|Tom Hull's Old Rock Critic Writings|
Modern Lovers Love Your Eyes
The Modern Lovers were once a rather unsavory Boston-bred rock group. Then John Cale came in, produced a few demo tapes at great expense, and the whole thing wound up a giant tax loss for Warner Bros. Now, they're a record album, for some reason available only by mail, from the Home of the Hits, lovable Beserkley Records. And let me tell ya, it's a beauty: haven't heard nothing this visceral since Iggy sang "Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell."
Which in your general rock critical cum aesthetic parlance spells genius. Not that anybody's ever proved that geniuses do us any good, but since civilization's gone to pot anyway, their strange beautify is one of the few real pleasures we have left. The Modern Lovers is such a pleasure, a lovely album, eight gorgeous love songs, topped off with "Pablo Picasso," a good ol' slice of unadulterated class hatred. I love it. Better than Ducks Deluxe even. Of course, that don't mean you will. In fact, nobody I've played it for can stand it, and I can't think of anybody else I know who could get into it other than an ex-girlfriend who thought we had nothing in common. But it's great. Consider:
Lyrics. Great lyricists are intuitive; if you go to school you're liable to wind up writing like Paul Simon or Gil Scott-Heron, which in a just revolution is strictly to the gallows. You can be clever, curious, deceitful, but as Kant's most schizophrenic insight showed, greatness comes from the gut. Hirth Martinez, in his inimitable, wacked out way, writes from the gut. So does Jonathan Richman, though to call what he does writing is to overarticulate it. Ergo:
Singsong. Poetry may be symbols on some object, but singing, or plain speaking, takes vocal cords, tongue, lips, etc. There are a few natural wonders like Van Morrison floating around, who can sing anything and make it great. Richman isn't one of them, but he makes his lyrics true because there's no way in the world a guy like that could be lying. The typical line in a J. Richman toon is "I'm in love with X," X being anything but you, baby. (X becomes "your eyes" one time, but that's what back in Frankfurt we used to call "reification," which probably just means J. was stoned out of his gourd, and besides eyes are very beautiful things anyway, especially yours.) And he makes that line fucking poignant. Which is why he can sing. "Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes/ That never happened to Pablo Picasso," and make you (or me anyhow) think he's got the Zeitgeist by the balls. Which brings us to:
Sounds (a/k/a Music). Though words are basically phonemes they're overladen with message values, which require processing via like-minded message values. Sound doesn't require processing; it hits you directly and lets whatever conditioned responses you might have accrued fend for themselves. This is why shit lyrics never ruined a good song, and why brilliant poetry never gets your rocks off (or mine, anyway) like the Stooges. And, at least in my book, the Lovers make it. The basic chugalug of under-the-table rock, Jerry Harrison's tasty organ (a machine Steve Reich has proved to be an all-time ugly) toned back into Ernie Brooks' meaty bass lines, with steady rhythm from David Robinson. And Jonathan Richman, guitar, voice, toons, genius. (Of course, having John Cale behind the knobs didn't hurt, but that's only because the one thing Cale learned in spite of the academy is to leave well enough alone.)
As for me, I'm in love with Kansas/ neon signs when it's late at night. Not much, but it's what I got, and I'd rather fight than give that up too. And I'd like to have a girlfriend/ something I could understand. Survival breeds hope. And for the Modern Lovers and you, just thought you might like to know.
This was retyped from an edited manuscript. I don't remember writing this, let alone getting it published. Can't even figure out who the girlfriend was. The Modern Lovers was finally released by Beserkley in 1976, so that provides a likely date.