A No Man’s Land Between Proto-Punk and New Wave (Originally posted on Amazon.com on January 27, 2006.)
There is a scene near the end of the movie “Manhattan” in which Woody Allen’s friend angrily says to him, “You think you’re God!,” to which Woody replies, “I gotta model myself after someone!”
This is the same line of defense I would offer to any singer who is accused of sounding too much like Lou Reed. Jonathan Richman is perhaps chief among those who have met with this accusation. Whether or not Richman really does sound that much like him is debatable, but he clearly and unapologetically invokes the powers of the leader of his favorite band. (Richman explained in an interview that he used to draw and paint all day as a young man, but that was before he discovered The Velvet Underground.)
The Modern Lovers’ debut seems an unlikely candidate for such an influential record. It has certainly received its share of nearly hyperbolic praise. Andy “Music Geek on ‘Beat the Geeks'” Zax says that “Roadrunner” is his all-time favorite song, and the good folks at Pitchforkmedia.com say that without this song, “we’re pretty sure Western culture would have ended in 1977”. And the fact that The Sex Pistols (and Joan Jett, and others) did a cover of it hardly helps to refute the idea that this completely unthreatening track is a quintessential proto-punk single. Moreover, I have seen the track “Pablo Picasso” performed live by three different artists: David Bowie, Richman himself, and John Cale, who produced the early Modern Lovers sessions.
But there is more to Jonathan Richman’s influence than his music. His image has had an equally widespread impact. He was surely not the first geeky, awkward outsider to become a rock star, but he was surely among the first to flaunt it (with all due respect to Buddy Holly).
In addition to Richman’s obvious influence on punk, his whimsy, winsomeness, silliness, and geekiness is apparent in Talking Heads (of whom Modern Lover Jerry Harrison was later a member), They Might Be Giants, Weezer, Fountains of Wayne, The Magnetic Fields/Stephin Merritt, and the Swedish songmeister Jens Lekman.
The best place to start in reviewing this record is with the setting of many of the songs. Plenty of major cities in the world – L.A., New York, London – have had their stories chronicled in popular music. With The Modern Lovers, Boston (my adopted hometown) gets a bit of its due. Granted, the lure of Beantown may not be as romantic as the City of Angels or the Big Apple, but it certainly has its charms for a young Jonathan Richman-type suburbanite.
From the Stop-N-Shop and “[Route] 128 in the moonlight”, to the Museum of Fine Arts, the Fenway, and BU, Richman knows the town he loves the way Lou Reed knows NYC and Ray Davies knows London.
(Of course, the Naked City – Richman’s adopted hometown – is mentioned a few times on the record, too.)
The songwriting and musicianship on this record are deliberately amateurish. Notice how he spells “Girl Friend” incorrectly in the song of the same name in order to make a pretty obvious rhyme. Sometimes it is to a fault, and the quality is a bit compromised (eg, “Old World”), while other times the results are inspired, such as in “Modern World”. “I love the USA/I love the modern world/Put down the cigarette/And drop outta BU” is one of my favorite lyrics on the album. (The variations on this refrain include that last line being “act like a true girl” and “drop outta high school”.) I know that doesn’t sound like much, but to hear Richman sing it in his mock-tough guy voice makes all the difference.
And while he could be accused (if not convicted) of posturing, Richman convincingly shows his many sides on this record. He is a giddy and optimistic young man on “Roadrunner” and “Government Center”, but sad, lonely, and mature on “Hospital” (“there is pain inside/you can see it in my eyes”), “Someone I Care About” (“I don’t want a girl just to fool around with”), and “Girl Friend” (“I walk through the Fenway/I have my heart in my hands”). He is also a geeky Lou Reed on “Pablo Picasso”, which struts along at a cocksure midtempo pace, “She Cracked” (“she’d eat garbage, eat shit, get stoned”), and “Modern World”. (And like Fountains of Wayne after him, he makes his disdain for hippies obvious on “I’m Straight”.)
The music includes pre-New Wave, Steve Nieve-ish keyboards, sloppy Velvets-y guitar, and the welding of the two. Whether these songs are dated from 1972 – when they were first recorded – or 1976 – when they were first released, they manage to land smack dab (chronologically and stylistically) in the middle of proto-punk and New Wave.
If there were a Hall of Fame for cult rockers, Richman would surely be among its first inductees. His artistic and commercial success are inversely related, and he is best known to a mass audience as that guy in “There’s Something About Mary” (or for the old school rock fans who haven’t seen that movie, he is best known as the guy who is always described as the guy who is best known as that guy from “There’s Something About Mary”).
Keyboardist Jerry Harrison, on the other hand, is in the actual Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Talking Heads, and David Robinson, later the drummer for The Cars, may well end up there himself. (These two have been given a bit of poetic justice as members of more successful and well-known bands, but I am not sure what became of bassist Ernie Brooks.)
Although The Modern Lovers will never get the attention or credit they truly deserve, the fact that so many other artists are indebted to them is a start. It vicariously gives them a mass audience that they could never have on their own. Like The Sex Pistols and Television – both of whom could qualify as kindred spirits of the band – The Modern Lovers made a huge impact on the basis of a single album.
But sometimes that is all it takes to change the world of popular music: sometimes someone needs to do something for the first time, just to show that it can be done. By this standard, the importance of The Modern Lovers first record should not be underestimated.