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

The state of his life these days is a public mystery. Richman wasn't wearing a ring a couple of weeks ago in the Richmond. The saddest song on the forthcoming I'm So Confused is "Love Me Like I Love," where he sings, "When I was 6 years old / I never dreamed I'd grow up to be so isolated." His voice almost breaks as he repeats the word "isolated."

Back at the restaurant, Richman picks from three separate plates of food and a bowl of sweet and sour soup. (As he says in one of his spoken-word monologues, he eats with gusto. Damn! You bet.) I ask Richman if he wants to talk about his new record. "Sure," he says. "I don't know much about it other than the title of it. It's called I'm So Confused, and it will be out in October." I ask what the songs are like. "Well, I don't know--see, I'm not so good at talking about stuff like that."

Produced by the Cars' Ric Ocasek, whom Richman has known since the early '70s, the album is a 12-song romp through almost every genre and theme that Richman has explored for the past 25 years. Though distributed by the very major Warner Bros., Vapor Records, which is co-owned by Neil Young and his manager, Elliott Roberts, is giving Richman indie-label freedom. ("It's not like I'm going to tell Jonathan about writing," says Roberts. "He's an artist.")

To some extent I'm So Confused is an album that could only be made after Richman had passed through a dozen minor creative cycles--simple '50s rock and roll, island melodies, surfy guitar, and plastic-stringed flamenco--and at least three major periods. Ocasek's production ditches the horn sections that brightened Surrender and replaces them with occasional shrill synthesizers. Drummer Tommy Larkins' quick shuffle is still there, and Richman's sharp guitar lines capture the same sharp, twangy sound that appeared first on "Egyptian Reggae," the Modern Lovers' instrumental European hit single recorded in 1976.

I'm So Confused begins with a new version of "When I Dance," off 1986's It's Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, which uses a loping, clip-cloppy beat that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Jonathan Goes Country. "Nineteen in Naples"--a rockin' four-four yarn about a European vacation he took as a teenager--is thematically similar to 1991's self-deprecating and hilarious "Monologue About Bermuda." On "Naples" he admits that he was "overintellectual" and "such a little brat" in that period. Both songs help explain the disparity between his life stages--those days as an original Modern Lover and that transformation into a little airplane who zoomed about the stage.

The pretty "Affection" is rerecorded with more unnecessary synthesizers and a corny '90s reference to group hugs, while the harsh "True Love Is Not Nice" gets borrowed from the There's Something About Mary soundtrack.

"The Lonely Little Thrift Store" could call those old Beserkley songs cousin, except that the tune has a depressing edge amid the poesy. Cataloged among the items at the "hard-luck little thrift store" are "All the avocado green appliances / With the smell of domestic violences," and a sad popcorn popper given to a couple as a wedding gift and thrown out upon divorce.

"Everybody hears music differently," Richman says over lunch. "What may seem obvious to one person is totally a weird idea to another person."

The best thing about Jonathan Richman is that it's not always clear when you're supposed to laugh or when you're supposed to cry. "Sometimes there are times that I plain just don't like the audience if they laugh at the wrong time," he says. "It all depends. Sometimes me and the audience get along great. And sometimes there's trouble. Heh-heh, ha."

In this age of irony and detachment, we're trained to laugh at sincerity, to mock naivete. We're also supposed to like our rock and roll loud. Richman probably hasn't played a power chord for more than 20 years, and though much of the early naivete is gone, he is still painfully sincere. It's his ultimate charm. Before meeting him, I guessed that Richman might be putting on an act onstage. It seemed so sappy, at times self-conscious, and almost deliberately quirky.

I'm now positive that he wasn't. Those who know him say he's always been that way. "He used to write songs in my living room," says Dawn Holliday. "He would get up in the morning and be Jonathan, and through breakfast he'd be Jonathan. In the afternoon, he'd still be Jonathan. He would write songs, beating on his chest for the rhythm...He's lived a really true life."

What Richman offers then is himself. He doesn't so much want to be back in your life, he wants you to watch his. "He's a very sincere, genuine person," agrees Allan Mason, who remained Richman's pal after recording the original Modern Lovers. "What you see is what you get; that's the real deal...If you're childlike, young at heart, how can you not love this person?"

Incidentally, after feeling about as useful as a sixth toe at the photo shoot after our interview, I figured out what the hell the "something about Mary that they don't know" was. And, like Richman said, it was there in the song, as literal as can be, hidden right there in the second verse, just after he explains that the bumbling fellas in his tale know about domestic and imported ale: "They don't know a thing about love." Which reminds you that Jonathan Richman has a way of extracting the essence of character and getting to elemental feelings, to the center of the story itself.

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