Pop: The unsung hero of stone'n'roll

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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Richman

Jazz Cafe, London

The Brits

London Arena

Last summer's bad-taste blockbuster There's Something About Mary didn't really require a trip to the cinema. Once you'd been told about the zip scene, the dog scene and the gel scene, you'd seen it all. Except, that is, for . He was the geek chorus, the singer with the adopt-me eyes and questioning, lost-puppy face who gave the romantic comedy some genuine comedy and romance. And for us Jonathan evangelists, this elevation of his profile was welcome. When I'm trying to convert friends, colleagues and anyone who strays within earshot, it's simpler if I can start by saying, "He's that bloke in There's Something About Mary."

Most people still haven't heard of him. Those who have, though, tend to be Richmaniacs. He counts Jarvis Cocker and Evan Dando among his fans. Teenage Fanclub and Cornershop have covered his songs; both Frank Black and the Rockingbirds have written songs about him. BBC2's history of rock, Dancing in the Streets, named Richman, now 47, as the father of punk. "I've read that enough, so I guess it's true," is Richman's judgement.

There's just something about him. Whether paying tribute to Picasso or Paris, the Velvet Underground or the Fender Stratocaster, or the simple pleasures of dancing in a lesbian bar, every line gleams with Richman's humour and naive wisdom. That so many of his songs have been tender-if-quirky serenades to his wife makes his new album all the more affecting: I'm So Confused (Vapor) deals largely with their separation. It should be available on the NHS to anyone who's just been dumped. Once you've heard Richman's lyrics, you'll wonder why other songwriters seem to have no desire to communicate. Once you've heard his music, everyone else's sounds muffled. And once you've seen him perform, you'll wonder why other singers don't bother engaging with their audience.

No record has quite captured the elation of a Richman live show. Accompanying himself with his own surf-flamenco acoustic guitar, and with his sidekick, Tommy Larkins, standing behind a tiny drumkit, Richman is an entertainer of tireless genius. He interrupts his nifty guitar-playing to mime what he's singing about, or to break into some ridiculously funky dancing. He jokes and improvises. On "Love Me Like I Love", he sings of how "When I was six years old, I never thought that I'd grow up to feel so isolated." Then he blurts, "I was shocked!" And the audience, hanging on his every word, explodes with laughter.

Earlier in the day, I met Richman at his hotel. He's a courteous interviewee, although not given to analysing his craft. In response to a question about songwriting, he whispers: "A lot of times I don't write 'em. I just sorta make 'em up." I'm So Confused is produced by Ric Ocasek, formerly of the Cars. What was his influence on the album? "What does Salvador Dali do when he makes a painting?" asks Richman. "If Salvador Dali did your portrait, it's gonna look like Salvador Dali did it, you know what I'm saying?" Well, what about There's Something About Mary? How has the film changed things for him? "You know what's changed for me? That I get that question more than I ever have before!"

And there we have it. But whatever Richman says or doesn't say, his associations with a big-time movie and big-name producer do appear to signal a new phase in his career - an acceptance, perhaps, of the fame he once rejected. In the mid-1970s, Richman led the Modern Lovers - a band who were hailed as American rock's next big thing. Then he switched direction. Laying aside Velvets-influenced urban alienation, he dreamt up whimsical acoustic ditties about Martians and mosquitoes. Was he deliberately turning away from stardom? "That's not true. No. It's just that I wanted to do things the way I wanted to do 'em, and if record companies wanted to do things that way, too, that was fine. And if they didn't, there were plenty of other fine musicians they could work with."

The only topic which holds him for long is - what else? - stone masonry. "About four years ago, I built a tile floor," he says, brown eyes twinkling at the thought. "It was so much fun, I said, boy, if I like tiling this much, I gotta try stone! Mainly I'm a floor-and-patio man at this point, but I'd like to do more things goin' vertical. Small buildings, like in public parks. Cute little roofs on top. Or footbridges. Barbecues and bake ovens, I'd love to build them."

I'd like to think there was something peculiarly Richman-esque in this, not just in his boyish eagerness and his location of magic in a less than fashionable field of endeavour, but in his wish to construct homely little structures rather than Gothic cathedrals. His albums have been so consistent over a quarter of a century because he has always kept to uncomplicated three-minute observations. He's never had a rock star's mid-life crisis and inflicted a jazz odyssey on us. "I might still do that," he objects. "I don't know what I'm gonna do. I love working with stone, though. I really miss it when I don't do it for a while. I see some stone wall, and I say, ooh, I wish I was on that job." There's a song in there somewhere. But only could find it.

Having got the pop event of the week out of the way, we can turn to lesser matters: Tuesday's Brit Awards ceremony. This was the usual colourful, well-organised celeb-fest, and Johnny Vaughan's astute hosting confirmed that he is the coolest man in Britain. The event was lifeless compared to some years, though. The superstar team-ups usually have some novelty value, but the sight, this year, of Cleopatra, Steps, Billie and B*Witched onstage together made me dream of owning a machine gun. Oh ... to take them all out in one go ...

Sadly, there was no such direct action. There was no Jarvo vs Jacko, no follow-up to Chumbawamba's dampening of John Prescott's spirits. The closest thing to a scandal is one which I can now exclusively reveal. When I saw Robbie Williams's concert in Cardiff, he announced that when he won the Brit for Best Male Performer - not lacking in confidence, that boy - he'd rub his legs, a la Vic Reeves, as a secret signal to his Welsh fans. The crowd, naturally, was delighted. But I watched the Brits ceremony live and again on TV. Reader, there was no leg-rubbing.