Me: "I'm seeing Jonathan Richman tonight"
Someone: (very confused look on their face) "Who?"
Me: "He's the singer that pops up throughout 'Something About Mary'"
Someone: (the light just went on) "Ooohh!"
That's how JR is most widely known. He is best known, however, as the leader of the Modern Lovers, one of the seminal underground punk bands in music history. The Modern Lovers, who only really released one proper album under the original line-up, were important for a few reasons. 1) They were from Boston which set them apart from the hub of the scene in New York. 2) The band featured Jerry Harrison, who went on to the Talking Heads, and Dave Robinson, who went on to join the Cars. And 3) JR's heartfelt, almost childlike lyrics. Where most punk bands yelled about drugs and mayhem and desperation, JR was the nerdy punk who wore his heart on his sleeve. It set him apart from the rest of the pack. They didn't really have any hits, but they had some classics ("Roadrunner", "Pablo Picasso" and "I'm Straight")
Now, JR's solo stuff over the last 25-30 years bears almost no resemblance to punk. It's become almost performance art, a sort of comic/musical mix that sounds somewhat like the Violent Femmes and Flight of the Conchords. Sparse, emotive, lovelorn, and deeply serious about how unserious it is. He's been doing this thing for many many years (the guy's almost 60) and has it down. In fact, everything you could say about him live can be explained in this clip of him on Conan (a big fan) in 1992 performing one of his staples "I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar". This is exactly what you get. It's like watching a child perform their first dance recital looking intently at their parents in the front row for encouragement. That child like innocence in his eyes is mesmerizing. He also makes up songs on the spot or adds new lyrics to existing ones or sings them in a different language. He doesn't have any hits he has to trot out, so it can all be as off the cuff as he wants. In fact, this time he made up a song about how he makes up new lyrics. He compared it to fresh baked bread. It's great for the first couple hours, but after 8-10 hours it's sold as day old bread. That's his philosophy. If he doesn't feel it, he doesn't perform it (his words exactly).
So, either he is a consummate performer with his schtick nailed down tight, or he's a total kook. This interview from 1978, where he actually gets emotional when the host mentions William Blake, implies he may have a screw loose. However, I saw him in the bar before the show talking to a friend and he seemed as normal and unassuming as anyone else. It's quite a trick he pulls off, but it's a good one.
I wanted to post the song and performance that turned me onto him in the first place. Like I mentioned, Conan's a fan (as are the Farrelly Brothers, hence the "Mary" and "Kingpin" cameos) and has had him on the show a few times. This performance of "Let Her Go Into The Darkness" was released on a cd of performances from the show that I purchased from BMG or Columbia House back in the day. I thought it was haunting and, not being able to see him perform it, took it to be deadly serious. Only now do I realize everything he does is with a wink.