Something about Jonathan

Jonathan Richman helped invent punk and geek rock. Now, he comes pogo-sticking back into your life with There's Something About Mary

In the film, he and drummer Larkins are a pair of impromptu, stationary minstrels who appear from time to time to deliver some lyrical commentary on the action. In a crass, obnoxious movie loaded with slapstick and dick jokes, Richman and his partner remind the audience that there's an entirely sweet, romantic theme hovering above the nastiness.

When the Farrellys pitched the idea to Richman, who'd had a cameo in their previous movie, Kingpin, they asked if he'd seen Cat Ballou, a 1965 western spoof starring Jane Fonda as a good-girl outlaw seeking revenge and Lee Marvin as a drunken gunfighter. Nat King Cole and character actor Stubby Kaye--outfitted in western wear and loaded down with guitars and banjos--sing the story of Cat Ballou outside Fonda's jail cell, then follow the action through a train robbery, into a whorehouse, and finally out to the hangman's gallows. Richman knew the movie and didn't hesitate. Mary opens with a shot of Richman and Larkins sitting in a leafy tree in Rhode Island. Richman, staring right into the camera, his face consumed with wide-eyed sincerity, delivers the film's title song. The audience giggles, not because anything the two are doing is inherently funny, but because the audience knows it's a comedy--the form dictates the response. As Richman continues, overexaggerating his eyebrows, putting even more feeling into the song, he draws more laughs.

His friends would say, "Be reasonable"
His friends would say, "Let go"
But there's something about Mary
That they don't know

He stops strumming and cups a hand to his chest--while the guitar part continues--and gets an even bigger laugh for lip-syncing. The camera pans down into the movie proper, coming to a stop on the young Ben Stiller, his mouth full of hideous braces.

Here's the exciting story about the writing of the title track, volunteered by Richman himself: "I read the script, and I said to the director, 'You know what this movie needs?' And he goes, 'What?' And I go, 'A theme song.' So he said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'Don't go away. Tell me what you think of this.' And I sang him ['There's Something About Mary']. And I made that up a day after I read the script."

I was glad that he brought the song up, because it is a bit strange; it talks about several things that don't actually happen in the film--"They've tried to set him up with Tiffany and Indigo." But I'd forgotten about the rules, the don't-ask-any-questions-about-songs policy.

Me: "And what's the 'something about Mary that they don't know'?"
Richman: "Well, you've seen the movie."
Me: "Yes."
Richman: "So you know now."
Me: "But it's something about all the guys, right, that she doesn't know?"

Richman: "Well, you said it yourself: 'There's something about Mary.' Listen to it in the song. You've seen the movie. And it's nothing about the guys, it's something about Mary."

Me: "Ahh. I was thinking that there was something about the guys that she doesn't know."

Richman: "It doesn't say that in the song, does it?"
Me: "No, no, no."
Richman: "Why would you say that?"
Me: "Because that's what happens in the movie."
Richman: "Does it?"
Me: "Yeah."
Richman: "You think?"
Me: "Kinda."
Richman: "I didn't see it that way."
Me: "She didn't know that the guys were all stalkers."
Richman: "You're not going to put this in your article are you?"
Me: "Well."
Richman: "Well, I disagree with you."
Me: "OK."

Richman: "I don't discuss movies any more than I discuss, uh, see people read stuff, they gotta start afresh. You can't tell 'em anything."

Me: "Um."
Richman: "The song is just literal. Just what the song says is just what it means."

Pause.
Richman: "Mmm, good soup."
Me: "Mmm."

If Richman doesn't really want to talk about his personal life, it's probably because so many details about it come out in his songs. And if Richman doesn't want to talk about his songs, well, it's probably because they're so personal. "If the songs aren't always biographical, the moods are biographical," says Dawn Holliday, who books shows at San Francisco's famed club Slim's--where Richman performs every December for her birthday--and who has known the Modern Lover since the early 1970s.

If you pay close attention, the songs tell a lifetime's worth of tales. Start with "Roadrunner," Richman's acknowledged two-chord masterpiece of drone and suburban angst. "Jonathan was a teenager in his father's car driving around Massachusetts, writing 'Roadrunner,'" says Matthew King Kaufman, of indie label Beserkley, which released Richman's classic '70s albums. "He was a gangly teenage guy who had all the teenage problems of alienation." But with the Modern Lovers, Richman buried, or beat, the atmospheric loneliness with affirmation: "I'm in love with the modern world / Massachusetts when it's late at night / And the neon when it's cold outside / I got the radio on."

That song was the first cut off The Modern Lovers, a record that became a myth before it was even released. In 1971, after a brief sally into New York, where he sought out the Velvet Underground and a few early incarnations of the Modern Lovers, Jonathan Richman and his band--keyboardist Jerry Harrison, drummer David Robinson, and bassist Ernie Brooks--took the Velvet's thick, warm hum out of New York and into the suburbs of Boston. It was the dawn of the age of glam, but the Modern Lovers didn't hang around scuzzy cross-dressing speed freaks. Richman sang about what he knew best: girls, shopping-mall culture, silly hippies. At the time, not too many people were doing this.

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