IF YOU WERE A RICHMAN...

...YOU'D BE THE CRANKIEST GENIUS IN ROCK AND ROLL.

Of all the major figures in the history of rock and roll, Jonathan Richman may be the one who's been heard by the fewest people. Fans of the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls and other precursors to punk, new-wave and alternative music certainly know his name, and perhaps they own some of the timeless tracks he cut in the early Seventies with his band, the Modern Lovers. But the lion's share of the world's citizens remain unaware that Richman is more than a footnote in music-oriented reference guides.

Why? Maybe it has something to do with Richman's legendary reticence to take business advice, be it good, bad or otherwise. Perhaps it's linked to his general distrust of the press (he's granted only a bare handful of interviews during the past quarter-century and is rumored to keep a list of journalists who've done him wrong). Or it could be rooted in Richman's personality, which is not what you'd call cuddly.

"I'm obstreperous," Richman says from his California home--and this admission is offered with pride, not regret. In fact, he spends much of the remaining conversation weighing the applicability of the terms "obstreperous" and "cantankerous." He finally decides that his instincts were right in the first place. "I think I like `obstreperous' better," he announces. "I'm obstreperous, all right."

He's also a man very much on his own wavelength. As befits an artist whose qualities include an unshakable individuality and more idiosyncracies than anyone this side of Robin Williams, he shifts from one mood to another with quicksilver frequency. Good humor generally prevails, but it can evaporate in an instant. And that's when you know that his obstreperousness isn't simply a pose.

Born in Boston in 1951, Richman took up the guitar during his mid-teens, and in short order he was delivering his own compositions in public. From the beginning, his writing was as resolutely individual as his voice, a wonderfully nasal tool that manages to convey a world of joy and heartbreak in spite of the narrowest of ranges. Boston coffeehouse aficionados were often appalled by the resulting sound, but their reactions only fueled Richman's ambitions. He moved to Manhattan (home of his heroes, Lou Reed and Andy Warhol) at eighteen and began penning the numbers that form the basis for his reputation: "Roadrunner," among the best driving tunes in popular music, the quirky, heartfelt "Girlfriend," and "Pablo Picasso," which is rock's closest equivalent to Catcher in the Rye. When Richman sang "Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole...not like you," he caught the angst of adolescence in a manner that was both angry and wry--a combination rarely achieved before or after.

Nevertheless, New York City didn't embrace the young singer. According to Richman, his biggest concert during this period was an impromptu revue delivered from the roof of the run-down Hotel Albert before a throng of passersby who took him for a potential suicide. Frustrated, he returned to Boston and with former neighbor John Felice began putting together the band that would become the Modern Lovers.

By early 1970 the Lovers consisted of guitarist Felice, who came and went over the next two years, bassist Ernie Brooks, drummer David Robinson (the future rhythm-keeper for the Cars), and soon-to-be Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison. This formidable lineup caught the attention of executives from Warner Bros., who gave Richman and company a then-monstrous $200,000 advance and flew them to California to record under the supervision of ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale. The results were brilliant, but that didn't stop Richman from killing the project. Similarly, he did everything possible to subvert a publicity blitz designed to turn him into the star he deserved to be.

Today Richman says he feels no regrets over his choices. "I thought about what everyone said," he allows, "but I just didn't want to do it their way." He adds, "I got a taste of playing large shows when we were opening acts for other bands back then, and I didn't necessarily prefer it. It wasn't any more fun than a small show--let's put it that way. Bigger ain't necessarily better."

As if to emphasize this conclusion, Richman broke up the original Modern Lovers and began playing benefit shows in various children's hospitals. These and other unconventional gigs convinced him that stripping down his instrumentation and often dispensing with amplification altogether enhanced his ditties. In other words, he unplugged before unplugging was cool--although he's characteristically reluctant to take any credit for being ahead of his time. "I don't think there's anything in common between what [contemporary unplugged musicians] are doing and what I'm doing," he insists. "Besides, sometimes I use an acoustic guitar and sometimes I don't. To me, what matters more is whether there's feeling in the music than whether someone's unplugged or not. So I wouldn't think I've had any influence on anyone at all."

This contention was disproved by the appearance of the Cale demos, put out under the title The Modern Lovers by the small Berserkely imprint in 1976. The reaction to the material's long-delayed release was largely ecstatic, and it sowed the seeds for the Richman cult that continues to flourish to this day. But rather than capitalize on this momentum, Richman chose to issue Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Rock 'n' Roll With the Modern Lovers and Back in Your Life, a trio of discs that were epitomized by sweeping daffiness and sonics associated with the earliest rockabilly recordings.

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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