Pop: The unsung hero of stone'n'roll

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week