JONATHAN RICHMAN The man and the mask.
Jonathan Richman
Tues Dec 7
1 SW 3rd

He walks in off of the street looking like a sad clown--tattered guitar case at his sharply blazered side. Beneath his hangdog expression is a visage of uncanny familiarity, yet difficult to reconcile with the irrepressible man-child gospel he's preached for nearly 30 years. Two hours later--under the careful glow of the stage lights--the shell of Jonathan the man dissolves, and Jonathan the entertainer is reborn. At a comfortable 53, Jonathan Richman has been performing this ritual for decades--playing small clubs the world over, seducing every single audience member with remarkable ease. But it's that earlier Jonathan--the man who walks into a club alone without the comfortable confines of a stage--that I can't seem to get out of my head. Richman has been selling a brilliant caricature--a heart-on-his-sleeve, open-book romantic with eyes and ears wide to the world. But in truth, the man is shrouded in mystery. Just who exactly is Jonathan Richman?

The facts are sort of the easy part: author of the greatest proto-punk record ever recorded, perpetrator of one of the most brilliant and enigmatic artistic turnarounds in punk history, deity to a fervent cult that has traced his every musical step, and the most reliably brilliant solo performer alive today. But for all of the unlikely public turns in the lengthy career of Jonathan Richman, it's his personal history that's so intangible.

What's best documented are Richman's early years: his move from Boston to New York at 18 to follow the Velvet Underground, his formation of the seminal Modern Lovers in the early '70s, Warner Brothers' four-year shelving of the band's brilliant debut record, and Jonathan's lamented shift from Punk forefather to impish children's song balladeer. Beyond that, things get a little hazy.

Famously elusive in interviews, it's rare to read a response from Richman that delves deeper than a few sentences--more frequently, "Jojo" relegates questions with one-word answers and avoids personal matters altogether. In addition, he claims that many published interviews have been fabricated completely. A Google search on the matter proves pretty fruitless (Richman won't even endorse the cursory material on his own label's site), though one can glean that Richman is a father, that he was divorced sometime around the release of 2001's Her Mystery Not of High Heals and Eye Shadow--topics Richman isn't very interested in discussing. For all of his obsessive followers, Richman has somehow managed to remain a total mystery for decades--satiating fans in coy and calculated Peter Pan-isms without ever revealing the man behind the mask.

Is it simply a matter of job security? Would Jonathan Richman as openhearted caricature be believable if he--a man who has gone virtually unrecognized over his sprawling career--were more than a two-dimensional song and dance man? Is he hiding something? Who is this man? Who is Jonathan Richman? Jonathan Richman is a seductive crooner, a moving songwriter, a sad clown. Jonathan Richman is all that he can ever be; Jonathan Richman is--above even himself--an Entertainer.