“You need coolin’, baby I’m not foolin’/ I’m gonna send you back to schoolin’/ way down inside, baby you need it/ I’m gonna give you my love.”
From Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, released as a single in 1969. One of the most celebrated songs by one of rock and roll’s most celebrated bands. As the 70s wore on, overwrought prog and super-group slop started going out of fashion, and punk rock aimed to kill. While New York groups like the Ramones and Television worked hard to strip down songs till they splintered, one group from Boston was deconstructing rock as it stood in more emotional ways. "The Modern Lovers" is one of the most honest albums you will ever hear. It’s tender, sweet, innocent, and, more than any record before it, it’s a total disavowal of the myth of the rock star, a repudiation of the “my dick is a gift” mentality that so permeated and suffocated the popular music of the time.
Jonathan Richman, the scrawny twig genius behind it all, was compared by more than a few critics to his idol, Lou Reed, particularly for his gruff, monotone vocal delivery. I’m sure he was flattered, but time has given us enough Richman-crooning clones (see, for instance, the Men of “Open Your Heart” fame) to make me wonder if there’s something more to it than casual copycatting. The truth is, Richman was able to convey things Lou could barely even conceptualize. Frailty is a good example, and certainly introversion. Far be it for a man who so confidently roars “she’s too busy sucking on my ding-dong” to pretend he’s even a little uncomfortable in his own skin.
Richman wants you to know him like close friend or family, and, rest assured, by the end of the album it feels like he’s done the job. He loves all sorts of things - Massachusetts, the new world, the old world, the USA, and the highway when it’s cold at night, with the radio on. He’s been hurt, and he’s hurt others. He’s okay if you won’t sleep with him tonight. He doesn’t want just a girl to ball. He just wants someone he cares about. The poetry is so simple and touching, like the folk music of the past, that it hurts to even imagine he’s lying. I don’t think he is by the way.
Of course, if this broken-hearted teenie Romeo was murmuring over ***, none of us would care to give him the time of day. Luckily, or perhaps miraculously, The Modern Lovers is one of the most consistently excellent records of punk’s first wave. The opener, “Roadrunner”, is one of the greatest road anthems of all time. “She Cracked” is frantic reflection on a relationship that had to end, complete with whirlwind guitars to match a scrambled mind. The album’s emotional centerpiece, “Hospital”, is punk’s first great ballad, a haunting study of could-be loss and love as spine-tingling as Springsteen’s “Wreck on the Highway.” “Astral Plane” sees the band letting their influences show, though it’s more Doors than Velvets. It’s an important reminder that these guys were just amateurs. Kids. If they were grown-ups, the music wouldn’t be half as good.
The Lovers didn’t get around to releasing another record. They didn’t need to. Their self-titled was a sort of quiet revolution, paving the way for a generation of rock stars who didn’t feel the need to worship themselves, or to be worshipped. Love-struck icons who want to hold your hand and won’t violate you later. Richman still tours on his own, playing mostly acoustic music, his legacy only appreciated in those certain corners you’d expect it to be appreciated in, but he doesn’t mind. Buy the record, buy the reissue. It’s worth your time and your money.