacombs, The Loft, and maybe even the ‘47’. He “played” an out of tune, economy 12-string guitar, possessed a coarse and off-key singing voice, and sang VERY odd and simplistic songs that were odes to the American pop culture of the day. He had a particular untamed exuberance that was singular in its intensity. I recall he had a peculiar fascination with Howard Johnson’s, the new suburbia, and its related commercialism. Onstage, he extolled these virtues in a style that, in this early stage of his artistic development, can be charitably described as “Unpolished”.

In actuality, his passion was years ahead of his talent, and in an odd way, this could make him very ingratiating as a performer, if one was willing to stick around for the cacophony. That said, he had the dubious ability to empty a room of listeners, and often did just that. You didn’t want to follow his set onstage, because you’d often be playing to an empty room. He’d flang on that 12-string like it was the enemy, and let loose on his bewildered listeners with a full frontal attack of ranting lyrics, invisible melodies, accompanied by his total isolation from the audience, and poor to non-existent phrasing and mic technique. He was the object of many a catcall, and walkouts were common during his time on stage. Club owners routinely placed him last on the list of performers, but he stayed and played! The kid had balls! When he’d come into E.U. Wurlitzer and hang out, he was soft spoken, intelligent, and consumed with the same intensity he possessed onstage. He worshiped Ho Jo’s, Andy Warhol and Andy’s outlook on the culture, and it wasn’t surprising that he later made his fateful pilgrimage to NYC.

[Fellow Wurlitzer employee] Bob Cavanagh and I once had a conversation about him, and concluded that Jonathan’s relentless pursuit of his art, his slow but inevitable maturation as a musician and songwriter, and his unbelievably thick skin would hold him in good stead in his quest for his unique place in popular music. His later success wasn’t really a surprise. His early perseverance helped him become a true American “piece of work,” in the best sense of the phrase.

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