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Yesterday's Music Is Still Alive: Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers

by dave heaton

To most music fans and rock n' roll scholars, "the Modern Lovers" means the first incarnation of the group to record: the group represented on the John Cale-produced Modern Lovers album that was released in 1976, after the band disbanded. This is the canonized Modern Lovers, the group that has already been written into the history books as punk's precursor and the Velvet Underground's offspring due to now-classic songs like "Pablo Picasso" and "Roadrunner". But there were more Modern Lovers lineups after that teenaged one, and those deserve at least as much attention but rarely get it. By the time the Modern Lovers album was released, the first recorded work by the next lineup of the Modern Lovers was also being released; it's called Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, and has recently been re-released on CD by the U.K. label Sanctuary.

The conventional music-critic wisdom classifies Modern Lovers as the only 'Modern Lovers' album, and Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, and its follow-up Rock 'N' Roll With the Modern Lovers as the first 'Jonathan Richman' solo albums - that logic is flawed, and has more to do with what style of rock has been privileged by the history-book writers than with the albums themselves. AllMusic classifies the Modern Lovers as "a coherent group of which Richman was a member...[that] deserve[s] separate consideration from Richman's own body of work." Is this a proven fact, though, or the rewriting of history? Richman wrote all of the songs on Modern Lovers, while he co-wrote two of Rock 'N' Roll's songs with members of the band - that would suggest. Presumably this judgment comes mostly from Modern Lovers having more of a cohesive "band" sound, but does it really? That band played loud, full, VU-influenced rock where the bands on the next two albums played looser, gentler, Chuck Berry-influenced rock that also brought children's music, hymns and folk songs along for the ride...but is one band necessarily less 'band-like' than the other? It certainly doesn't sound that way.

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers does sound more like Jonathan's solo work than Modern Lovers does, but it isn't any less band-based or any less 'rock n' roll'. There are some songwriting differences between the two albums, but not many -the difference is mostly in the sound. The former group's music sounds snottier and darker-edged in attitude, yet the emotional openness and celebration of life's details that became the hallmark of Jonathan Richman's career are certainly present in Modern Lovers's tracks as well. The differences are mostly stylistic; listen to "Roadrunner" from Modern Lovers and then the Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers reissue bonus track "Roadrunner (Once)" to hear how the same song can be played two different ways. It's hard not to take the status granted to Modern Lovers over the next incarnations of the band as a privileging of one rock sound over another, or of the Lovers having broken an unwritten rock n' roll rule by making their music more diverse, more emotionally open, less jaded, and more joyous.

Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers opens with a song called "Rockin' Shopping Center" that's unmistakably influenced by early rock n' roll, by the music that influenced the Velvet Underground. It's followed by an equally exuberant cover of Chuck Berry's "Back in the USA." Musically here the band is picking up where the four songs that they contributed between albums to the Chartbusters compilation (songs like the giddy "Government Center" and "The New Teller," presented here as bonus tracks) left off, with an early rock sound that's invigorated through the sheer joy in which the band members tackle their instruments. Both "Rockin' Shopping Center" and "Back in the USA" detail and celebrate the 'mundane' details of everyday life, as does the atmospheric "Lonely Financial Zone" later in the album. The way Richman paints pictures of places, times and events with these songs is remarkable enough, but the way he relates deep feelings (loneliness, wonder, joy) to objects and locations is even more so. The nimble guitar playing (listen to the guitar behind Richman's voice on the delightful "Springtime," for example) pulls the beauty and melancholy out from the songs, Jonathan's voice does the same, and the band is always ready to jump into action when a song's mood calls for a backbeat to turn joy into action-packed rock and roll.

This is rock and roll, no matter what music history books will tell us. What, you can't write a rock n' roll song about how much you love New England? Or dedicate a rock song to an insect? Or base one around the idea that when Martians come to earth, the first thing we need to ask them is what flavor of ice cream they like the most? The vision of life on Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers is as unconventional, within the contexts of rock music, popular music in general, art, and life, as those of beloved eccentrics like Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart - and it's just as subversive and rebellious, perhaps even more so. Not just because of the creative stories and images, not just because the songs are about topics more typical of kids' fables than rock anthems, or for that matter even because they brilliantly subvert the very notion of 'adulthood and 'childhood'...but because of how much closer to honest, raw emotions they get that most rock songs. Even unbridled rock songs that shatter societal conventions and spit in the face of authority seldom feel as real or as unique as these songs, which in their own way stand even stronger against convention. Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers embraces nonconformists (what's more punk than an abominable snowman disrupting a supermarket?) and encourages all listeners to bare their hearts, speak their minds, and engage themselves with the world. This is music that breaks down barriers between audience and listener, that says 'forget what you've been told is important in life, here's what's important to us' in a bold and unforgettable way.


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