Five Guys, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman

There are two kinds of hamburgers.

First, you’ve got your… look, I can’t say it any better than does the chief Chowhound, Jim Leff:

It’s important to bear in mind that there are two sorts of objects that are both called “hamburger”. There are big, fat, steaky, coarse-ground gourmet pub/steakhouse-style hamburgers and patty-ish fast food style hamburgers. One isn’t trying to be the other, and IMO one isn’t “better” than the other, but those who prefer the former often express contempt at great versions of the latter. You’ve got to take genre into account.

The latest addition to the State Street “drunk and hungry” corridor is Five Guys, the metro D.C. burger chain that’s metastatically franchising itself all over the country — 250 stores currently open, 200 more opening this year. Their burger is of the second genre.

It’s actually a subtler thing than a thick burger. The thick burger is a piece of meat with some bread wrapped around it as a grip — whether it works depends, finally, on the meat. The patty-style burger, by contrast, is a complicated vertical arrangement of thin layers — bread, meat, sauce, ketchup, tomato, pickle, onion, whatever — which aren’t meant to be experienced separately. Like a hot, greasy tiramisu.

The greatest patty burger I know is the one at Bellaire Broiler Burger in Houston. One bite and I understood, as never before, the grand tradition of which the Big Mac is a crude debasement. Five Guys doesn’t come close to this standard — for me it doesn’t even match the offering at Kopp’s, where the hamburgers are an afterthought to the custard. But it’s a solid effort, satisfying, cheap, and fast, and certainly a much better addition to State Street than the weirdly robotic Za’s and the unspeakably vulgar Love Shack.

Five Guys doesn’t need my endorsement — when I stopped by Thursday night on my way to see Jonathan Richman, the place was packed solid, with twenty people waiting in line to order. (They don’t sell much more than burgers and fries, so the line moves pretty fast.)

The show started at 8:30 — early nights out are one of my favorite things about Madison nightlife, which is pressed up so closely against dinnertime that it might better be called “eveninglife.” Perennial Athens scenester Vic Chesnutt played a short acoustic set of songs with very few notes and very little structure. At first I was doubtful, but he won over the crowd with two songs: “Morally Challenged” by his sometime band brute, a weird string of bluesy couplets separated by Chesnutt pretending to play trumpet with his mouth; and “It’s An Honor To Open The Show For Jonathan.” I really think every opening act should be required to compose and perform a song in praise of the headliner.

Jonathan Richman! Always great. His songs, now, especially the old ones, have turned into backdrops for his particular herky-jerky mode of storytelling — so e.g. we hear about Jonathan’s slow and painful education in the art of the romantic approach, and at every moment in the story at which the teenaged JR must have thought, “This never happened to Pablo Picasso,” we get a piece of the song. There are several such moments.

Has Jonathan Richman been forgotten by America’s youth? I asked four or five members of the math department’s indie rock caucus — all under 30, all very well-educated people who can surely drop the names of the Velvet Underground, the Stooges, Nick Drake, and other figures of the years shortly before our birth now recognized as Rock Legends — and not only did no one have plans to go, they all, to a person, asked me “Who’s Jonathan Richman?”

In case you are among the unluckies of the Earth who is still asking this question, this magisterial blog post on Flaming Pablum will tell you everything you need to know about Jonathan Richman, his band The Modern Lovers, and in particular, the song “I’m Straight.”

I called this number three times already today
But I, I got scared, I put
It back in place, I put my phone back in place.
I still don’t know if I
should have called up.
Look, just tell me why don’t ya if I’m out of place.
‘Cause here’s your chance to make me feel awkward
And wish that I had
never even called up this place.
I saw you though today walk by with hippie Johnny.
I had to call up and say how I want to take his place.

Which gives only a tiny hint of the greatness that is “I’m Straight.” I can’t find a video of JR performing the song, but here’s the original Modern Lovers track, inexplicably backing a collection of unrelated clips, mostly of snowboarding.

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3 thoughts on “Five Guys, Vic Chesnutt, Jonathan Richman

  1. John Cowan says:

    The trouble is that if you think ketchup is an insult to Malay fish sauce, and mustard is something to be taken externally in emergencies, then what’s left of the patty-style burger is not worth eating.

  2. Jim says:

    One great thing about JR being forgotten is that you scan score big points by giving the Modern Lovers as a gift.

    See you on P-day!

  3. anony says:

    Jonathan Richman — definitely NOT forgotten by today’s youth!

    – 22 yr old math grad student

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