This article originally appeared in the June 1986 issue of SPIN.
“We don’t want some girl to fool around with / We don’t want some girl to ball / We’re the Modern Lovers from Boston, Massachusetts / And we came here tonight to say / We only want a girl we care about / Or we want nothing at all…” —Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, 1973
Jonathan Richman is the Mr. Rogers of Rock, the Grandma Moses of Pop Music, the Walt Whitman of Wimp, a wholesome Lou Reed, and a hopeless romantic. His band, the Modern Lovers, were legends before anyone had heard of them. They could have been the biggest band of the ’70s. They were probably the first art band, preceding the Talking Heads by a number of years.
They were a new-wave band long before punk was a musical term. While everyone else back then was going to extremes to be outrageous, the Modern Lovers bent over backwards to be normal. While everybody else was into glitter, makeup, and platform shoes, the Modern Lovers wore T-shirts, so you could see from their arms the kind of work they did; short hair, so you could see their faces; and sneakers (they were just as tall as they appeared).
When everyone else was smashed on coke and Quaaludes, the Modern Lovers were singing songs like “I’m Straight.” They were the only ones at their concerts not stoned. And when everyone was into the modern world, the Modern Lovers were praising old world virtues and values.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their eccentricities, the Modern Lovers became the darlings of rock critics and trendsetters. Record companies begged to sign them.
Perhaps they were too virtuous, too straight, too old world, or too modern, but when the opportunity came knocking at their door, they tried to sneak out the back. They did everything they could not to succeed, and finally, as if to guarantee failure, they did the only thing left—they broke up.
* * *
There are three people on the other lines at the bank and on Jonathan’s there’s eleven, but that’s fine, ’cause Jonathan’s in heaven. He’s got a crush on the new teller.
Jonathan’s in touch with the modern world. Jonathan’s in love with rock ‘n’ roll, Massachusetts when it’s late at night, and the neon when it’s cold. He’s in love with Route 128 by the power lines. He loves to drive to the Stop ‘N’ Shop late at night with his AM radio on.
Jonathan, Jonathan, when you walk into the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, where do you go first?
“First I go to the room where they keep the Cézannes, but if I had by my side a girlfriend, then I could look through the paintings. I could look right through them, because (drums) I’d have found something that I understand. I understand a girlfriend.” (“Girlfriend”)
How do you spell that?
Hey, Ernie [Brooks, bass]. What’s with Jonathan and girls?
“That’s what he wanted. A girlfriend. Someone he could share his dreams with. Jonathan was one of those kids who was totally in his own world. He did not know how to talk to girls. He put them up on a pedestal. He’d visit girls up on the astral plane and visit them at night. Some of the girls he intercepts up there he may have known from other lives.”
“Whaa, Jonathan? It’s six o’clock in the morning?”
“I entered her dream last night. I know I entered her dream. I…I don’t know if I should have done that.”
“No, Jonathan, that’s wrong. You shouldn’t have done that.”
* * *
Jonathan was still a virgin. The girl who Jonathan wrote all those songs about ended up in the hospital. That’s who “Hospital” was about (“When you get out of the hospital / Let me back into your life / When you get out of the dating bar / I’ll be here to get back into your life”).
She was sensitive. She understood him. “She cracked / I’m sad / But I won’t… / She did things / I don’t / She’d eat garbage / Eat shit and get stoned / I stay alone / Eating health food at home” (“She Cracked”).
Before he was a Modern Lover, Jonathan was frustrated. Big dreams. No friends. He grew up in Natick, a Boston suburb, dropped out of high school at 16, moved to New York City at 18, worked as a Wall Street messenger and as a busboy at Max’s Kansas City, hung out at Lou Reed’s house, moved back to Boston.