Perfect Sound Forever

JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS


The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth
(as far as I can remember)
by Jay Dobis
(February 2022)


(ED NOTE: this originally appeared in Vulcher #4, Summer 2018)


What's below was originally written to Sean L. Maloney, the author of the 33 1/3 book The Modern Lovers. Since I couldn't find his email address and Facebook wouldn't let me send it to him as a message, and I was asked to write for Vulcher, now you can read my somewhat rambling reaction to the book.




Hi Sean,

I just read my first two 33 1/3 books: Can: Tago Mago, which I hated, and your book on the Modern Lovers, which is SO MUCH better than that horrible There's Something About Jonathan book, which I detested. Anyway, I had a few comments that I thought might interest you.

Although the Modern Lovers broke up in 1973, they reformed in '74 (maybe late '73) with a different drummer but that didn't last long because the drummer hated Jonathan. They did at least one concert: Valentine's Day 1974. I was there early with Jonathan so I got to see all the sound checks for all three bands. Unfortunately, the idiot promoters let the mediocre opening band, George Thoroughlynogood and the Delaware Destroyers, play for one hour and 45 minutes. They should have had 25 minutes max. Thus, the Modern Lovers could only play one hour. And the second band couldn't play at all, which is very unfortunate, as it was Mo Tucker's excellent (and totally unknown) all-girl band the Bloody Virgins (but me and Jonathan got to watch their excellent 25-minute sound check). Seven or either years ago, AN internet music forum was discussing Mo, and I talked about seeing that band. A noted music critic (and friend of Mo) was pissed off and said that Mo never had any such band and that I was a liar. Luckily, I still had the concert ad and uploaded a photo of it to the forum.


How did Jonathan first hear the Velvets? In March or April 1967, he and I went to a record store, Briggs & Briggs on Mass Ave. in Harvard Square. He got the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out! I bought The Velvet Underground & Nico. I liked "European Son" and "Black Angel's Death Song." But I had some problems with the album. But Jonathan loved it, so three or four months later I gave it to him. In February '68, he called and said: "I've got the new Velvets album, White Light/White Heat. You know those problems you had with the first album? They're all gone. You'll love the new one. You got to hear it right away." 30 minutes later, I was at Jonathan's, listening to the album, and it still is my all-time favorite album (a year or so later, I picked up the first album again).

Jonathan was not back from Europe/Israel in spring 1970; he was still living in NYC. Just by chance, my two best friends ended up living on the same street in NYC; Jonathan in the Hotel Albert and Kenny in an NYU dorm, so I visited them on spring break in March '70. We were in Kenny's dorm room and met his roommates and their friends, including the girl he wrote the song "Hospital" about (last year, I asked Jonathan if he was still in touch wither her, and he said not for a long time, and he'd forgotten that I was there that day). He picked up an acoustic guitar and started dancing, playing, and singing. Kenny (who never had rock or pop sensibilities- only jazz) was mortified, and whispered into my ear: "Can you get him to stop? He's terrible." I replied: "I know, but he's going to be a star." Kenny was incredulous.

Jonathan told me a story about his most notable experience while at the Hotel Albert. One warm spring day, tired of practicing in the hotel's basement (where he'd once met one of the Blue Magoos), he lugged his Vox Super Beatle amp to the roof and started to play. After a while, he noticed that a crowd had begun to gather on the street below, and he thought to himself: "An audience!" It grew in size, and he put his whole heart into the performance. As he's telling me this, he's laughing harder and harder, inducing copious tears to roll down his cheeks, laughing so hard he can barely gasp out he rest: "And then the police and firemen showed up. The people below weren't listening to my music, they thought I was gonna commit suicide. They were waiting for me to jump!" The hotel's manager was furious. "He said to me: "Any more stunts like that Richman, you're outta here!'" Jonathan moved back to Boston in fall/early winter 1970.

You mentioned WRKO And WHDH. No one listened to WHDH, AND WRKO was a North Shore/South Shore thing. The two main stations were WBZ and WMEX. WMEX's signal wasn't very strong. I could rarely pick it up. WBZ had a much stronger signal and great DJ's, particularly Dick Summer (name-checked by Tom Rapp on the back of the first Pearls Before Swine album) and Bruce Bradley from at least '63 to mid '68 when WBZ changed formats; THEN WRKO became a top rock station. "WBZ Radio 1030 was the most popular and powerful class-A clear channel rock station in Boston," according to Travis Pike of Travis Pike's Tea Party, which regularly gigged at the Psychedelic Supermarket. WBZ had a call in talk show,Bob Kennedy's Contact, and Jonathan was a frequent caller, so he probably listened to the music on that station in high school. No mainstream stations played the Velvets, but a number of university-owned underground radio stations started. The best was Uncle T and the Freedom Machine on three different college stations, but principally WBUR, just down the street from the Psychedelic Supermarket (where at my first concert, I got to chat with a rock luminary- a conversation forever etched in my mind with Frank Zappa: "Hey kid, Can you help me set up the chairs?" Me: "Sure Frank"). I loved Uncle T's late-night show. I don't know if Jonathan listened to it though, as I was much more of a night owl than him.

Channel 2 (WGBH) in Boston had a show hosted by Tufts University prof David Silver, What's Happening Mr. Silver, about the underground scene in America. Jonathan and I watched all the time.

You mentioned two Boston-based music magazines: Crawdaddy! (me and Jonathan picked up an early mimeographed, stapled copy at a shop on Tremont Street) and Fusion, which I loved. Fusion was an offshoot of the teen-oriented New England TEEN Scene. In the early '80s, an acquaintance borrowed all my issues, making copies that made their way to garage bands around the world, including the Lyres and Sweden's Nomads, although nobody knows that they all originated with me. But you missed the other Boston-based rock magazine, Vibrations edited and published by Jonathan's friend John Kridl. It was very good, and one issue included a four page, newsprint insert written, designed, and illustrated by Jonathan. By the way, Vibration was the third rock magazine- following Crawdaddy! and Greg Shaw's Mojo Navigator Rock & Roll News. Rolling Stone was fourth and least.

The Modern Lovers frequently played the Stone Phoenix Coffeehouse (a couple of floors below street level), on Boylston Street next door to Little Stevie's Pizza. In high school, Jonathan took me and a girl to an open-mic Sunday gig ('68/'69) at the Catacombs, which may have been the Stone Phoenix's previous name or another club at the same address. He had his guitar, a small amp, and a fuzz box. It wasn't very loud (I could hear him clicking the fuzz box on/off). He already had a following, and people kept calling out for his song "Howard Johnson's." At the time, Jonathan was willing to improvise (likely the Velvet's influence) on any subject, and on the way to the gig in his dad's station wagon, he asked the girl for a song suggestion. So for the first, last, and (I'm sure) only time, Jonathan sang the song "Emko Vaginal Foam."

Despite playing regularly at the Stone Phoenix, there were never more than 15-25 at the shows. An acquaintance and I, who were both regular attendees, were amazed: The Modern Lovers were easily one of the top 10 bands in the world, and nobody showed up. In '76/'75 (before he ever put another working band together), Jonathan was again booked to play the Stone Phoenix. He was shocked when he arrived: the club was packed. So many people wanted in that they had to have two shows and clear the room after the first (I got to stay for both). It was a pick up band: Andy Paley on drums, a female violinist, and three people on percussion via handclapping and rolled-up newspapers.

You mentioned Jonathan opening for the Velvets, but he was actually scheduled (in advance) to open for them another time at the Unicorn when it was located right near Little Stevie's Pizza/Stone Phoenix. The Velvets were a trio (Mo was sick), and about ten people (if that) showed up. Rumor was that the Tea Party was having a special celebration with lots of bands because they were pissed that the Velvets weren't playing at the club. At the last minute, the asshole manager of the Unicorn refused to let Jonathan play. He was very upset. That day, Jonathan told me that while people often praised Lou's great guitar playing, Sterling was unfairly ignored, but eventually would be appreciated as a great guitar player in his own right.


Why do I have such a bad opinion of There's Something About Jonathan? The first line: "Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, Mass," which everyone repeats now. He even wrote a song about being "born in a hospital in the Fenway." He lived a bit in Brookline, then Natick. Jonathan asked me what I thought of that book, and I told him it was full of factual mistakes and inaccuracies. He said: "Give me an example." I said: "In a couple of places in the book, he talks about your incredible memory." Jonathan (laughing): "Really! I didn't know that." Me: "Well Jonathan, you probably just forgot." I complained about it so much that he finally said: "Maybe I should read it," although we both knew he couldn't be bothered. Moreover, two main sources of info for the book are self-aggrandizing assholes; one a notorious sleazeball who sold bootleg cassette copies out of the trunk of his car of an unreleased Jonathan album he billed as The Phil Spector Album A great album; easy to believe Spector produced it; totally different from any other album Jonathan ever released. 20 years later, I was living in Istanbul, and Jonathan came to visit and do gigs there and in Ankara. (I was his "tour manager," showing him Istanbul and acting as a buffer between him and the promoters. It was hilarious.) It was the most time we'd spent together since we were teenagers; we had a great time. I asked Jonathan if Spector had produced that album; he laughed and said no.

One thing I've never seen written about over the past 40+ years in the various articles about Jonathan: the Pete Townshend influence. Jonathan was a big fan of the WHO (I can remember discussing a video clip of "Substitute," a song we both loved) and of Pete who was famous for his sweeping, windmill guitar style. In those Stone Phoenix days, Jonathan utilized a modified version of this, but gradually dispensed with it. [WHEN I SHOWED HIM A COPY OF THIS ARTICLE, JONATHAN SAID I WAS THE FIRST WRITER WHO HAD EVER POINTED THIS OUT.]

The only time I SAW Aerosmith, they were playing for free in front of the College of Liberal Arts at Boston University to little attention. Once was enough.

In October '72, I helped arrange the only Modern Lovers gig at Boston University. John Felice was back in the band (briefly), and my friend Lou liked the band very much. Lou and I went to Sandy's in Beverly to see the band (no Felice again) in June '73. They were astonishingly good. Lou was so impressed that he asked how the band had come up with so much great, new material in such a short period of time. I said: "These are the same songs you heard seven months ago." He was shocked. Most fans of the Modern Lovers album don't realize just how much better the band became after the album was recorded. I have never seen a band improve that much in such a short period of time. A friend of Jerry Harrison sat up front with a large reel-to-reel tape recorder. That tape needs to be released on CD. Unfortunately, we only saw the first set, as we rushed back to Boston to see the Velvet Underground with Willie Alexander and Walter Powers at Oliver's in Kenmore Square. The show was nice, but we regretted not staying for the second set at Sandy's. The glam process in the band had started. David had dyed his hair blonde and wore expensive sunglasses. He looked like a giant rabbit. Later in California, the glam process accelerated, so on breaks in recording, Jonathan would go to the parking lot to rub dirt onto his white t-shirt.

The coolest poster I ever owned was for a John Cale/Jonathan concert promoted by Bruce Milne in Melbourne, Australia, with the two of them pictured in a yellow cab. Bruce sent me a tape of them duetting on "Pablo Picasso." Bruce was visiting (mid-80s). When he heard I had Jonathan's first guitar that his father Saul had given him, he and another friend and I went to my parents' house. I took it out of the case and gave it to Bruce who held it and looked at Jonathan's doodles and drawings on the guitar and then passed it to my other friend. The guitar immediately fell apart into its constituent pieces.

And somewhere in a garage in Mass. is a photo of a 13-year-old Jonathan twisting the night away at my Bar Mitzvah.

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