Something about Jonathan
Relentless teenager Jonathan Richman looks old. At 47, he still has the thin hips and short, curly hair he had as an impish rocker in the early 1970s. But now his face is a little leathery, his cheeks are rough with a 3 o'clock shadow, and the crow's-feet around his eyes fly toward his temples. Onstage, playing a Fender guitar or dancing with himself, or on film--like his amusing, touching appearances in There's Something About Mary--he looks less weathered. In person, though, while still gangly, still charmingly awkward, there's something in his mien a little more careworn, a little more human, a little more...adult.
Which, of course, was inevitable. Over a musical career that spans fully 25 years, Jonathan Richman has transformed himself from gawky, precocious proto-punk to sui generis purveyor of childlike rock to hard-touring songsmith to, finally--there's no other phrase for it--an elder statesman of quirky rock, a Buddy Holly who got to grow up. For years he's been recording strange amalgams of country music and Spanish-language songs for Boston folk label Rounder; but in late 1995 he signed with Warner Bros.' Vapor Records--his first association with a major label since Sire in 1983--and will release a new record called I'm So Confused in October. He remains revered by generations of punks and an entirely new wave of tot rockers, and still plays around 200 shows a year to his cult audience all over the world. And with There's Something About Mary he's finally realized a longtime goal--to score films--and through his acting will no doubt reach a larger audience than he has known before.
But Richman is as strange as ever. Off the road, he lives a quiet life in California's Sierra foothills northeast of Sacramento. He remains ineluctably impenetrable in interviews. Even on-screen he's a mystery. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the sick and twisted directors of There's Something About Mary, never really explain what Richman is doing in the movie. He and his drummer, Tommy Larkins, pop up intermittently, unmoored from the rest of the film, to provide quirky commentary on the action in various musical styles (bossa nova, balladry, plugged-in rock). They're swaddled in down coats and scarves in one scene, grooving in silk shirts with a Miami Latin band in another, then selling hot dogs from a cart outside Mary's office building. To the cognoscenti, it's a clever and hip move; but to multiplex audiences who can only have a dim idea of who Jonathan Richman is, it must be something of a mystery.
The oddest thing about the movie is that the Farrelly Brothers seem to have captured the deeply pleasurable experience of listening to any of Richman's two-dozen-odd ebullient LPs, live records, best-of collections, and bootlegs; the same feeling you get when he takes off his guitar at a live show and just dances a bizarre Elvis swivel for a few bars before picking it up again and rejoining the melody; the same halting, disjointed, and charming way that he talks in person. The Farrellys know that when they've got the camera on Richman, he isn't really putting on an act; they let Jonathan be Jonathan.
It's a freakishly hot San Francisco Monday, but Jonathan Richman is still wearing a khakis-and-zip-jacket combo--one that wouldn't look out of character on Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. We take a table in the back corner of a Clement Street Vietnamese restaurant. I mention that I saw a recent story about him in an entertainment magazine. "It was good," I say. "Just a short little interview."
He makes a face. "Oh, not for me," he says. "That was about medium." Seeing as the story was less than half a page, I ask him what he considers a long interview. "About 15 minutes," he answers. "After that I run out of things to say."
This is bad news at the beginning of what's supposed to be at least an hourlong chat, with a photo shoot to follow. You think that Jonathan Richman, who has lived in Berkeley and is no stranger to the Bay Area, might be a great person with whom to take a walk through Golden Gate Park, maybe flip through some old Maurice Chevalier records at Amoeba and get a malted. The two of you will climb into the car and bomb up the Great Highway, with "Roadrunner"--his stunning, undeniable classic recorded with the Modern Lovers in 1972--blasting on the radio, the older, more mature Jonathan Richman riding shotgun, singing along with his younger self just this once, just for kicks.
This did not happen.
Richman is well known for either avoiding interviews altogether or making them so boring that they become more or less pointless. Among the off-limits subjects are his songs, his records, his current projects, his personal life, and his history. That leaves room for small talk and Teen Beat questions. "Do you like touring?"
He does. "Me and Tommy have so much fun." (In Richman-speak, "fun" is an essentially meaningless all-purpose descriptive; he uses it 28 times in the course of an hour.)
Richman has agreed to this meeting only because I said it would focus on his involvement--both acting and scoring--in There's Something About Mary. By Richman standards, he's excited about this topic, but he's still vague and elliptical. "It's fun," he says. "It was one of the most fun things that I have ever done."
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."
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?"
Richman: "You think?"
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?"
Richman: "Well, I disagree with you."
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."
Richman: "The song is just literal. Just what the song says is just what it means."
Richman: "Mmm, good soup."
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.
"Music that was going on after '68 was pretty stupid and pretentious," says Richman fan Calvin Johnson. Johnson, who sings in Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic, among other bands, is one of the current proponents of the innocent geek rock Richman pioneered on his Beserkley albums. In fact, Johnson's career and his 15-year-old record label, K Records of Olympia, Washington, probably wouldn't exist save for Richman's influence. "He stripped it back, built on the foundations of '50s rock and roll, not worrying about whether or not he sounded as good as Traffic."
The band got some demo money from Warner Bros. and A&M in 1972 to record with the Velvet Underground's John Cale, Richman pal Allan Mason, and Kim Fowley, a musician and writer who's produced and written for everyone from the Runaways to the Byrds. "It was a nerd version of Led Zeppelin," Fowley says now. The suits at Warners never got past the "nerd" part of Fowley's equation and shelved the record.
Kaufman, who'd started Beserkley in 1973, took the recordings off Warners' hands and cobbled the songs together into an album. Finally released in 1976, The Modern Lovers--a crucial, thrilling bridge between the Velvet Underground and the blare of punk in the Summer of Hate a year later--has in the years since found itself one of the most acclaimed albums of all time and been given an undeniable place in rock's canon. The Sex Pistols recorded "Roadrunner" for their mock documentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle; Harrison joined the Talking Heads; Robinson went to the Cars.
But the album was commercially ignored at the time. The original band had broken up, and Kaufman persuaded Richman to come to Berkeley and Beserkley. It was at this point that Jonathan Richman reinvented himself, devolving into what Fowley calls a "lovable human elf bouncing around on a pogo stick."
On the next four records he made for Beserkley, Richman killed the drone and geeked out. The instrumentation was quieted, almost acousticized. His voice, always adenoidal, lost its defiance and became cloying and warm, in an off-pitch sort of way. He sang about the "Rockin' Rockin' Leprechauns," the "Ice Cream Man," and the Martian. Live, during "I'm a Little Dinosaur" (every other song seemed to have a cute, diminutive "little" in the title), he crawled around on his hands and knees.
Almost everyone around him pined for the old, original Modern Lovers sound. "We ran Beserkley around a kitchen table," says Kaufman. "We're sitting around that table every day, and every day everyone would say [to Richman], 'Why don't you sing what sells? No one wants to hear about butterflies.'" Richman gave them "Hey There Little Insect."
On 1979's Back in Your Life, probably the most substantive and important of his work during this time, Richman returned to a world where Sesame Street and Zoom didn't play on perpetual 24-hour rerun. On songs like the heroic title track, "Affection," and "(She's Gonna) Respect Me"--where he actually announces, "I'm a man now, not a boy"--he sings about adult subjects, rejection and emotional consolation. Nobody, not fans, critics, or even those who knew him, really understood how and why he changed his persona.
But there's plenty of evidence--25 years' worth--that the hateful teen was the real aberration. And there are theories. Maybe Richman was simply tired of his old songs. Maybe he just wasn't cut out to be the founder of punk rock. Or maybe his first records--sincere, deliberate attacks against what his audience expected or wanted--are the ultimate proof that punk is more attitude than sound. Or maybe he realized something extremely personal about his own life that he felt he had to answer to in his art. "He wasn't as bitter and pubescent as he was when he wrote some of those wonderful, wonderful songs," says Allan Mason. "Constantly, it was a 'turn it down' thing. He wanted to have his words heard."
Richman has answered the bitterness question a few times. In "Affection" he sings about changing from an embittered teen into a young man filled with childlike awe. "But then I relaxed a little / And I met more folks who liked me / And they helped me to reach out and give / And that helped me to get more of affection / And that helped me to live."
What has happened in Richman's life since remains vague. He's recorded steadily, mostly for Rounder. His work remains interesting, if rarely essential. He'll release a terrific box set someday: Almost every record has a few wonderful songs, from "Since She Started to Ride" on Jonathan Goes Country in 1990 to the silly "Vampire Girl" and the gorgeous "Amorcito Corazon" on 1995's You Must Ask the Heart.
There are hints about his life on the records he has generated during his career. He's talked about trips to places like Israel and Bermuda, finding calypso, loving the Velvet Underground and Harpo Marx. He's sung about riding the bus and walking through Boston at twilight. He longed for "That Summer Feeling" on Jonathan Sings! in 1983, and again on I, Jonathan in 1992. He was married to a woman named Gail ("Gail Loves Me") on Modern Lovers 88. Then, on Surrender to Jonathan in 1996 his "little girl had a full-time daddy now."
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.
Sure he's noncommittal in person. But for more than two decades, he's done what he wanted to do, resolutely pursuing one of the most personal and idiosyncratic careers in rock. He's delivered at least one monument of a record and enough good songs to fill several others. Along the way, he helped both invent punk and make room for the kind of bands that are more interested in honesty and pure, undiluted emotion than rock's endless posturing. And it's not a bad legacy. For Jonathan Richman, the whole thing has been a lot of, well, fun.
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