By Ernie Brooks, as told to Legs McNeil
(Legs’ VICE.COM column)
Ernie Brooks is a very likable fellow who was raised in New York and Connecticut by intellectual, liberal parents, which explains why he became a civil rights activist down South during the violent “Freedom Summer” of the early 1960s. Ernie’s a Harvard graduate who studied English literature, poetry, and rock ‘n’ roll, along with his college roommate Jerry Harrison, who later became the keyboard player for the Talking Heads. A chance encounter with Jonathan Richman led to a wild ride as one of the founding members of the legendary Modern Lovers, perhaps the greatest alt-rock, pre-punk, indie band that no one has ever seen. “I’m Straight”
Jerry Harrison, who was my roommate at Harvard, saw Jonathan Richman playing on the Cambridge Commons, which is smaller than the Boston Commons, right by Harvard Square, and said to me, “You gotta come see this weird guy. He’s really nuts, but he sounds very cool…”
At that time, Jonathan used to wear these suits with a very conservative white shirt and tie, sport coat, and dress pants, and he had really short hair—it was really funny. There was something about it that was really confrontational in an interesting way.
Jonathan had a band with David Robinson, who was the drummer, and another guy named Rolf, who was playing bass, and they played these free shows on the Cambridge Commons. Jonathan had this blue Jazzmaster guitar with like two strings and had decorated it with the Howard Johnson’s decals. He had painted it light blue and orange like the Howard Johnson’s colors—and almost all the songs he played were in E minor—it was very minimalist. “I see the restaurant. It is my friend” was a line from one of the songs.
Jerry and I were both amazed by Jonathan. I had been studying poetry with different people at Harvard, like Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Creeley, so I was struck by the connection between Jonathan’s deep poetic roots and the idea of talking about everyday things. So the poetry was there—instantly I could hear the visionary poetry.
Jonathan was doing that song “I’m Straight,” which, of course, he was. Jonathan didn’t take drugs—though, later on, Jerry persuaded him to take a puff of marijuana, and Jonathan suddenly got this weird look on his face and got up and was about to pick up a frying pan and said, “Jerry, I’m gonna have to hit you with a frying pan, ’cause I have to hurt somebody in order to know that I am stoned and I’m not myself…”
And I cracked up and said, “Jonathan, that’s OK. You don’t have to do that…”
Jonathan was really upset that his consciousness had been altered. And as far as I know, that’s how he’s always been—very straight—so in that sense, “I’m Straight” was real and completely true.
At some point, before we saw him on the Cambridge Commons, Jonathan had gone to New York and slept on Lou Reed’s couch and worked briefly as a busboy at Max’s Kansas City, where he was fired because he was really not very skilled as a busboy. But he loved the Velvet Underground—he loved two bands—the Stooges and the Velvets. He used to preach about the Stooges all the time—and that’s what’s funny about Jonathan, his music didn’t sound like either band, but there was some deep connection there.
Anyway, Jerry Harrison and I saw Jonathan a couple times on the Cambridge Commons, but we didn’t meet him—and then he showed up at our apartment at 152 Putnam Ave wearing his white plastic motorcycle jacket. Danny Fields, the great facilitator of all things rock ‘n’ roll, brought Jonathan over, and that was the first time Jerry and I really met him. Jonathan started dancing around and showing us his songs. Jonathan would grab whatever instrument was around; sometimes he didn’t have an instrument, and he’d just start clapping his hands and singing whatever new song was in his head, to whoever was there to listen. He still does that.
I don’t know how it came about, but we started talking about Yeats—Jonathan knew some literature, and we connected on that level. You know that Yeats poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole”? “…lover by lover, / They paddle in the cold / Companionable streams…” It’s a very beautiful Celtic twilight kind of vision.