In the late afternoon of New Year’s Eve 2002 I was in a record store in Pamplona, Spain. This wasn’t some quaint old joint in the touristy bull-running town centre, where earlier I had been enjoying tapas with my friends, but a brightly-lit premises jammed in between the ground-floor supermercado and laundrette of a modern apartment complex in the residential area out past the citadel. Walking back to our friends’ apartment, we had passed it by chance. I couldn’t resist.
Whenever I’m in a new city I like to find a record store or bookshop so I can treat myself to an album or book as a souvenir. It doesn’t have to be local produce; in Modena for a wedding a couple of years later, for instance, I would forgo its favourite son Luciano Pavarotti and instead buy the just-released first Scissor Sisters album. I still have it to hand, its excellent ‘70s-flavoured New York disco-country-pop reminding me of the terracotta colours and dry heat of late Italian summer.
Back in wintry Pamplona, though, there wasn’t a great choice of records to buy; mostly US nü-metal, Korn and the like. The only one that stood out for me was an album called I’m So Confused by Jonathan Richman, because one of its tracks, ‘When I Dance’, had caught my ear late one night on the radio and it sounded like my kind of catchy alt-pop.
However, I wanted to save my money for when I’d be in Paris two days later, so I left the CD on the shelf. I didn’t buy that Jonathan Richman album in that small music shop in Pamplona, and that decision has had a disproportionately huge effect on my life.
In Paris, continuing my record-store tourism, I looked for that album but I couldn’t find it. I became a bit obsessed with it. I went to nearly every record shop across the city and it wasn’t there. The person with me at the time wasn’t too impressed. You can imagine how that eventually turned out.
Back in my then home of Dublin, it wasn’t in any record shop either. I knew this because I forensically searched all of them. Eventually, exhausting all possibilities, I had to ask one of these music shops to order I’m So Confused by Jonathan Richman for me from some warehouse in Arsebucket, Illinois, USA. It being less of a priority for them than for me, they took their time with it, despite my frequent checking. Perhaps one day, I thought to myself, one could somehow cut out the middleperson and order a record or book to be delivered directly to your door, but that seemed implausible.
Eventually the album arrived and I loved it; multicoloured alt-pop with a pitch-black undercoat of despair and loneliness. The songs are from the time of Richman’s divorce, and in all of them he’s at less than top-of-the-morning form. He’s either feeling socially awkward (‘When I Dance’), physically threatened (‘Nineteen In Naples’), rejected (‘The Lonely Little Thrift Store’), insecure (‘Love Me Like I Love’), heartbroken (‘True Love Is Not Nice’) or depressed (‘I’m So Confused’). And these are the uptempo numbers. Throughout, Richman’s guitaring veers from Stones-y riffing to folksy jaunting while his long-time drummer and sidekick Tommy Larkins rolls out rock-solid foundations.
The following year Richman brought out a new album, called Not So Much To Be Loved As To Love. By now he was happily in love again, and his new songs were every bit as drippy and naff as the title. I was so appalled that I felt the need to warn the wider world. So I wrote my first ever album review, which soon escalated into a full-blown music writing racket for that website and other publications, along with consuming countless albums and concerts. I don’t do that any more, but these blog posts scratch the recurring itch to write something about music, so that road leads here too.
I still listen to I’m So Confused from time to time. It doesn’t remind me of Pamplona or Paris, but of being obsessed about a record or a book — to be precise, and in a strange way, about a record or book I haven’t heard or read yet. You see, for a long time I would buy a book or album in the hope that this would be the one to make everything ‘click’ in my head and in my life. None ever did, of course. It’s a lot to ask of an indie guitar record, I grant you. But I was underwhelmed and bored by my first post-college job, my interpersonal relationships weren’t too good (something about “dragging me all around Paris to find a CD” or whatever), so music and books were really the only way I was engaging with the world outside my head. It was that or nothing.
In the end I had to get rid of this way of thinking about books, albums, my head and my life. I can’t say I’ve ever heard that definitive ‘click’, but I enjoy all these things a lot more now. Maybe that’s good enough.
And just now I’ve used Google Maps and Street View to stand virtually outside that exact store in the suburbs of Pamplona — unsurprisingly, it’s no longer an out-of-place record shop but a generic mobile phone outlet. And who’s to say that’s not an improvement too? After all, it was a terrible record store.
Here’s the catchy title track from Jonathan Richman’s excellent album I’m So Confused. On second thoughts, maybe I do that Pamplona record store a disservice. After all, it had this one fine record, which is more than can be said for all the record stores in Paris and Dublin put together: