The Modern Lovers self titled debut is the greatest posthumously released Rock debut of all time. Not only that, the 1972 demos that they made separately with John Cale and Kim Fowley, and live recordings of the era, all have material absent from the official release that is equally astonishing. Taking an obvious love of the Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers distinguished themselves in part with the awkward, anxious, forelorn and frustrated, but ultimately introspective and romantic lyrics of Jonathan Richman.
Richman possessed a mentality at odds with the times. To a peer group obsessed with drugs and sex, Richman proclaimed “I’m Straight”, and wrote of tradition, love and values, not unlike a pent-up, Boston based, Ray Davies, circa Waterloo Sunset or Village Green Preservation Society. In a time of long hairs and flamboyant fashion, he wore his hair short and his clothes were decidedly unhip, if not square. It was almost as if he was challenging the idea of Rock and Roll rebellion, from within that very format. Before long, such notions, and his poppier musical sensibilities would create friction with the original band, all of whom were much more comfortable with the era’s trends. Though the newer music of Richman was adopted by the Punk and New Wave crowds, his fellow original Modern Lovers subsequent bands, The Real Kids, The Cars and Talking Heads, were all clearly an active part of the new movement. Now, some forty years after the break up of the original band, it’s clear that Jonathan Richman had an aesthetic that he was pursuing, one that he continues to refine to this day, that is uniquely his.
I have a particularly fond, if bittersweet, memory of a Jonathan Richman show several years ago, and remember being particularly taken with this charming number about his youthful pretension.