#288: Modern Lovers, The Modern Lovers
We haven’t yet seen Jonathon Richman and we shan’t see him again, so everybody pay attention. This record was mostly recorded in 1972, but wasn’t released until 1976. A confusing backstory is the key to my heart; that’s how you know it’s a good one.
The Modern Lovers were formed by Mr. Richman after he moved to NYC “in hopes of sleeping on Lou Reed’s couch,” according to RS. They had a four-year heyday as a budding underground cult act, then failed to get an album off the ground and broke up. (Think Jonathon Fire*Eater of the late Nineties.) Believe it or not, this is a compilation album of a band that had already broken up.
You know that quote about how everyone who bought the Velvet Underground’s record went out and started a band? Well, Jonathon Richman did it first. (Richman would go on to form Jonathon Richman and the Modern Lovers, and he now makes music that’s, like, super twee.)
Here, though, he sounds like a nascent Reed in naive Velvet, super earnest and repetitive. One critical difference, though, is that Reed was into drugs and Richman wasn’t. Being “straight,” i.e. sober, is a pretty big theme on this record, the pinnacle being “I’m Straight,” starring Hippie Johnny and a very STRAIGHT Jonathon Richman. I kept wanting to roll my eyes, but remember, Richman was breaking into the New York punk scene in the Seventies. No wonder he was a little defensive. Besides, you can’t hate him for wanting to be “Dignified & Old.” Iggy Pop did it, after all!
On the other hand, some of his songs are pretty goddamn judgmental. “Hospital” has him blaming a female friend’s fall from grace on her little girl mind, which, just, blegh. And the Eat garbage/Eat shit/Get stoned thing in “She Cracked” is pretty intense.
But I’m such a sucker for the angry, sawing electric guitars on “Pablo Picasso” (who apparently was never called an asshole, except by me, right now) and “Someone I Care About” that I didn’t mind so much. Don’t mistake them for one-note, though — they get all hippie dippie metaphysical on “Astral Plane” and downright dirgelike on “Dance With Me.”
The best songs are about how lonely it is to be alive, like the kickass “Roadrunner,” which is about taking long drives by yourself, a subject I know all about. “Old World” and “Modern World” feel like two sides of the same coin. I still love the Fifties/…I wanna keep my place in this old world, he croons (as in-key as he can), then turns around and declares I’m in love with the modern world/Put down the cigarette/And drop out of BU. That makes me want to enroll in BU just so I can drop out.
I’m so used to rock stars singing about the trials and tribulations of their own drug use that I’m not used to them singing about sobriety. It’s a nice change of pace. Lou Reed wrote songs about drug-fueled orgies, and Jon Richman wrote simple, youthfully longing love songs like “Girlfriend” and “I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms.” Listen to both back-to-back and hear all the things they have in common.
Most Random Song: “Government Center.” A bureaucratic anthem that is also somehow wildly motivating.