Reactions to the discs were, to say the least, muted: Some observers were enchanted by Richman's willful naivete, while others (including most reviewers wowed by his "Roadrunner"-era work) dismissed the tunes as infantile novelties. Even supporters seemed unable to talk about his records without describing him as "childlike." Is Richman bothered by this characterization? "It depends on who uses it and why," he responds icily. "You've got to hand me one of those sentences, and then I can tell you whether I like it or I don't." Then: "Let's go on to the next question, please."

After Life, in 1978, Richman lowered his already low profile, playing solo dates in dives around the country and staying away from recording studios. Rumors that he had retired rather than face the derision of rock scenesters began to circulate, but he was only biding his time. In 1983 he signed with Sire (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.) and made Jonathan Sings!, an album that stands as one of the finest, most underrated discs of the decade. On it, Richman found a way to blend the wispiest elements of his Berserkely offerings into a musical format that was tuneful, substantial and utterly charming. From the dark-yet-celebratory "That Summer Feeling" to the toddler anthem "Not Yet Three," Sings! was a glorious return to form.

But Sings! turned out to be a one-shot for Sire. Richman turned up again in the mid-Eighties with Rockin' and Romance and It's Time for Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, which bore a close resemblance to the mid-Seventies Berserkely platters. A move to Rounder Records in 1988 didn't result in a new style: Modern Lovers '88, Jonathan Richman, Having a Party With Jonathan Richman and I, Jonathan differed from each other, but not all that much. And a pair of quirky musical side trips--Jonathan Goes Country and Jonathan, Te Vas a Emocionar! (recorded entirely in Spanish)--make it clear that Richman doesn't give a damn about either critical acclaim or commercial potential. He's making a living, and that's good enough for him.

Even so, Richman's next project, You Must Ask the Heart (due in early April), contains a pair of surprises. The first is a cover version of Tom Waits's "Heart of Saturday Night," which Richman first heard performed by Fifties rock/doo-wop pioneer Dion. "I'm a Dion fan," he declares. "I heard his version and said, `Whoa, I wonder who wrote this thing.' And it turned out to be Tom Waits."

Even more unlikely is "Just Because I'm Irish," a duet with Julia Sweeney, Saturday Night Live cast member and star of the straight-to-video film catastrophe It's Pat. Richman met Sweeney when she begged him for an interview she wanted to feature in an issue of Spin guest-edited by the SNL cast. "I'd never heard of her before," he concedes. "And usually, I wouldn't have had anything to do with most magazines--but she was a civilian, so I figured it would be okay. So I talked with her, and we became really good friends." He wrote "Irish" with her in mind, and when she asked him to sing it with her on a recent episode of Late Night With Conan O'Brien, he agreed.

However, just because Richman acquiesced to national exposure on Late Night doesn't mean he plans to change his approach to his vocation. For his current tour, he's again eschewed a band of back-up musicians in favor of a single accompanist, drummer Tom Larkins. "It's a primitive rock show," he says. "It's intimate rock and roll." Moreover, his performances continue to be entirely spontaneous: "I don't really use a set list. I just play whatever comes to mind. And afterwards, a lot of times I don't remember what happened. Two days later, I don't know what I did two days before. I'm just like that."

Still, there are signs that Richman is finally mellowing. While he hasn't been able to keep a band together, he's formed a close relationship with a cadre of collaborators such as Brennan Totten, who has produced most of Richman's Rounder CDs (including Heart). He's also managed to stay married for over two decades, and he has a pair of children, ages nine and twenty. "It's just plain good having a family," he says. "There are all kinds of beneficial effects it has on you personally."

Try to compliment Richman on his success in this arena, though, and he comes back with, "How do you know I'm better at that than I am at anything else?" He laughs before saying, "I'm no good at anything. Just ask anyone."

Jonathan Richman. 8 p.m. Thursday, March 16, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $10, 322-2308.

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