Fans of Jonathan Richman frequently find themselves answering the question, "Jonathan who?" It's not a household name, after all. Some will go into an explanation of Richman's early years when his band, the Modern Lovers, paved the way for the punk-rock explosion of the mid-'70s with angsty beauties like "Pablo Picasso." Others will talk about his years mixing good-time rock 'n' roll with light-hearted kid-friendly lyrics which resulted in that Sesame Street classic "I'm a Little Airplane." Some will talk about that permanent head cold of a voice or his killer guitar work. Over the past couple of years, the answer was probably something like, "You know that guy who sings those songs in There's Something About Mary"? But the one thing that all of Richman's fans can agree on is that there's nobody else anything like him.
Richman is a wonderfully unique performer. His unforced sincerity and well-weathered but still boyish face puts each song across to an audience in a completely disarming way.
It's pretty impossible to maintain cynicism when the guy on the stage is singing a lament for "The Lonely Little Thrift Store." Audience members who are new to his shows often begin with a reaction best described as nervous laughter. People wonder if this somewhat awkward-looking dude with the wide eyes is some kind of a put-on. But as he continues, with lyrics about "avocado green appliances with the smell of domestic violences" that were once happy wedding gifts being left behind at this shop of lost dreams, it becomes clear that he couldn't be more serious. His heartfelt songs are delivered with that oddly affirmative head shake of his, which seems to be telling the crowd, "This is the real thing folks, like it or not."
But he isn't just a heart-on-his-sleeve crooner. Richman has about 25 years' worth of diverse songs to choose from. His earliest tunes include the cruising classic "Roadrunner," which has been covered by the likes of Joan Jett, Greg Kihn and the Sex Pistols. When the mid-'70s music scene caught up with what he was doing and bands like the Pistols were making a noise, he turned his back on that kind of material and cranked out a series of childlike songs that split his audience. "I'm a Little Dinosaur," "Abominable Snowman in the Market" and "Ice Cream Man" seemed like a slap in the face to the punk crowd that looked ready to crown him its leader. In retrospect, however, Richman was way ahead of the curve. He has too much of a sense of humor to buy in to the New Wave's self-importance. His songs from that era are just a lot of fun. Nobody is trying to change the world with lyrics like "Ice Cream Man on my street, I've seen your truck outside and it's really neat." This song turned out to be such a rockin' crowd favorite that he used to perform it with 10 minutes' worth of false endings. Each time he would get to the end, the crowd would cheer him on to one more verse over and over again. It was around that time (late '70s) when his instrumental number "Egyptian Reggae" became a Top 10 hit in England and most of the world except the U.S. of A. His string of European hits also included "Roadrunner" and "Morning of Our Lives." The hit record period was fairly short-lived, and Richman has continued to play to a dedicated cult audience ever since.
Throughout the '90s, Richman worked with the accompaniment of Arizona's own Tommy Larkins. The onetime drummer of Tucson band Giant Sand is the perfect balance to Richman's stage presence. While Richman is up front shaking his hips and working the crowd, Tommy hangs back and keeps up a loose but dead-on rhythm. When "Jojo" is taking off his guitar to do his little Elvis-like swivel for a couple of bars, Larkins has only the slightest hint of a smile on his face. Standing at his "kit" (pretty much just a snare drum and a cymbal or two), Larkins serves as anchor for the show. In There's Something About Mary, his deadpan takes while Richman warbled the title song were absolutely hilarious. The contrast between Richman's earnestness and Larkins' seeming impassiveness is a classic combination. Besides, after all this time, Larkins is able to follow the notoriously spontaneous Richman wherever he chooses to go onstage, even if it means a switch midsong. Many is the number left dangling through the years when Richman suddenly was inspired to head in a different musical direction. This can't be an easy guy to back up.
Jonathan Richman is scheduled to perform on Friday, February 11, at Balboa Cafe, 404 South Mill in Tempe. Tulane Blacktop opens the 21-and-older show at 9:30 p.m. Tickets, available at the door, are $10. For details call 480-966-1300.