The life of Corn Mo--stage name of Jon Cunningham--may well have been saved by rock 'n' roll. He's on stage now, his long blond hair a tangle obscuring his face as he pumps and dips his way through an accordion-driven version of Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine"; his reading of the song is surprisingly fervent.
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."
As a youth Cunningham moved often; he took piano lessons and got into country music, watching Hee-Haw "religiously" and listening to Kenny Rogers and T.G. Sheppard. One of his piano teachers was a young, hip guy who would regale him with tales of the rock band the teacher was in.
"All of a sudden, it dawned on me," Cunningham relates. "I could play...so I could be in a band." In eighth grade he went out for football, working out religiously and developing a love of both the Rocky series and the band Survivor, which led him to pop acts like Steve Miller and Lionel Richie. Football, however, was not to last. "I wanted to be accepted," Cunningham remembers. "I was kind of a nerd back then, and I got kicked around a lot. That's why so many of my songs are about junior high, because I loved that time and I also hated it...I was too scared to fight, and I wanted to get girls but didn't know how." At the same time that he started freshman football, he got into the school jazz band. Then there came a revelation, and football was out the door for good: "There was this girl in my P.E. class who never really talked to me, but after [a jazz band concert] she came up and, like, wanted to hang out with me." His face mimics the turning on of a light bulb. "It was like, 'Girls get impressed when you play.'"
After that it was Triumph and Van Halen; Twisted Sister, Ozzie, and Rush. Although his family was very religious--Cunningham has attended more than his share of youth seminars on backward masking and the evils of rock in general--he was hooked, although at the time "[Black] Sabbath scared me," he says. When the family moved to San Antonio, that town's metal-friendly atmosphere was just what Cunningham needed; he joined a few bands. (He is featured on one of his first tapes doing a quite credible cover of idol David Lee Roth's "Yankee Rose," every vocal histrionic lovingly reproduced.) Although still "really into church" and very much a fan of Christian metal band Stryper, he played in bands that were covering the likes of Iron Maiden.
He decided to attend the University of North Texas as a composition major. It was a time of both great discovery and disappointment. "I got burned out on playing the piano literally all the time," he says now, "and they were always telling me that I wasn't playing it right." But he was also discovering bands like the Butthole Surfers and They Might Be Giants, and then he met the late Avon Gillespie, a UNT prof who was "one of those rare magical people; we called him Mr. G., but he was always Mr. Magic to me. He had men's chorus," Cunningham recalls, "which most profs thought of as a joke--rockers who couldn't sing--but Mr. G. loved the idea...He made us dance and do all sorts of crazy stuff."
"Mr. G. always talked about the schmaltz," Cunningham explains, "the entertainment value of a song, and he turned me on to the fact that people want to see a show; you can sing on key and everything, but people want to be entertained, too." Mr. G. took the chorus to a Brave Combo show once--he was always doing stuff like that--and the eclectic band did a samba version of the Exorcist theme that blew Cunningham's mind. "Before, when I was into metal and people would say stuff like 'David Byrne is a genius,' I'd be like, 'What the fuck?'...That night I finally realized what they meant." The education of Jon Cunningham--and the gestation of Corn Mo--had begun.
He and a group of friends formed the Flying Couch Potato Review, featuring a lot of juggling, fire-eating, and clowning and providing Cunningham with an outlet for the "dumb songs" like "The Baloney Song" that he'd compose in the shower. The group's shows were bizarre: Cunningham would sing his "My Epilady" ("It hurts me when I shave") while another member read the Communist Manifesto out loud and the audience bombarded the Review with wads of crumpled paper. "It was just dumb college stuff," Cunningham allows. "Just people thinking that they're clever."
But it was the place where Cunningham's idea of doing "post-modern vaudeville" was born, and when he hooked up with Scott Webb and formed the duo Corn Mo (the name comes from one of Cunningham's rotisserie league pitchers) and Mauve Oed (for Oedipus), that idea became an actual process that could be worked on. The two became street musicians, learning how to stake out a spot, attract attention, and create a vibe while working a crowd.
It was a period that saw Cunningham getting more into music: "We were a serious joke band," he maintains. "I was writing songs with an almost [Winnie the] Pooh-like whimsicality, but there was always a serious side to them...But the only way I could address that was to make a joke out of it; otherwise I was afraid that people wouldn't like it.
"It was a catharsis, a 'fuck you' to the metal bands, 'cause I could never attain that--my hair wasn't long enough, or the band wasn't quite right." Cunningham, almost unfailingly polite, is gathering steam now, leaning forward intently. "It was like, 'Fuck Whitesnake; fuck Yngwie [Malmsteen]; fuck all the jazz guys who said, "Oh, I learned how to play Rush in the ninth grade and now I'm done with it"; fuck the department that said I wasn't playing the piano right...fuck playing scales and fuck all the complicated shit I could never understand and fuck playing music the way it's 'supposed' to be played...I wanted to have fun.
"I was so frustrated because I could never be Vince Neil or David Lee Roth, not starting at this simple, stupid college-band man-child place...I had started looking at my metal bands more for their tongue-in-cheek entertainment value; I wanted to be weird, but not that clever 'Hey, look at me' weird...It was like I was trying to take a bowl of spinach and love and make a cereal out of it. I wanted to mix different ideas, but so simply that all the entertainment would come from the act. I wanted to create the whole atmosphere, like at Haussner's, and not just play songs."
When Mauve Oed fell in love, he lost interest in the duo, and Corn Mo has soldiered on alone, taking an approach that's a combination of his hero, Danny Kaye ("he's such a performer") and the unlikely role model of senior CNN correspondent Don Harrison. "I want to keep things simple, almost Pee-wee [Herman]-like, but as if Don Harrison was in the band...I try to treat the people at my shows as if they were royalty, if I can, because to me it's a godsend that they come...I even try to win the hecklers over. After one show this guy came up and said that seeing me play inspired him to stay up all night making pottery, and to me that's what it's all about."
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So Mo has set his sights on the college circuit: "I would just like to make money at this, doing only this," he says, echoing musicians everywhere; after all, if the cretinous Carrot Top can make a go at it (with an act that's basically spastic, hyperactive foot-jiggling), why can't Corn Mo?
The truth is that beneath the off-kilter songs about rocks and wet dogs and junior high, Corn Mo connects with basic suburban truths: the loneliness behind trying to fit in, the need to find one's own way, the rewards of a life that may not necessarily be set up to reward you. In an age where so many of us have lives whose sections are totally isolated--quadrants plotted out on the concrete grid of roads and freeways, connected only by necessity and the car--music may be the only great unifier left. What do Vince Neil and David Lee Roth--or Axl Rose and Layne Staley--sing if not their era's version of the suburban adolescent blues, field hollers for Camaro-driving kids working at Burger King?
Corn Mo/Cunningham is not completely of that genre, but he understands it better than most, having come to pop through pop itself, understanding the links between Kenny Rogers, H. R. Pufnstuf, and Rush not through analysis, but by having grown up with them. He comes off like a cross between Beck and Jonathan Richman, but without their distance. Although many of his songs date from his Flying Couch Potatoes and Corn Mo/Mauve Oed periods, he's working on new ones and has a promising rough demo tape put together; he can be caught around town both solo and with his new electric band, 357 Lover. "357 Lover gives me a chance to sing in a way that I can't do solo," he explains, again betraying his love of over-the-top vocal Styx-isms.
Steve Carter--of Little Jack Melody fame--is another musician who has devoted himself to a uniquely personal vision of what music should be. Corn Mo and Mauve Oed opened for him many times in the early '90s. "He's really genuine," Carter says of Cunningham, "and he has singularly large testicular deposits; it's not easy, what he's doing, and I have a lot of admiration for him.