Richard Marx leaned his head over the West Hollywood restaurant table and poked his fingers into the top of his notoriously lush mane.
"You can see right here, I have no hair spray," the pop singer said. "I don't ever use hair spray. I just have thick hair, which I think (upsets) a lot of bald critics."
Hair and critics are two things that often come to mind concerning Richard Marx--and he's proven touchy on both subjects.
Last year on "Late Night With David Letterman," Marx repeated David Lee Roth's famous line that critics seem to like Elvis Costello because they all look like him. And more recently he got into a verbal tiff with MTV veejay Adam Curry over who was the biggest hairhead. (Marx called Curry a "mousse endorsement.")
But all Marx wants, he said, is a little respect.
Like Billy Joel, an acknowledged role model, Marx professes that he is knocked simply for having hits and that he has been given an inaccurate image as a middle-of-the-road popster rather than a rock-oriented performer.
The son of a jingle composer father and studio singer mother, Marx--who plays the Greek Theatre on Saturday and Sunday--is proud to consider himself a craftsman and is mystified that the critics won't take him on those terms.
"When I read bad reviews of me and when I read slams in the press, I don't ever read, 'He doesn't sing well' or, 'He doesn't write melodic songs,' or 'He doesn't work hard on stage or produce good records,' " he said. "I read, 'His hair's too perfect.' "
After having spent his teen years singing on jingles his father had written, Marx came to Hollywood from Chicago at 18 in 1982 at the invitation of Lionel Richie, who had heard a tape of his songs.
Marx spent several years learning the studio system, having songs recorded by James Ingram, Kenny Rogers and Kim Carnes, doing background singing and performing in local mainstream clubs like Sasch in North Hollywood. At 23 his debut album was released by EMI records, with the first single, "Don't Mean Nothing," making it to No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart.
Now at 26, Marx has had nine hit singles, including the recent Top 10 song "Children of the Night," a topical ballad that is the fifth hit from his 3-million-selling second album, "Repeat Offender."
Marx, who returns to his hometown Tuesday to sing the national anthem at Wrigley Field for the All-Star baseball game, believes critics let the looks of artists interfere with their judgment of them.
"I don't think the critics necessarily hone in on the music and lyrics," he said, speaking genially, but making his point forcefully. "I think they look at the overall picture and if an artist doesn't fit the mold that they've placed for the artists they like, visually, then they like to beat them up."
But Marx says that the negative reviews are easier to shrug off now than they were when they were new to him. His career and his personal life--he and his wife, actress-singer Cynthia Rhodes, with whom he lives in the Hollywood Hills, are expecting their first child in September--are satisfying enough that he can ignore the critics.
"I do have a certain amount of satisfaction that somebody like Billy Joel has said he likes my music. And the truth is I have kind of griped and moaned that I get slammed so much in the press, but the truth is I knew before I even made a record that that would be the case, because I don't do the kind of music that's going to get me in good graces with the press, and that's OK."
"Children of the Night" has also opened new creative avenues for him to explore. The song examines the plight of child prostitutes in Hollywood, with royalties from it earmarked for the assistance organization that gave the song its title.
"When I was a kid in Chicago I worried about whether I was going to pitch the next game, my term papers, whether a girl liked me," he said. "These kids, some of them 12- and 13-year-old girls, worry about, 'How do I get this guy out of my room now that I've had sex with him?'
" 'Children of the Night' was a great exercise for me because I had to write about something that wasn't me. . . . After I wrote that song I started thinking not necessarily that I'm going to follow that road 100%, but if I can find other topics like that, it would inspire me to probably be better lyrically."
And Marx even believes that someday that respect of peers and fans could rub off on the critics. Asked what a future rock history book might say about him, Marx answered confidently:
"It's going to say, 'He took a lot of (flak) for along time, and now he's getting the respect he deserves.' That's what I hope."