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The Rich Life

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Dennis Keeley

When He Sings: Jonathan Richman claims, 'I'm So Confused' on new album, but his longevity belies his title.

Wordsmith Jonathan Richman proves there's more about him than 'Mary' on his latest album

By James Rocchi

I never do the same thing twice. I never use a list of songs, and I don't remember what I did last night, and I don't know what I'm going to do tonight or tomorrow.
--Jonathan Richman, 1995

JONATHAN RICHMAN has been making music for more than 25 years, guided by spontaneity and sincerity. The question is, Has anybody other than a quietly devoted fan base been listening? Richman has evolved from prepunk pioneer (his first band, the Modern Lovers, released instant classics like "Roadrunner" and "Pablo Picasso") to preschool pop strummer (on songs like "I'm a Little Airplane"); from cautious cowboy (on 1990's Jonathan Goes Country) and world citizen (on 1994's all-Spanish Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar!) to minimalist storyteller. His current album, I'm So Confused, is full of the things that have earned Richman a dedicated following.

It's possible that there's an upswing in Rich-mania, but it may not be due just to the new record's substantial charms and the fervent word-of-mouth and heartfelt devotion that his unique style and constant touring (more than 200 shows a year as of late) have cultivated.

Earlier this year, Richman made an appearance on the silver screen (along with his longtime collaborator, drummer Tommy Larkins) as the balladeer minstrel of the smash comedy There's Something About Mary. Like Marlon Brando playing Superman's father, a talented performer was introduced to a much broader and significantly different audience. Unfortunately, also like Marlon Brando playing Superman's father, he may not have appeared in the most fitting setting for his substantial skills. Although Richman is beloved by the Farrelly brothers--Mary's writer/directors, who also gave Richman a cameo in their previous film, Kingpin--it seemed a little odd to see Richman shining like a diamond in bodily fluids--or in the film's finale, when Richman literally takes a bullet for comedy.

One of a series of questions faxed to Richman for this article asked if his live audience had changed since Mary. Richman's response: "A few more people show up."

Such reserve, so readily apparent in interviews, is completely absent on record and in live performances. On paper, Richman is more forthcoming about his recent training as an apprentice stonemason than any other aspect of his work.

"I've done a few floors, a walkway and a fire pit on my own and worked on stone steps, brick steps, stone walls, tile jobs," Richman says. "So that's what I've learned about. I want to build ovens and barbecues and small buildings."

Onstage, Richman presents himself with a sincerity and realness that's awesome and absolute. Richman the man may have said very little in the press about a relatively recent divorce, but when Richman the performer strums his guitar and quietly sings, "Well, I can't find my best friend/To help me through this night/I can't find my best friend/Because she's somewhere out of sight," the heartfelt hush and hurt is wrenching.

THE NEW RECORD is the second released under Richman's new contract with Neil Young's Vapor Records, following up 1996's Surrender to Jonathan. Recorded by ex-Car Ric Ocasek, I'm So Confused ticks with the simple production values that have marked Richman's work from the start. Richman is hardly equivocal about working with fellow famed Bostonian Ocasek. "It was terrific," he says. "He's a fine guy as well as someone I enjoyed working with."

Richman now calls California his home, spending a few years in Berkeley before finding his current residence in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Feedback titan Neil Young may seem like an unusual patron for Richman's eclectic sounds, but the two have similarities that lie underneath the cosmetic differences, including a great affection for Santa Cruz. Richman's Mailing List is based here, and when asked what he likes most about Santa Cruz, Richman's answer is full of fond detail: "I think Santa Cruz is great. Great public to play for. I like the Staff of Life bakery and the Taqueria Vallarta and all the thrift stores, too."

If Young's distant presence as label head allows Richman to keep making records like I'm So Confused, however, then one could hardly ask for much more from the partnership. There are great new songs like the mournful "I Can't Find My Best Friend," the charming "Hello From Cupid" and the self-mocking travelogue "Nineteen in Naples." In addition to a longer version of the Mary track "True Love Is Not Nice," the record also features two revisitations of older Richman songs, "When I Dance" and "Affection."

Richman has a propensity for returning to his older material on record. Surrender to Jonathan revisited "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar"; Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! consists completely of Richman songs performed in Spanish.

These revisitations, translations and rerecordings don't come off as easy trips down memory lane for Richman; they come off more as second looks at the songs through the lens of where he is now. When I asked him in 1995 about his motives for releasing Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! and Jonathan Goes Country, Richman had an easy answer.

"Well, the country record, I thought I had some songs that would sound good with country arrangements," he explained, "and for the Spanish album, I thought I had some songs that would have sounded at least as good with the words in Spanish as they did in English."

Richman may be willing to experiment, but the public (and some critics) might not be quite so ready to take chances. Richman's persona can be distancing to the uninitiated, and The New Yorker recently closed a ringing endorsement by nonetheless noting that "you either get him or you don't."

Critics who have excoriated Richman with the charge of childishness and goofiness in the past would do well to listen to Confused's "The Lonely Little Thrift Store." Richman tells a story of the items on sale secondhand, but in among the discarded popcorn makers ("Once it was a happy wedding gift/but when they split, it too got left") is a palpable air of sadness. Cataloging the totems of sad times on the shelves, Richman sings of "the avocado green appliances/with the smell of domestic violences." It's funny and clever wordsmithing, but combined with Richman's delivery it's also heartbreaking, and the half-flamenco, half-skiffle guitar chords of the song can't quite gloss over the darkness.

Richman has never had much more than cult-favorite status, and it's unlikely that I'm So Confused or his appearance in There's Something About Mary will change any of that. Richman writes his own songs, plays the guitar and has toured the nation in a four-door car that he takes turns driving with his drummer, Larkins. How can he possibly get the attention of a mass audience that considers Alanis Morissette's collectively manufactured songs and exquisitely crafted poses to be the apex of artistic honesty?

Of course, there's the strong possibility that Richman doesn't care. He has his work as a stonemason, can play internationally (a recent trip took him through Australia, New Zealand and Japan, which, Richman elaborates, included such notable moments as when "we saw sumo wrestling in Tokyo") and is still performing after 25 years in a field where a decade is a geological epoch, still growing in a field where the Rolling Stones charge hundreds of dollars for the privilege of watching them claw desperately after a youth long gone.

Maybe the end result of all the work and years and new appearances on film is, as Richman puts it, that "a few more people show up" at the live shows, but the work and the years and the performer himself ensure that those few people are a very, very lucky few. This time, the new faces may be there because of Mary. It's a safe bet that they'll join the people who already knew about pop music's most sincere and honest performer. The next time, they'll come because of Jonathan.

Jonathan Richman plays the Cubberley Community Theater in Palo Alto on Friday at 8:30pm. Tickets cost $15. For more info, call 650/949.-4507.

He plays the Catalyst in Santa Cruz on Tuesday at 8pm. Tickets cost $12/$10. For more info, call 831/423-1336.

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From the December 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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