There’s a handful of musical acts who supposedly represent Boston—Aerosmith, Dropkick Murphys, Boston—that, if you ask most Massholes, don’t actually rep our city. Our vibrant scene, and pretty much the entire genre of protopunk, has the Modern Lovers to thank for its churning pulse, punkish style, and awkward wit. That’s who represents Boston. Hell, it still does.
In 1976, the band released its eponymous debut studio album, The Modern Lovers, which would be its only full-length ever released. It burned through songs about Stop ’n’ Shop, dating failures, and what it meant to grow up in Massachusetts. It introduced the beginnings of punk rock, new wave, and alt-rock to the masses—and countless soon-to-be musicians that would shape music in the decades that followed. Natick native Jonathan Richman steered the band into a crunchy, blissful mess of songs that, still today, energize you with the rambling idiosyncrasies of a man who loves his roots the way real New Englanders do.
But it’s not just a record. It signaled so much for music as well as the state of Massachusetts, and in his new novel, Sean L. Maloney illustrates all the reasons why. The Modern Lovers is Maloney’s contribution to 33 ⅓, the iconic short book series where authors dig deep into a record’s impact, history, and narrative for diehard fans and new listeners alike. The Boston-based, Nashville-trained music critic (and once contributor to the Dig) explores the cultural wasteland of suburbia, the Brutalist architecture of our city, and why a collection of demos became an album that changed the course of rock ’n’ roll forever.
Grab a copy of the book at its official release party. Winter Hill Brewing Company hosts the reading event and plenty of toasting on Tuesday, Feb 14. Don’t be slow. It’ll sell out faster than a roadrunner going faster miles an hour.
DIG: What sparked your love for the Modern Lovers?
MALONEY: I’ve been thinking about this a lot and frankly, I have no idea! I think it was just destined to happen. Growing up, my family were all huge proponents of local rock music, huge radio listeners, huge music lovers in general even though none of [us] can carry a tune in a bucket. By the time I was a teenager, I was glued to the radio, especially local rock shows on WMBR and WFNX. So I think when I finally bought a copy of the 1986 Rhino CD at the Newbury Comics in Burlington it was fate. I played that CD until it turned into powder.
DIG: What separates the Modern Lovers from other rock acts of its time?
MALONEY: I think it’s their unwillingness to play the game. Even though they were caught up in a major label bidding war, they didn’t have a manager, they didn’t take orders from executives. At a time when a lot of bands were trying real hard for commercial success, the Modern Lovers were unwilling to compromise their vision, unwilling to acquiesce to the gluttony and overindulgence of the era. They were defining the punk attitude when most bands were still pretending to be hippies.
DIG: So when did you start working on the book?
MALONEY: My old school friends would tell you I started working on this book the minute I bought the CD. Fast-forward to 2014 and my DigBoston cover story about Jonathan Richman. I went apeshit with the research, piled up a ton of ideas that never made it into the paper. About a year later, 33 ⅓ put out the call for submissions, and I had one of those Eureka! moments like you see in cartoons. I knew that I was going to write about The Modern Lovers and I was going to be able draw on all of my other nerdy Boston history obsessions, like highway development and Brutalist architecture, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
DIG: What was the hardest roadblock you ran into while writing?
MALONEY: The toughest part was finding the Lillian Roxon quote that started the major label bidding war over the Modern Lovers. It was barely a mention, a brief paragraph at best, and it had this profound impact on the development of this album. But nobody knew exactly when it ran, and there was this 18-month window when it might have happened. Oh, and the newspaper it ran in doesn’t have digital archives stretching that far back. So I basically had to look for this needle quote in a microfiche haystack. And it was the best. I read every Lillian Roxon column for a year and felt like I had made a new best friend. Roxon is so criminally overlooked in the history of rock criticism it was like discovering a new world, a world where all of the worst habits of ’70s rock critic dudes never happened.
DIG: Sorting through that much material is the best part—but also the worst because you have to be picky. Did anything not make it into the final copy that you were upset about?
MALONEY: I had to leave so much on the cutting room floor. Most of my research about Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill People, the Roxbury-based cult, never made it in. I cut out most of the bank robberies and bombings, two things that happened, like, weekly in Boston back then. I left out all of the sports, because even though that was one of the best times to be a Boston fan it didn’t actually have anything to do with the story. Oh, and riots, I had to cut out a bunch of riots. The Harvard kids used to riot on the regular.
DIG: Supposedly, critics only get to speak to Jonathan Richman through letters. Did you write him any? Did he have any rules?
MALONEY: I just wrote one letter, for the [Boston] Globe in September. For the book, I only used pre-existing interviews. I had been reading a lot of Situationist theory and William S. Burroughs in the run-up to my pitch and really wanted to create this narrative using the cut-up method. I had to reign it in a quite a bit, but for the most part, the energy and the chaos came through in the final, much more readable, edit. As for Jonathan’s rules? He has them, but you sort of have to guess them. He’s very much a sensualist and exists very much in the moment, so rehashing the past takes a delicate approach. It took me, like, 20 years to come up with my questions.
DIG: Where did you pull that research from? Are there any papers, zines, or archives you recommend readers check out after spending hours digging through them?
MALONEY: I spent a lot of time in the research room at the Boston Public Library, scrolling through microfilms of old newspapers. The Underground Newspaper collection there is the most amazing resource for researching mid-century American counterculture. Underground newspapers were such a vibrant and unique phenomenon. But the library also has all of the square newspapers so I could find the things I needed in the Globe or New York Daily News. I could also stare out the window, which was helpful since about a third of the story happens in Copley Square. In terms of books, I absolutely couldn’t have written this without The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Frank Zappa’s Autobiography, and Jane Jacob’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
DIG: What’s your favorite quote by him that you dug up while writing this?
MALONEY: “I knew I couldn’t sing or play like the other guys did, but I didn’t want to. I figured I had feeling and that was enough. I knew I was honest.” I loved that quote from Jonathan’s Twin Tone records bio and used it as sort of a guiding light while I was writing the book. The book is about a dude figuring out how to make his art, and I was a dude figuring out how to write a book. It seemed to fit.
DIG: What was the most surprising fact about the album that you learned?
MALONEY: I heard that there are a whole bunch of tapes from the Modern Lovers recording sessions with John Cale that have never been heard by the public. The copyright issues around these recordings are so complicated and byzantine that they may never escape the vault.
DIG: I was hoping you’d say something about Jonathan’s striped shirts. I always picture him in one. Why does he loves those?
MALONEY: The Breton striped shirt was mid-century shorthand for “I am an artist.” Picasso, Warhol, Chanel; it was definitely a thing, and Jonathan definitely fit in with that lineage. And even such a simple sartorial choice was archly contrarian in the midst of the psychedelic overload.
DIG: Going into this project, what questions did you want answered? Were they, either by research or by Richman himself?
MALONEY: I really just wanted to know about Boston. I love this city; it has so many weird creative people and so much weird history that I just needed to know. I understood the Modern Lovers and the business side of their story because I had witnessed it a dozen times when I was living in Nashville. I definitely understood the social side—I was a snotty 20-year-old rocker once myself—and I definitely understood growing up in the outer suburbs of Boston. But I didn’t really know the City, not in 1970 anyway. And I think the best way to know a city is to read its newspapers. So I read a lot of newspapers. All of the answers can be found in newspapers.
33 ⅓ THE MODERN LOVERS RELEASE PARTY. TUE 2.14. WINTER HILL BREWING COMPANY, 328 BROADWAY, SOMERVILLE. 7PM/21+/FREE. WINTERHILLBREWING.COM