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Something About Jonathan 

Jonathan Richman, the lovable elf who helped invent punk and geek rock, comes pogo-sticking back in your life with There's Something About Mary

Wednesday, Aug 12 1998
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Relentless teen-ager Jonathan Richman looks old. At 47, he's still got 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 the 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's lived in Berkeley and is no stranger to the Bay Area, might be a great person to take a walk through Golden Gate Park with, 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.

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Jeff Stark

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