Perfect Sound Forever

The Modern Lovers

70's promo photo courtesy of Modern Lovers website

Despite All the Amputations
by William Crain (Sept 2002)

An oft repeated and increasingly tiresome sound bite regarding the Velvet Underground is that although only hundreds of people bought their records at the time of their existence, all of those who did went on to start their own bands: hence, the Velvets retrospective importance in the pantheon of Rock. Certainly the Velvet Underground's influence is major but one could also argue that most of the bands reputed to be following in their footsteps only picked up on the most obvious, surface elements (feedback, black clothes, dark and or decadent themes) of the Velvets' gestalt, missing the forest for the trees as it were.

The Jesus and Mary Chain are perhaps the most glaring example of a band that seemed to fool a lot of people (critics at least) into believing they were taking up the Velvet's mantel. But did the J&M Chain's uninspired blanket of feedback, wearing of black leather and shades and mumbling of lyrics about oral sex, capture the manifold beauty manifested by the Velvets? Did it really have anything at all to do with their work in anything but the most obvious, superficial and unimaginative ways? Did it even remotely approach the lofty and complicated heights, both musical and lyrical, to which the Velvets excelled? Nah. The bands that were able to take the spirit of the Velvet Underground and build on it were actually very few and far between.

So what were the Velvets really about? What were these bands that were skimming the surface missing? First and foremost they missed the elements of redemption and empathy for the human condition that were so beautifully expressed in songs like "Lisa Says", "Sunday Morning", "Jesus" and "Beginning to See the Light." But the other seeming intangibles, soul and spirit, are hard things to nail down. There's the soul of the sound of the music, the slinky, loose but together feel demonstrated on the Live 69 album. The manic rhythmic propulsion of songs like "What Goes On", "White Light White Heat" and "I Heard Her Call My Name." There were songs where Lou's guitar would conjure the screeching sound of the N.Y. subway and the sensory overload of the modern city experienced by the amphetamine eyes of its residents as their minds split open.

It's the way the Velvets (particularly Moe) could find the center, the heart of the beat, lock into it and then move, no, dance around inside it. In the manner which the instrument was struck, you could hear how hard they were hitting the guitars and drums, and this intensity, a crackling electricity was thus transmitted all the more directly. Vibrant, alive and in the moment. It was clear that something crucial was being put across, that something was being put on the line. The Velvets were attempting to capture the essence of a moment. Playing as if their lives depended on communicating the emotion of the song as clearly as possible, not just singing about something but empathizing to such a degree with the subject of the song that at least for its duration they BECAME that person. And this is why Lou could so effectively and accurately capture different characters in his songs, from the rush and run of the junkie looking to score, to the romantic love of "I'll Be Your Mirror," songs that could easily have sounded tawdry or trite in less gifted hands.

The Velvets were all about celebrating and honestly and directly expressing a moment of transcendence, however brief, which allows one to see through the muck, dirt and grime of this fallen world, even and perhaps especially if this involves going through the grime and coming out the other side. Expressing moments of clarity, where life is both overwhelmingly beautiful and ugly and something beyond this apparent dichotomy. That means never accepting a cop out easy answer like say love is ALL you need or turn on, tune in and drop out. They understood and expressed the complications and contradictions of life and refused to oversimplify it to win approval or fans.

The Modern Lovers were the band that was able to most successfully draw and build upon the spirit and sound of the Velvet Underground, taking this influence in a direction that was different and just as original and ground-breaking in its own right. Their leader and songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Jonathan Richman was originally inspired to try his hand at writing songs after witnessing the Velvet Underground live. Jonathan started to hang around backstage at the Velvet's shows and was eventually able to strike up a friendship with the band. His first major performance (he had been performing in Harvard Square previously) in fact was opening for the Velvets, who were in turn opening for the Grateful Dead (try wrapping your head around that). Jonathan borrowed Sterling Morrison's guitar and amp for this debut. Sterling recalls that Jonathan's set drew a "mixed reaction" from the crowd. Which is not at all surprising when you consider how unique the perspective of Jonathan's songs were compared to the majority of his contemporaries, or for that matter songwriters of any other time.

Jonathan had picked up on the beauty that the Velvet's were driving at both in words and in the pure sound of their music. A sound and even a look that was stripped down, stark yet powerful and dignified, as he would later explain in his tribute song to their influence, "Velvet Underground." He studied how the Velvet's used simple sounds and rhythm to build excitement and to communicate complex emotions. How through just two guitars, bass and drums and the occasional organ they were able to create a huge moving sound (see Jonathan's breakdown of the Velvet's different equipment from year to year and how it effected their sound in the Malanga/Bockris Uptight book for more evidence of how deeply he studied their sound). Jonathan took from the Velvet Underground this idea of capturing in song a feeling of clarity or transcendence and communicating it so clearly and directly that the audience would be forced to acknowledge it, forced to feel something, if only uncomfortable. And both bands encountered derision, condescension and spite for daring to examine and report on life so honestly courtesy of some of the self-appointed intelligentsia of the burgeoning counter culture. It was anything but cool.

And so, armed with this inspiration Jonathan began to write songs informed by his own startlingly iconoclastic perspective (especially jarring when you realize he was only 18 years old at the time) which railed against the close minded cool of the counter culture. The era in question was late '60's early '70's, by which time it was simply accepted that you wore flares, had long hair, hated your parents, laid as many chicks as would let you, and ingested as many different mind altering substances as possible. Bands were stretching out and jamming, placing greater and greater emphasis on musical prowess and insipid pseudo mystical lyrics. The "oh wow man, heavy" and "don't bum my trip" set was in full bloom.

Into this bathetic milieu steps Jonathan with minimal singing and playing ability, a clean cut kid, with short hair, button down shirt, straight leg pants, and a plastic Harley Davidson jacket. Singing songs about being straight, finding romance in the modern world, loving both the U.S.A., and his parents and wanting a girl not just to fool around with, but someone he really cares about. Essentially holding up all of the prevailing and accepted truths of the counter-culture, that allowed them to feel hip, with it and part of a larger protective movement, to a critical light. Christ, what happens if we no longer have a pre-accepted formula for cool that we can slip into and instead have to work out what we like and who we are all on our own, perhaps even risking becoming individuals in the process? Obviously this was dangerous and threatening stuff, much more so than "Truckin", going "One toke over the line" or god forbid Zappa's scatological infantilism (I'm sure Frank and his moustache would've disagreed).

It is important to point out that Jonathan's intent was not just to vent bitterness and disdain for its own sake. Rather, he was attempting to create a space for his own vision of how life could be in what he saw as an increasingly conformist (to a new but still extremely codified set of rules) and narrow minded generation. He didn't want the hippies to hate him- he wanted to show them the beauty that was evident to him all around, a vision which their drug-addled brains apparently couldn't see.

The beauty of the modern world juxtaposed with the sadness and sorrow of the crumbling and continually receding past. This was not a wish to go back to some more idyllic and ultimately illusory utopian agricultural society, but an appreciation of the past and the way it can continue to inform and enhance the beauty of the present. The massive towering buildings of the city straining up and out towards the heavens as if reaching to grasp its secrets. The evocative sadness for an irretrievably lost past displayed in the red brick of run down 50's apartment houses. The monolithic factories and their twinkling lights seen against the dark night sky while driving at high speeds along the smooth modern highways of America, with the windows down and the AM radio on. Sincerely searching for the beauty and the energy that inhabits the new forms, the modern world. And it is this striving towards moments of transcendence and beauty that most strongly connects the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers.

The eponymous Modern Lovers record (reissued on CD by Rhino) faithfully captures this shared vision and sound. The stamp of the Velvets' influence is evident throughout, from the insistent "I'm Waiting for My Man" locomotive beat of "She's Cracked" to the "New York subway sound" of the guitar solos in "Someone I Care About" and "Pablo Picasso." It's there in the sound of Jerry Harrison's organ and Jonathan's Lou Reed vocal inflections. The record was even produced by the Velvet's John Cale, who recognized that the Modern Lovers were building on the foundations laid by his former band. It's the only studio recording that captures Jonathan's more bitter, aggressive and V.U. inspired songs. Later in his career he would focus more exclusively on positive emotions and develop an arguably less confrontational, child-like perspective, though still confronting his audience with his honest belief in there being beauty in the most unlikely places.

The tracing of the development and modifications of Jonathan's worldview through the changing of lyrics and arrangements of songs over time is one of the most enjoyable and illuminating aspects of following his career. Later versions of many of the songs contained on bootlegs and the debut album would be set in the past tense (see the Kim Fowley produced Original Modern Lovers album on Bomp) so as to provide some distance from the sentiments expressed. Whole verses would be omitted or changed as time went on and his feelings toward the subject evolved. Today Jonathan hardly performs any of these older songs (often only "Pablo Picasso," probably because of its softening humor) due to his lack of empathy for his earlier more bitter incarnation.

But songs such as "Dignified and Old", seem more pertinent today than ever. Especially in light of the increasing hipness and marketability of cheap nihilism (see Fight Club and the sainthood of Kurt Cobain) and bland conformity masquerading as rebellion (majority of indie rock, body piercing, tattoos etc.). How different from this tomfoolery is Jonathan exhorting the kids "don't die now cause someday we'll be dignified and old together" and to "see through this bitterness and sadness". Even at all of 18 years old, being sharp enough to see that an overindulgence in bitterness and nihilism only leads one down the short and unproductive path of self destruction. And what would please the powers that be more than the kids nullifying themselves before they have the potential to create change. The whole drug culture of the '60's as a CIA funded campaign (check Tim Leary's background) to put the youth out of commission? But I digress.

In addition, to that first record produced by Cale there are now available two Live CD's which further document this original Modern Lovers sound. The CD's in question are Precise Modern Lovers Order and Live at the Long Branch and More: they capture performances from 1971 to 1973 in Berkeley California, Cambridge, Mass. and Harvard University. There is quite a bit of overlap between the material on these two CD's but both provide crucial evidence of how the Lovers carried on the more subtle components of the heart of the Velvets. The manic rhythmic intensity of the band parallels the sound of the Velvets in many places and the intros to songs and banter with the audience illustrates how the original Modern Lovers, like the Velvets before them, confronted their audience with the complexity, contradiction and beauty of the modern world.

The unreleased songs "Dance with Me" and "A Plea for Tenderness", which appear on both live CD's, are thematically reminiscent of the Velvet's "I'll Be Your Mirror" but take the attempt to show a love interest "the beauty they are" to much more desperate extremes. "Dance with Me" is a brutally frank account of Jonathan's attempts to win the affections of a co-ed, (who is currently "listening to Santana records and generally wasting her time"), with his vision of romance in the modern world. He prefaces the song by stating "If I could convince her to dance with me she'd she how beautiful she really is and she wouldn't waste her time anymore." The song provides a succinct portrait of Jonathan's worldview at the time, especially in regards to his relations with girls. Being both in awe of their effect on him and resentful of their lack of response to his, in his eyes at least, obviously superior constitution. Lines such as "your face is pure sex when you smile" also reveal a more prurient interest on Jonathan's part that appears to have been excised from later material, perhaps because it was deemed on reflection, less than dignified.

"A Plea for Tenderness" was recorded in Cambridge, MA in 1973. A kind of companion piece to "Dance With Me," it's a more well developed, forceful and desperate sounding account of Jonathan trying to gain the favor of another ambivalent girl. The chorus states plainly "If you care about me, if I'm better than the wall, if it's important when I touch your hand, then you better tell me now". The song slowly builds in intensity throughout its 7 minutes and 12 seconds with Jonathan working himself up into a frenzy, the cadence and rhythmic flow of the words becoming as important as their actual meaning in conveying the emotions of the song.

It's clear from this performance that Jonathan actually relives the experiences detailed in each song during its performance, much like Lou Reed empathizing with his song's characters to the point of actually becoming them. However, in Jonathan's case the songs are almost always based on his personal experience as opposed to Lou's more fictionalized character sketches. Stories abound in Tim Mitchell's recent biography, There's Something About Jonathan, of Jonathan stunning the audience by actually bursting into tears on stage and beating on his chest while performing. With this in mind it becomes easier to understand why Jonathan no longer feels that he can honestly perform these songs, finding himself no longer in touch with the feelings expressed nor wanting to relive the experiences they so vividly document.

"A Plea for Tenderness" begins to climax with the fervent repetition of the following lines in which Jonathan verbally pins the girl to the wall, listing and dismissing all the topics that she's talked of and behaviors she's engaged in during the course of the evening. He identifies these things as mere distractions, shallow attempts to ignore or divert his advances and obscure the real issue at hand.

"You can't hide, or take drugs, or cigarettes,
or dark outside, or cats, or all these other things,
that you use, so I can't see you clear, I want to see you clear,
I want to be honest now, you've got to tell me know,
if you care about me and if you care about yourself".
It is an incredibly compelling and moving performance of an individual desperate and starved for affection.

Of the 72' Berkeley tracks there's also a dead on cover of the Velvet's then unreleased "Foggy Notion." If you haven't picked up on the Lou Reed influence in Jonathan's singing and guitar playing yet you will certainly hear it here, as Jonathan sounds uncannily similar to Lou. An East Coast bias surfaces with his introduction to the song. "This is one that the Velvet Underground wrote", someone in the crowd whoops in appreciation." Pause. "And never released, so you've never heard this one before, we'd like to do this as a tribute to the Velvet Underground, we all saw them a lot back East." Shades of coastal animosity are in fact evident throughout the Berkley performances and echo the Velvet's own antagonism towards the laid back hippies of California. Jonathan makes frequent asides about the band being "from Boston" and wanting to give the audience a taste of "Massachusetts' cold bitterness," deadpanning "it's the least we could do".

The apotheosis of the antagonism towards the over-simplification, and weak-willed illusions of the Peace and Love Generation that the Velvets and the Lovers shared is found in the Modern Lovers song "I'm Straight." Jonathan details a pathetic hippie character nullified by the accoutrements of his own "counter" culture status, unable to engage in any meaningful creative behavior yet still managing to get the girl. Jonathan lays plain the shortcomings of this individual and pleas with the girl to let him take his place in her affections.

The Precise Modern Lovers version of "I'm Straight" is more vindictive and scathing than the studio version. The antagonist of the song is still "Hippie Ernie," in later versions changed to "Hippie Johnny" so as not to offend the Modern Lover's bass player Ernie Brooks. The angrier lyrics include references to Hippie Ernie's "Woodstock face" and "acid smile," as well as his lack of "backbone." And there's no admission of "I like him too" as in the later studio version. The version of "I'm Straight" on the Longbranch and More CD is different from the Precise version though both are dated Cambridge 1973. If anything the Longbranch version is even more spiteful. Hippie Ernie, here is also referred to "spineless Ernie" with Jonathan boasting "I can EASILY take his place."

Both CD's close with "Roadrunner" which was in many ways the Modern Lover's "Sister Ray." There are obvious similarities in chord structure and rhythmic feel but more importantly "Roadrunner" mirrors "Sister Ray" in that each performance was a completely different and unique experience, filled with side trips and improvisations. In each rendition, it is as if Jonathan is back in the car in question cruising down route 128 in MA, offering his reflections on the things that catch his attention "as he goes by faster miles an hour," moving further down the highway. The song recreates the landscape of early 1970's Boston, Massachusetts and its outlying areas as Jonathan moves around inside this space, guiding us through it. First he sees modern 1970's suburbia, the neon Stop and Shop, he smells the air with the windows down, then further along there's pine trees, power lines, huge factories, the reflector strips shining along the highway, Industrial Park, and the North Shore in the distance. All this experienced while alone, in the dark and with the radio on. And all resulting in a manic euphoria.

He feels alone, yes, but strangely, (consequently?), definitely defiantly, alive, as well as in love. In the lyrics of one of the many different versions these contradictions are beautifully captured with the line "I'm in love with my own loneliness, with modern suburban bleakness". He finds himself in love with the feelings all this stimuli creates in his own nervous system. The sensation of being alone, the rawness of this emotion, heightens his own consciousness of being alive and in the moment. The mood is communicated so perfectly by every aspect of the song that it's impossible for one not to get caught up and experience something similar to what Jonathan must have felt riding down Route 128. My favorite memory of my sole trip to Boston, MA is playing this song top volume as we entered the city.

The Modern Lovers listened deeply to the Velvets and picked up on the subtleties and complexities they expressed, by recognizing and developing their core elements of honesty, beauty and transcendence they provided a greater honor to the legacy of the Velvet Underground than all other bands claiming their influence. Jonathan found inspiration and sustenance there, and this gave him the courage to take this spirit and with the addition of his own unique perspective create his own beauty and find his own salvation. What all of these early Modern Lovers songs have in common is that they document the unaffected vision of an individual dealing with the universal theme of loneliness. These songs were created not out of the zeitgeist of the times but apart from it (one could argue in reaction to but it goes deeper than that). Jonathan's songs were the product of his "love of his own loneliness", and they were the structures he built not only to express his loneliness, but ultimately to fulfill his desire to transcend this loneliness. And when you see him perform today, beaming with happiness at the small moments of beauty he still sees all around him, you realize that he succeeded.

Also see our article about Modern Lovers live with the New York Dolls

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