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Music: There's something about Jonathan

Jonathan Richman introduced us to the abominable snowman in the supermarket. Now, like wow, he's a film star.
Yes, whatever did happen to Jonathan Richman, and why are people suddenly mentioning his name in such reverential tones again? Half an answer is provided by the gross movie There's Something About Mary, in which the Farrelly brothers cast Richman as a travelling singer-cum-Greek Chorus, who adds an element of sweetness to a film larded with vile jokes about zip-trapped dicks, spunky hair mousse, cripples and stalking.

"The Farrellys took me and my drummer [Tommy Larkins] out for dinner and said `we want you to be like Nat `King' Cole and Stubby Kaye in Cat Ballou. You're singing narrators'. It was fun and it was easy," says the singer, speaking from his Nevada City home. "I got to have lunch with Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz, and we hung out in a few Cuban clubs in Miami. Matt's big on Cuban music. Me too."

But ask Richman if There's Something About Mary, which he also helped score, has resurrected his career and you'll get short shrift. "My time for scoring movies might have come but I've always played live. I'm steady there. Could I drift back into the bigger picture? That might happen but it doesn't bother me especially. My shows were going good before Mary, they'll probably go better now. That's fine by me."

The 47-year-old singer made his name with a quiet sound somewhere between the Lovin' Spoonful and rockabilly heaven. He once enjoyed the freakishly successful singles "Road Runner" and "Egyptian Reggae". Equally oddball ditties about his hero Harpo Marx, ice-cream men, Martians, abominable snowmen in supermarkets and baby dinosaurs have ensured Richman a cult niche close to Alex Chilton's.

Even his "unofficial" website - Richman doesn't like computers - is called The Abominable Lesbian Vampire Cappuccino Bar, in homage to his yuck-filled song "I Was Dancing at the Lesbian Bar". American fans swap his song titles like treasured baseball cards.

Richman has always been a rock legend in his own lunchbreak. Long before he formed the Modern Lovers in the early Seventies, he was that super- fan who hung out with the Velvet Underground backstage. He even caught John Cale's last show with the band at the Boston Tea Party in 1968. How cool is that? In his teenage years he saw more Lou Reed shows than Lou Reed and quit school early to get a job as a messenger in New York City just so he could infiltrate Andy Warhol's entourage. Double cool.

"Feel free to be jealous," he laughs. "I remember they'd play 'Sister Ray' for 20 minutes and suddenly they'd stop. There'd be complete silence for 5 seconds before everyone broke into all kinds of screaming. I've never seen any group hypnotise a crowd that way."

This Velvet Underground fixation took a karmic turn after Cale signed the Modern Lovers to Warners in 1971 and tried to produce their debut album. The protracted relationship was somewhat soured by Warners executives who told the boy to play "Road Runner" at every gig, or else. When a posse of suits came to see Richman at the Bottom Line, he strolled out, stood at the microphone and didn't sing a note. Bye Bye Jonny.

The Modern Lovers had more luck playing a cabaret turn at Gram Parsons' wake in 1973. At what must qualify as the weirdest gig of all time, the punters paid a $5 entry and could buy a Gram T-shirt and drink beer labelled: "Gram Pilsner: a good stiff drink for what ales you." Others on the bill included a Johnny Cash impersonator, plus Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Cryptkickers, who squeezed four versions of "Monster Mash" into their eight-song set. Surely, it had to be downhill after that.

Actually, it wasn't all doom and gloom. The eminent rock critic Lillian Roxon insisted that Jon-boy was the next Elvis, while Lester Bangs reckoned "only one in 20,000 has the nervy genius of Iggy or Jonathan and is willing to sing about his adolescent hangups in a manner so painfully honest as to embarrass the piss out of half the audience".

But in a world where most pop stars would rather weigh their press than read it, Richman decided to act. He signed to Matthew King Kaufman's Beserkley independent at a time when the Velvets-equals-new wave-equals-punk movement was about to break. By fluke or good fortune, he was popular enough to headline the Hammersmith Odeon in 1977, where a neon sign read: "The Modern Lovers - the most fun you can have with your clothes on." But he confounded expectations by turning the amps down to one when the audience wanted power chords and glam rock.

On the hideous graph of hype, the Modern Lovers never achieved Kim Fowley's ambition of turning them into "a nerdy Led Zep" but Richman acquired a reputation for splendid eccentricity.

His songs like "Pablo Picasso never got called an ass hole", "Hospital", "She Cracked" and assorted forays into shopping-mall hell have stood up remarkably well. "Road Runner", written in his father's car as a study in adolescent alienation, is so good you could almost believe Jonathan is the Buddy Holly who lived to become middle-aged.

Despite years of label-swapping, but still releasing annual albums and playing 200 dates a year, Richman only won true icon status in Spain. His album Jonathan, Te Vas A Emocionar is dedicated to the Voodoo bar in Castelln de la Plana - the most boring town in Espana according to El Pais.

But now the late Nineties are looking good for the fit, thin-hipped, low-maintenance, curly-haired, dare one say, sexy former geek originally from Nerdsville, Massachusetts.

Although his fellow ex-Modern Lovers Jerry Harrison and David Robinson grew rich in the Talking Heads and The Cars, it's Richman who is now signed to Neil Young's Vapor label.

Next month, he's among the headliners at Young's charity gig, The Bridge School Benefit, with the Harvester himself, REM and Sarah McLachlan also on the bill. He is also a fairly permanent fixture on Conan O'Brien's hip show, Late Night With..., and is shortly going to appear on Comedy Central's Viva Variety.

If people used to laugh at the teetotal, muesli-chomping, non-smoking, road-running Richman, in There's Something About Mary, they're laughing with him. Better still, the songs on his latest album, I'm So Confused, are top notch. Basically, he's still motivated: "When I was a teenager I made myself a promise. I said `Jonathan, if this ever gets to feel like work, you and me are quitting. Is that a deal?' So far, it hasn't become work yet".