Serenade from a slaphappy heart

Once you’ve seen him in the 1998 Farrelly Brothers hit There’s Something About Mary — as the daft crooner who appears randomly in scenes, singing in treetops, at hot-dog stands and with a can-can troop — it takes effort to separate Jonathan Richman’s songs from the boobish schtick.

There is, though, a certain undercurrent of virtue to Richman’s music. It feeds on his comic air and, in the end, reigns supreme. The minute you drop your guard, his sincerity begins to surface, intent on getting the best of you.

“He’s the Andy Griffith of musicians, because every time I see him, I laugh, and yet I always get a little misty, too. I really believe he’s one of the great artists of the last half of the century,” says Peter Farrelly about his fellow New Englander.

Silly or not, Richman is hardly the dime-store dupe. After attempting to arrange an interview, I was told by his label — Neil Young’s own Vapor Records –that the singer/songwriter would be way too tired to talk shop on this tour. Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins are on the clock year-round, playing more than 200 dates worldwide. I was advised to check out a music encyclopedia if I needed more background info: This guy has made a bit of history.

Richman founded the Modern Lovers in the early ’70s. He and his bandmates set the standard for both the punk-rock and New Wave movements, inspiring the likes of The Sex Pistols — who covered the Lovers classic “Roadrunner” — and also the Talking Heads and The Cars, both of which included Modern Lovers members. And Repo Man fans should take note that Richman wrote “Pablo Picasso,” that swaggering mating call covered so gracefully by Iggy Pop.

After a quarter-century, Richman’s influence still lingers in contemporary rock. Whether you hear comic balderdash or darling, awkward honesty when you listen to his music, many musicians revere the man behind the songs as a sage. Calvin Johnson of Dub Narcotic notes, “Music that was going on after ’68 was pretty stupid and pretentious. [Richman] stripped it back, built it on the foundations of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, not worrying whether or not it sounded as good as Traffic.”

Now touring to support his 19th album, I’m So Confused (Vapor Records, 1998), Richman wears a boldly modest posture for one so accomplished. Songs such as “True Love is Not Nice” and “Hello Cupid” are soft, jerky and a little inept — hardly the tone you might expect from an acknowledged rock legend. Like Jim Nabors ballads, Richman’s songs are sweet and humble, buoyed by an intimate, slightly foolish style of direct address.

Jeff Tweedy of the alt-country outfit Wilco remarks: “The honesty and sincerity of what he’s doing is undeniable. He’s really a genius. The main thing you get from Jonathan Richman is to be loose, be yourself. It’s really enjoyable to watch someone who doesn’t have any problem with being on-stage. He’s totally comfortable and having a great time, as opposed to someone who’s staring at the floor and obviously has some major hang-ups about people looking at them.”

After decades of underground toil, Richman has recently risen from cult status to take a place in the milieu of mainstream music. Beyond the boost he received from There’s Something About Mary, he’s also Conan O’Brian’s most frequent musical guest — and, in ’98, was even featured in Seventeen magazine as one of the “coolest guys you’ve never noticed.”

How does he keep going after all these years? Richman’s trade secret is characteristically facile. He told USA Today’s Andy Seiler: “Listen, you don’t realize how much fun all this stuff is. It’s easy! You just stand up there and play a bunch of stuff.”

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