FLASHBACK: THE MODERN LOVERS

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.)

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The Velvet Underground … Simpsonized!

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.

Picture of Talking Heads

Talking Heads: Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison, David Byrne

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.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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ASKED & ANSWERED: DAVID MIRABELLA OF THE RATIONALES

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David Mirabella is the lead singer, songwriter, and guitarist for The Rationales. Since 2008, the band has recorded one full-length album and two EPs. Their most recent offering is the five-track Dream of Fire, which they released in December. With hard-rocking sing-alongs such as “Drunk All the Time” and “Radio” — the later of which was voted “Local Song of the Year” in the 2012 WMWM Salem Listeners Poll — as well as gentler, more plaintive numbers like “This Morning,” Mirabella and company (including his brother Mike) certainly do not sell their listeners short on high quality material.

                                                                                                                                              On Thursday, January 23, The Rationales will perform two sets at Gulu-Gulu Café in Salem. David Mirabella was kind enough to answer some questions for me in anticipation of his band’s upcoming gig.

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Do you have any personal connections to Salem?

I lived in Salem from 2000-2006 and have always loved the town. My first gig playing original songs as a singer/songwriter was at the In a Pig’s Eye open mic back in the early aughts.

                                                                                                                                              Do you and your brother Mike have stories that Ray and Dave Davies or Noel and Liam Gallagher could relate to?                                            

We certainly are capable of making the band really uncomfortable when we get after each other at practice or on the way to a gig in the van. But in general, we really only clash in really subtle ways (“what was THAT LOOK for?”, “WHAT LOOK?” type stuff). We really do get along great in life and the band. The areas where we disagree are usually just us caring about the band and wanting to move things forward but just having slightly different ideas how best to do that.  

                                                                                                                                             How did Dave Lieb, Sean Black, and Chad Raleigh come to be members of The Rationales?

Sean answered a Craigslist ad back in 2009 when our previous bassist left to move to Nashville. He had played a bunch in his native Toronto, but was just trying to get back into the scene after settling in Boston. Chad had been in the band Trucker Mouth, whom we had played with a bunch and with whom we shared a rehearsal space. We knew Dave from his time in the Rudds and from seeing him out at shows and being friends with him. We needed a fill in keyboard player for a show last fall and called him up. It worked out that the job opened up and once we played with him and saw what a great fit it was personally and musically, we asked him right away.

                                                                                                                                               How is a typical year divided among touring, songwriting, and recording?

I wish it was more officially divided in terms of “time to do this, time to do that,” but it typically works out that we play once or twice a month in the Boston area, once a month or so outside of the area (Portland ME, New York City, Northampton, Worcester, etc.), and then the writing is just ongoing. It basically happens whenever we aren’t getting a new member up to speed or prepping for a big show.

                                                                                                                                              To what extent is songwriting a collaborative process?                                                        

Despite the fact that everyone in the band can and does write great songs, I write most of the songs for The Rationales, just because I’m the long-term stable member of the band and because writing is my focus. I’m always writing at home and have a ton of songs that I bring to the band. So more often than not their contributions get channeled into arranging, embellishing, and putting their own stamp on things. There are times when we experiment with writing live off the floor all together at rehearsal, and the results are always great.

                                                                                                                                              Which kinds of music do you listen to that do not directly influence the music that you make?

I listen to a lot of classical, some Blue Note label jazz, a ton of folk, and some world stuff as well. In terms of actual popular music, people are often surprised to find out how much pop-metal I grew up on (Def Leppard, Ozzy [Osbourne], Ratt, Cinderella) or the fact that I am a huge fan of turn of the century post-punk emo bands like The Get Up Kids and The Weakerthans. And not too many days pass by without my listening to some Tom Waits.

                                                                                                                                            Are singles and EPs a more efficient way of making songs available to your fans than full-length albums?                                                                                                                  I guess so. It’s done more out of financial need than conscious decision. For a band in our situation, raising the cash to produce a full-length is a matter of two or three (or more) years between releases. If we want to have something new out every year or so, we need to work in terms of shorter releases. It’s fine, but I’m one of the few ALBUM fans left in the band  If I had my way they’d all be full-lengths or double albums!

What is the most frustrating part of playing in a band?                                                    

I’d be lying if I didn’t say just trying to get people’s attention in this world of niche entertainment and overwhelming schedules. There are amazing people in radio these days and some great clubs to play, but so much of it is directly on the band. If you don’t stay in people’s faces reminding them that you’re here, there are 10,000 other things competing for people’s attention. There are so many great people who support local music, but it would be nice to see more of the general public out and into the clubs on a regular basis.                                                      

How many gigs—with the band or solo—do you expect to play this year?

I’ve been averaging 30-40 shows a year combined the last couple of years, but I’m really hoping to step that up this coming summer. The Rationales just released our new EP Dream of Fire and we will be getting out to every place we like to go (as well as some new places) and playing in support of that. I’d really like to see the band expand our touring radius this summer with some trips out Route 90 to Chicago or down 95 to the southeast.

                                                                                                                                              The Rationales, with Nate Rogers of The Future Everybody, 8 p.m.

Gulu-Gulu Café, 247 Essex Street, Salem MA, (978) 740-8882

The 18 Interviews That I Did in 2013

Cheers to all of the nice folks who reminded me last year that there is no such thing as an uninteresting interview.

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1. STEPHANIE SCHOROW, author of Drinking Boston (DigBoston, 1/18/13)

You also had, and this was starting in the later part of the 1900s, the emergence of immigrants – Irish immigrants – coming to this area, and the bar becoming a social place, where they hung out and mingled with their own people. You also had German immigrants, who settled and started a whole beer industry centered around the Stony Brook corridor.”

blog_Schorow2. AMY RIGBY and WRECKLESS ERIC (The Somerville Times, 1/27/13)

“The 80s was the worst thing that happened to Western civilization. It was the worst decade that ever happened. It was the most appalling time. People turned into money-grubbing materialistic idiots.”

Amy&Eric_pic_3. BRIAN E. KING of Parks (The Somerville Times, 2/3/13)

“I didn’t hear The Beatles until the year 2000, when I started playing bass. I’d heard of them but I’d never heard any of their songs.”

Photo by Liz McBride

Photo by Liz McBride/lizmcbridephotography.com

4. PETER HOOK of Joy Division, New Order, and Peter Hook & The Light (DigBoston, 2/4/13)

“It took me years, actually, to admit to liking The Smiths. Until The Queen is Dead, I fucking hated them, for no other reason than that they were in competition with New Order … When I got to The Queen Is Dead, I heard that LP, I thought, ‘Ah shit, I can’t pretend I don’t like ‘em anymore!’ I had to give in.”

Dig_PeterHook5. THE GOOD AMERICAN, then-host of Zappa Thursdays (DigBoston, 2/5/13)

I had my own desk, and I had a boom box. The first album I played was Zappa’s Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar. I was lodged in between editorial and sales. They were trying to sell advertising and here I am blaring Frank Zappa.”

zappa thursdays6. BRIAN JOYCE, host of “Live & Local” in Chattanooga, TN (The Somerville Times, 2/13/13)

“For this part of the country, you can be considered a flaming liberal just by admitting, ‘Obama, I think, is American’.”

Brian_Joyce_27. JORDAN JEFFARES of Snowden (DigBoston, 2/18/13)

“I would argue that No One In Control has an anti-authoritarian thing about it, which is optimistic. Actually, that song is about a horrible crazy girlfriend.”

Dig_Snowden_6008. MICHAEL MURRAY of Tsoysli and Nowhere Lights (The Somerville Times, 3/16/13)

“We’re recording it at a studio in Winchester that we have access to where David Hasselhoff used to record.”

Mike_Murray_pic9. BOW THAYER of Bow Thayer & Perfect Trainwreck (DigBoston, 4/24/13)

“The record is trying to say something. It is a kind of apocalyptic yet hopeful theme. It’s kind of a snapshot of our society’s self-inflicted wounds.”

Bow_Thayer_60010. SUSAN OSTRANDER, author of Citizenship and Governance in a Changing City: Somerville, MA (The Somerville Times, 5/18/13)

“People across the board appreciated the benefits of gentrification at the same time as they saw its dangers, and some of the newer more affluent residents were well aware that they were both contributing to some extent to the dangers and well as wanting to make more positive contributions to their chosen home city.”

Ostrander_Book11. SYD STRAW (The Somerville Times, 6/6/13)

“I feel lonesome for my own songs.”

Syd Straw12. ROD ARGENT of The Zombies (DigBoston, 7/5/13)

“Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters last year on a Scandinavian television show was asked, ‘What is the track that changed your life?’ And he thought about it and he chose ‘Care of Cell 44’ from Odessey and Oracle.”

Argent_Blunstone_60013. DICK LEHR, co-author of Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss (DigBoston, 8/19/13)

“He’s very self-disciplined in not being an excessive drinker and in being fit. He’s very food-conscious in a way that’s almost unthinkable in the underworld.”

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14. SLAID CLEAVES (Marblehead Reporter, 9/3/13)

“In the early ‘90s, when I was looking for a place to start my career, Boston seemed to me to be totally overwhelmed by the loud and ironic and angst-y kind of college radio.”

Cleaves Picture15. STEVE BAGLIONI of The SpiritHouse Band (Beverly Citizen, 9/18/13)

“My goal is to play in front of 30,000 people, on a sunny day, with beach balls bouncing, and the sun shining, and people just having an amazing, amazing musical experience wherever we are that we’re playing.”

Baglioni_116. CONNIE MORELLA, former U.S. Congresswoman from Maryland (The Somerville Times, 10/17/13)

“I think the nice way to put it was to say ‘a moderate Republican,’ but I really tended to be more on the liberal side. Maybe that’s a part of Massachusetts in me!”

C_Morella 1980 417. CHRIS WILSON of The Flamin’ Groovies (The Somerville Times, 11/13/13)

“One of the most horrible things I’d ever seen was Johnny Ramone coming backstage after their set covered in spit. People had spit all over them, and he was in tears.”

Chris Wilson last on right

The Flamin’ Groovies (l to r): George Alexander, Victor Penalosa, Cyril Jordan, and Chris Wilson

18. JUDE MORAN of Adela & Jude (The Somerville Times, 12/22/13)

“We’ve felt that a wonderful way to celebrate these communities is to document our travels, and make a commitment to feeding ourselves on the food we get donated by farmers. In this way, we can showcase the vibrancy of local farms and markets.”

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