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He's wearing white Levi's pants and a jacket and vest from some old three-piece suit, decorated at the neck with the wide, open collar of a polyester shirt--a perfect re-creation of teen dating style from the Welcome Back Kotter era. As he runs through his song list--self-penned, idiosyncratic songs that celebrate the little things in life, often absurdly ("Jimmy the Rock," "Lovely Happy Day," and "Plucky," an ode to a plastic bear from his childhood), and covers like Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home"--a group of beer-stunned frat boys mill and sway in front of the stage. They seem highly amused by Corn Mo, while at the same time utterly missing the almost-painful sincerity he projects.
He's introducing the next song, "Shine On, Golden Warrior," in a loud, almost-stammering voice that is a mixture of a first-time oral report and a child reciting a story he doesn't expect anyone to believe; it's a tendency toward affectation that also crops up in his singing: He can out-Axl Axl Rose at the drop of a hat. The next song, Mo says, was inspired by Kevin Von Erich of the famous wrestling family, who personally paid a visit to him in response to a fan letter and obviously earned his eternal respect. Mo adjusts his accordion and gets ready to start.
"Whooga nubbubbma frshhpkt gahhr," one of the frat boys hollers. "Hoom gooly hooms?"
Corn Mo looks down sharply. "No, he wasn't the savior!" he admonishes. "He was just a wrestler, although the greatest in the history of the world, and this is a song I wrote for him!"
There are probably a lot of points that fly past these beer-drenched boobs, but you can't really fault them for missing Corn Mo's: In this age of bogus retro cool and ironic quote marks that seem to bracket almost everything, his music--drawing heavily on childhood experiences and a sense of wonder and hurt familiar to any Jonathan Richman fan--is easily lumped in with other contributors to the Nickelodeon-ization of our culture.
What distinguishes Corn Mo is a palpable sincerity, and that--even if it is at times cloaked in a sentimentality as brazen as that found in big-eyed puppy paintings--enables him to find that grain of truth hidden at the heart of things, even if it's a Motley Crue song. His vibe is performer-as-alien--the nervously darting eyes, the discomfort--and it reminds you of Bobcat Goldthwaite, but gentler, more like the late Andy Kaufman in an accessible mood: the singer as a brother from a completely different planet.
When Mo does Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" on his accordion, it's with an enthusiastic Jimmy Sturr-on-acid treatment; every "whooooooo!" and "funny, I don't feel tardy" faithfully represented and pointing up the sublime stupidity that lies at the core of every great pop song. When his set is over, a number of members of the small crowd wait to talk with him, and he visits with each one of them before loading his gear up into his battered pickup.
It was in the third grade, growing up in Maryland, that the essence of Jon Cunningham -- and also Corn Mo -- began to form. "I was a big fan of The Hardy Boys (TV show) and Hee- Haw," Cunningham recalls. "I thought Shaun Cassidy and the Osmonds were the shit."
He'd been singing in his church choir, but that year he decided to sing Cassidy's "That's Rock 'n' Roll" for the school talent show. Unfortunately, the previous day he'd also been in a schoolyard scrap and already had an appointment with the vice principal. He considered himself doomed, but went ahead with the show, anyway.
"I had this white denim jacket," Cunningham remembers. "My mom had put my name on the back with glitter and glue." Even at that tender age he had the presence of mind to recruit the girls who had done a tumbling act to "Brick House" immediately before him to stick around and go-go dance behind him as he sang; at the end of the show--when he stripped his coat off and threw it into the crowd--the place went nuts. "It was a good show," he says now, as if it were just last week. Later that day there was a second assembly, and Jon repeated his act, only this time he wore several layers of shirts, whipping off each one in its turn to even more response. Afterward, with a heavy heart, he plodded into the VP's office.
"You wanted to see me?" he asked. The principal nodded his head excitedly.
"Man, Jon, you were really good! That was great!" he said.
Cunningham was taken aback. "Um...yeah...thanks. Should I come back in tomorrow about..."
The principal waved his hand. "Naw. Don't worry about it."
"I left that office thinking, 'Wow,'" Cunningham remembers.
He also remembers the trips the family would take to Haussner's, an old Baltimore restaurant that featured great seafood and German fare and--more importantly--a nearly unforgettable atmosphere. Waitresses, dressed as if it were still 1955, brought huge plates of Wiener Schnitzel and sauerbraten as customers ate along walls covered with art: grand landscapes in elaborate gilt frames, painted busts of Roman statesmen, museum cases full of porcelain vases and figurines, and shelves and sills full of bronze statues of stags and rampant stallions. It was an invocation that impressed Cunningham. "The muse for the whole Corn Mo show," he explains, "is the vibe of that restaurant."