Counterbalance: 'The Modern Lovers'

Gonna drive past the Stop 'n' Shop with the Modern Lovers' masterpiece on. Roadrunner once. Roadrunner twice. I'm in love with rock 'n' roll, and I'll be out all night. From 1976 (but recorded in '71 and '72), this week's Counterbalance is a cult classic.

The Modern Lovers

The Modern Lovers

US Release: 1976-08
UK Release: 1976-08
Label: Berserkley

Klinger: Of all the characters we've encountered during the course of our Counterbalance excursion, few are as singularly odd as Jonathan Richman, lead singer of the Modern Lovers. Part incurable romantic, part frustrated outsider, Richman wrote an album of songs that were occasionally edifying and occasionally unnerving, but always brutally honest. His band played with an aggression that was right in line with the burgeoning punk/New Wave scene (future Cars drummer David Robinson and Talking Head Jerry Harrison are heard here), and at one point the group was signed to Warner Brothers. And then Richman turned his back on everything.

He suddenly decided that the band was too loud—any group that would hurt the ears of an infant sucks, he once said. All of a sudden he was singing odes to ice cream men and little insects with a new bunch of Modern Lovers, this time strumming gingerly. I'll admit I love those albums, but it's this debut (not released until a couple years after the original group broke up) that's become iconic. From the brilliant Side One/Track One "Roadrunner" to the devastating "Hospital" to the achingly angry "She Cracked", Richman takes you on a breakneck trip through his psyche, sparing no one along the way. Not Hippie Johnny, not Pablo Picasso, and especially not himself. It's rare to hear an artist bare himself so unflinchingly and without artifice, and yet the album always feels approachable to me.

Clearly I'm a big fan of Richman in general and this album in particular, and the critics have long been in agreement with me. Even though it's retained its cult status over the last 40 years, it's perched at No. 169 on the Great List. I'm curious what your reaction was to The Modern Lovers, though, Mendelsohn. Did the rocking outweigh the emotion, or did Richman’s curious sensibilities shine through?

Mendelsohn: What I like about this album is Richman’s ability to balance the emotion and the rock without ever tipping one way or the other. You can never rock too hard but without that emotional balance, the album would be very one-dimensional. Too much emotional baggage and the rock gets bogged down like a French dip left to soak in the cup of au jus. And no one wants to eat a soggy sandwich.

He walks the tightrope between the naiveté of youthful exuberance for rock and the steadying influence of a songwriter beyond his years. The thrash of teenage angst and feedback is tempered by well-crafted songs and a self-assured swagger that wills this record to work. And thats really impressive for a couple of fresh-faced lads from Boston who wandered into the great unknown of proto-punk, following in the footsteps of the Velvet Underground, as Richman and the Modern Lovers trailblazed for a new generation.

But then Richman got a little older, turned his back on the rock excess of youth, and started making pretty little ditties. What happened?

Klinger: If I had to guess, I'd say that the darkness and negative energy that's infused throughout here genuinely spooked Richman. Because make no mistake, this is a very dark album. Richman was pretty clearly going through some difficult stuff at the time. I get the sense that "She Cracked" and "Hospital" are about the same woman, who apparently had problems of her own, but I also suspect Richman's attempts to meet her on the astral plane are actually serious (band members have corroborated this over the years). Ultimately, the songs on the album make you wonder how close he got to the line between naive romantic and something a good bit more unsettling. According to bandmate Ernie Brooks, Richman really did try to escape into the astral plane during his sleep so that he could visit the object of his affection. It’s a little hard to wrap one’s head around that level of naïve intensity, and I suspect that’s for the best. I didn't really pick up on this when I first heard this album in my early 20s, but let's just say that now that I have a daughter in her early 20s I can't not hear it.

But whatever was driving the darkness was exacerbated by Richman's surroundings. Throughout the recording sessions, producer John Cale kept spurring him to sing angrier and more aggressively, even as Richman protested that he didn't even feel all that angry. But that tension drives the album, as Jonathan seems to be viewing himself as a naif while others see him as something somewhat less hinged. Johnny Rotten famously cited "Roadrunner" as the only song he liked, and even he may have missed the point. "Roadrunner", as great as it is, is about a sad, lonely guy who takes his comfort in driving along Massachusetts highways all night, because he doesn't feel so alone with the radio on. He's in love with rock 'n' roll and he'll be out all night, but he doesn't mean it the way other rockers mean it. It’s poignant and exhilarating at the same time, and there’s something in there that appeals to the lonely guy who exists in all of us (especially rock critics, I strongly suspect). There’s a lot going on here, Mendelsohn, and I'm surprised at how much I'm unpacking here.

Mendelsohn: This record is much deeper than I had expected. It’s interesting that the Modern Lovers were one of those bands spawned from the Velvet Underground gene pool — as Lou Reed and Co. provided the blueprint of rock 'n' roll to a young Richman. Richman then gets to work with Cale, one of the architects of the Velvet Underground’s signature early sound and it's Cale’s involvement that ultimately drives Richman away from rock. What a classic case of a dream come true turning into a nightmare.

It’s such a shame. I’m left wondering what might have been if Richman had soldiered through. This record garnered him a lengthy list of fans within the music world. He could have been making rock records with the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop throughout of the 1970s. Instead we are left with a single, solitary album — a frantic blast of rock 'n' roll from a man who seemed a little lost, and despite looking completely out of place in the rock world he had a firmer grasp on the intricacies of rock music than almost all of his contemporaries.

Klinger: Well, it's not like he's dead. He's made some very good records in the intervening years, albums that are joyous and life-affirming and funny and wistful. Also it's been a while since I've seen him, but his live shows are a lot of fun. And I'm really just speculating about what drove him away from louder rock sounds, and the fact is that I'm hearing a darkness to The Modern Lovers that I hadn't really heard before. While a song like "Pablo Picasso" is pretty funny (and so good that Cale covered it himself), there's also an undercurrent of frustration in his voice, where it seems that Pablo Picasso is more of a stand-in for the cool guys Richman knew who seemed to be doing better with the ladies than he was. (Interesting, then, that he had actually befriended one of rock’s most quintessential cool guys, Gram Parsons, not too long before Parsons died. Talk about an odd potential for collaboration…)

The reason for Richman's change of heart could be as simple as the fact that the band was booked to play a series of shows in Bermuda, and he found himself in awe of the musicians there who were able to create such a relaxed vibe. He found himself thinking that the Modern Lovers were too stiff in their playing, and he started looking for ways to play that didn't feel so much like a coiled spring. That's a story RIchman has told before, and whatever my suspicions are I have to trust that he's telling some truth.

But whether Richman moved on from his sound to find peace or he moved because he found peace, we still have this remarkable LP. The Modern Lovers remains one of the most honest albums I've ever heard, alternately — and often simultaneously — heartbreaking and joyous. I'm surprised at how many of its complexities are just now revealing themselves to me, but I'm looking forward to seeing what else is still there to discover.

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