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Tucson Weekly There's Something About Jonathan

From Punk's Avant Garde To Mainstream Pop-Stardom, Jonathan Richman Remain, Well, Sort Of A Mystery.

By Brendan Doherty

MAY 17, 1999:  JONATHAN RICHMAN WILL never grow old, it seems. Nevertheless, there are signs that the perennially young, insanely energetic rocker is succumbing to time. Flecks of gray have broken through Richman's mop of black hair, and those expressive eyes have the beginnings of crow's feet at their corners. His voice, however, remains the untouched sound of the boy at heart.

Don't grow up. Always have fun. Seize the day. After 26 years in the business and two dozen albums, 48-year-old Richman has finalized his transition from avant-garde punker to the singing guest on Sesame Street, to pop-film troubadour (with Tucson drummer Tommy Larkins as his sidekick in There's Something About Mary). He's been covered by the Sex Pistols and imitated by 3-year-olds. Anyone who's been to one of his numerous (if less frequent) Tucson shows over the years knows his stripped down and friendly approach is like a revelation. He drops his guitar in the middle of a song, just to swing his hips like Elvis. Richman has never forgotten that the chief reason for rock and roll is to feel good.

So it's somewhat of a surprise that his latest CD, I'm So Confused, finds him at his most heartbreaking and, well, confused. The singular songwriter doesn't allow much by way of explanation, either. But he's hitting the road full-force, logging in more and more miles and performances. Richman has a staid reputation for either avoiding interviews altogether, or making them so boring as to become pointless. Among the off-limits subjects are his songs, records, current projects and personal life, including his history. After numerous printed interviews in which frustrated writers have tried to strangle a story from his halting answers, Richman has responded by conducting interviews by fax only. Call it "embracing technology."

"The movie There's Something About Mary was so fun," writes Richman. "It was one of the most fun things I have ever done." Richman scored the film, and he and Larkins make several on-screen appearances, hovering over the bawdy jokes and the terrible events, hanging at times in tree limbs, and showing up in club bands to continue the movie's theme of hilariously star-crossed love.

Mary opens with a shot of Richman and Larkins sitting in a leafy tree in Rhode Island. Richman, staring right into the camera with wide-eyed sincerity, delivers the film's title song. He says the Farrely brothers had him in mind because he was in the movie Kingpin.

"They asked me if I'd seen Cat Ballou," writes Richman. The 1965 movie featured 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 to the hangman's gallows.

"I read the script and I said to the director, 'You know what this movie needs? A theme song.' And (so) I sang him ("There's Something About Mary"). I made that up a day after I read the script."

Richman met Larkins through mutual friends, and has been touring with him ever since.

"The way I like to do it, we got me singing and playing guitar and Tommy Larkins playing drums," he writes. "He's been my road drummer. I was using pickup drummers in different cities--I would just look for them there. Sometimes I'd ask the club owner if he knew a good drummer. I needed one for Arizona, so I just called up these friends of mine in Tucson. He showed up and I liked working with him enough so I said, 'Hey, after this Arizona part, want to go up to Texas?' He had nothing to do and had a pickup truck too, (for) all his drums. After Port Arthur, I said, 'What about Dallas?' Then we went off to Florida or something, after Athens, Atlanta, and...like that."

One of the reasons Richman may be so reticent to discuss his personal life is because his songs are so personal. From the very beginning, his teen angst was channeled (in 1972) into an anti-Led Zeppelin record that wouldn't see the light of day for four years. Roadrunner features Richman singing about driving around Massachusetts with the radio on. The radio on. The radio on. The record was finally released in 1976, as the debut album of The Modern Lovers--a crucial, thrilling bridge between the Velvet Underground and the blare of punk. He's made country records (Jonathan Goes Country) and one in Spanish (Jonathan, Te Vas Emocionar). And through it all, he's garnered the rabid fan base of the rock icon.

On I'm So Confused (Vapor), a dark cloud hovers above almost every song. "People all over the world are starving for affection/And to me, this ain't funny/To me, this is real," he laments on the title track. On "Love Me Like I Love," 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."

"I just sing songs I can sing with feeling," he responds. "Even if I didn't write them, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter so much who wrote them. You can get feeling if someone else wrote it just as much as if you wrote it. I don't know whether it matters whether it's confessional or not."

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