Ernie Brooks, bassist and founding member of The Modern Lovers, talks to Legs McNeil about the origins of the band, recording their classic (and only!) album, and decodes some of their songs
Ernie Brooks as told to Legs McNeil
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. – Legs McNeil
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.
“I always had this theory that our sound was almost the opposite of the Velvets, that basically we were playing into the light as opposed to the darkness.”
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.
“I’ve Got the AM Radio On…”
So Jonathan was into poetry—but he was also into the first Stooges album, which had just come out. So I talked with Jonathan about what a great rhythm section the Stooges had, and he was really into that, and he was really funny. He also loved the Velvet Underground, but he was very conflicted about them, because of the darkness they presented. I always had this theory that our sound was almost the opposite of the Velvets, that basically we were playing into the light as opposed to the darkness. But you could argue that about anybody—any art that expresses pain is also suggesting a way out of the pain.
I don’t know exactly what Jerry and I said after Jonathan left that day, but we both thought that he was interesting—not like anybody else. Basically everything else was just a lot of blues jam bands and folk rock remnants of the Bosstown Sound (remember Ultimate Spinach and Beacon Street Union?)—and what appealed to me about Jonathan was that he was as new as anything and there was something that was really positive about him.
So it was decided we were going to play this gig with him—our first gig—at some teen center out in Natick, Massachusetts. Natick was one of those beltway suburban towns around Boston, near Route 128, which was just starting to have some high-tech companies and factories. So we went and rehearsed in David Robinson’s basement—he lived with his parents in Woburn, Massachusetts, and his mom made us food, like tuna fish sandwiches or something to eat after we’d play. And Jon Felice, who had been Jonathan’s childhood friend, joined us on guitar. He seemed to be constantly leaving the band and coming back, following his frequent fights with Jonathan. So anyway, we played the teen center in Natick, and that was our first gig.
All of our early gigs were pretty dippy, so, of course, Jerry and I said, “Well, we can probably get some jobs at a Harvard mixer,” like we’re gonna come up in the world and our band can make one hundred bucks!
And we did get a Harvard mixer! But the funny thing about the mixer was that when we were playing something with a good beat, the people would dance—there was always a small group of people who were really into it and were listening—and the rest of the people didn’t give a shit, which I guess is always the way. I mean, most of the guys were there to pick up girls, and we had a song called “The Mixer,” which goes, “Hey, girls, do you notice the smell?” It’s talking directly about girls and the guys at the mixer, confronting them with the absurdity of the situation. It’s a pretty funny song, and we’d play it at these mixers—and nobody got it! Of course, the PA was lousy and they might not have heard the words.
When we first met him, I think Jonathan was incredibly isolated and caught in his adolescence. He really wanted to meet girls, but not knowing how to do it, he focused on the astral plane, in which he could meet someone in this world and communicate with her in a dream state. I mean, he did meet girls, but then he would not know what to do with them or what to say to them. He’d call me in the middle of the night, saying, about a girl we both knew, “Ernie, I think I entered her dream. Do you think that’s right?”
And I’d say, “Well, Jonathan, I guess its OK, I dunno…”
He was describing how he had entered into some girl’s dream and was feeling some connection to her soul. Of course, Jonathan was a big fan of Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks—that’s such a beautiful record. I wasn’t sure if Jonathan was actually able to do that, enter a girl’s dream—but he really believed in it, which is where that song, “The Astral Plane,” came from—the idea that you can communicate in another dimension with someone who’s hard to reach in everyday life.
“I’m In Love with The Modern World…”
Jonathan definitely wrote the lyrics to “Roadrunner,” and we did the arrangement. Jonathan came up with the idea for most of the songs, but the music started out pretty simple. Mostly on one chord, and you could say the nut of it came from Jonathan—and then we filled it in and gave it structure.
I mean, we’d argue in rehearsal—about which song to do, about how to arrange it, or whether we should have the break here or there. We argued from the very beginning. We talked and discussed things endlessly—we all loved to talk—and Dave was the one getting pissed off, saying, “Come on, stop talking, rehearse it, play it!” From early on we had an agreement where we would split all the publishing; all songs would be by the Modern Lovers, kind of like the Ramones. It was a way for us to recoup some of our expenses. It felt really justified at the time because I got the van and Jerry brought a lot of the equipment from Milwaukee.
“There’s something very sinister about LA that people don’t usually talk about.”
“When You Get Out of the Hospital, Let Me Back into Your Life”
At some of the early shows Jonathan would set up an easel, and he’d place his drawings on it. I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the drawings, but I have a copy of a poster that he drew; it’s of the Modern Lovers—a cartoon of the four of us with a heart flying over the band. It’s got the highway in the background and stuff. And he had this picture of a girl in the suburban town in Massachusetts where she lived and a picture of the hospital she ended up in, and while pointing to the drawings he’d recite the lyrics before he did the song.
Eventually someone—it must have been Danny Fields—called Lillian Roxon from the Daily News about the Modern Lovers. So Lillian came up and heard us play in this little dump and wrote about it for the newspaper—and that article started a sudden rush of record companies coming to see us. The funniest thing was Clive Davis (head of Columbia Records) coming to see us in this school gym in North Cambridge. We’d set up with our PA, and there were probably 50 totally bored, indifferent high school students there. So Clive was there—he couldn’t hear shit and actually had his ear up against this Shure Vocal Master Speaker—and just said, “These lyrics can be taken on many different levels!”
Clive offered us a record contract, but we didn’t go with him. That was when we started our insanity, thinking we were hot shit and we were going to go check out everybody in the business to find the best manager and the one record company that was worthy of the Modern Lovers.
I think we were just idiots, believing that we could be so demanding, before we had really done very much as a band.
It was a funny bunch of personalities. And I’d say Jerry Harrison and I were the most business-oriented, most reasonable, but David was pretty pragmatic too. However, the three of us were not good at being decisive. Jonathan was more so, but we generally would not agree with him when he was.
“I Don’t Want to Hurt Anybody”
In the spring of ’72 we flew to LA to work on a demo for both Warner Bros. and A & M, two of the labels hot to sign us. John Cale, a house producer for Warner at the time, was a big reason we went. We really wanted him to produce the first Modern Lovers record; we were fans of his through the Velvet Underground and through the fact that he’d produced the first Stooges record. The first time I met him was when I went to his apartment years before, somewhere on the lower East Side, and he had photos of someone having a nose job on the wall—a fairly disturbing set of pictures. In the couple of weeks on the West Coast, we recorded all the songs that went into the Modern Lovers album, most of them recorded by Cale in a session where he basically captured us playing our live set. It went well, though all of us thought at the time that it was just a demo, preparation for what would be the “real” record.
In summer of ’73 we went back, finally signed to Warner Bros., to record the real deal with John. After staying a while in Van Nuys at Emmylou Harris’s place, we got this stucco house on Kings Road in Hollywood, one of those windy roads that runs off of Hollywood Boulevard, sort of hidden in the shrubbery. It was one of the scariest places because these houses were so isolated. One night we could hear the sound of helicopters circling, their searchlights trained on the house just down the road, and then we see the black cars driving up with guys with their sniper rifles and black vests—so we knew something was going on, but we didn’t know what. We heard a lot of shooting and then cars driving away.
There’s something very sinister about LA that people don’t usually talk about.
And that’s where the problems started, almost immediately. I think it was because Jonathan had been changing. I don’t think it was so much that he was getting tired of the old songs as he was developing this idea that the whole rock-‘n’-roll-star-making machinery was corrupt. And part of that was the whole system of burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, using a lot of power for amps and sound systems, playing stadiums—you know, feeling that there was something wrong in profiting from all these things—and he started tying it all together in his mind and decided that he didn’t want the Modern Lovers to be a conventional rock ‘n’ roll band.
But it made it impossible for us!
David, the drummer, and I shared a love of tight, poppy rock ‘n’ roll songs, and that’s the way we wanted to make our album. So I had endless conversations with Jonathan, like, “Jonathan, you can do whatever you want afterwards. Let’s just make this record, and then let’s go out and play some shows! People need to hear these songs—they’re good songs, and they sound good!”
Jonathan was saying, “Ohh, I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t want the music if it’s too loud. It’s gonna hurt kids’ ears, ya know? And if it’s real, the people will hear it, even if it’s quiet, if there’s magic in it.”
He never denied the magic of rock ‘n’ roll—he just said if it was really quiet, you could hear the words better, and that was part of this whole shift.
John Cale had a real sense of how he wanted things to sound and was very insistent. So there was a problem in the making there. While working with Cale, things got even more difficult, probably because Jonathan was starting to not want to play loud, powerful, electric music anymore, and that made Cale crazy.
One of the songs we tried to re-record and couldn’t quite get right, I think, was “Someone I Care About,” so Cale said to Jonathan, “You gotta sound mean; you gotta sound like you wanna kill somebody!”
And Jonathan said, “Oh, I don’t want to hurt anybody—I wanna make a nice, happy-sounding record,” because this was obviously his new sensibility. Jonathan was headed in a new direction, and Cale wanted the angst and the violence in the sound, which really characterized us in our early days.
John Cale was also not in the best shape: He was drinking a lot, though I don’t know if he was taking drugs. I used to go out and play tennis with him at the Burbank tennis courts when he was in a good mood, and Cale was always asking, “What’s going on? What’s with Jonathan? Why can’t we do this record? Why do you have to change the sound?”
He was growing increasingly frustrated with Jonathan and the whole ordeal. As I said, things weren’t going great in Cale’s life. One evening he even called me up and said, “I know my wife’s there!” Of course, part of the story there was that she, Cindy, had been a close friend and bandmate in the GTO’s of Miss Christine, who had died of an overdose the year before at the house we were renting on the South Shore of Boston, and that’s another part of the story, of things that cast a pall over the Modern Lovers. Miss Christine’s death had apparently totally destabilized Cindy.
I said, “John, she’s not here!”
I don’t know what was going on, but I don’t think it was good. I have to say, it must have been a terrible thing for Cale, because he was the producer of this potentially great record he wanted to make—that Jonathan wouldn’t let him make—and at the same time we all admired him, but it just wasn’t working out.
So we were all kind of upset because we felt we were on the cusp of greatness—we envisioned everything going right—and at the same time Warner Bros., desperate to keep the project on track, was trying to put us together with a manager. They kept saying, “If we just get these guys a good manager, they’ll fall into line…”
“I Never Said, ‘Fuck You Jonathan!’”
One of the funniest things was when we played at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino—the gig was set up by Warner Bros., and we played with Tower of Power in front of 10,000 people—and everyone started throwing stuff at us.
I remember getting hit with a can of something, and that’s where Jonathan said, “We know you don’t like us, but we love you anyway.” And Warner Bros. had all this promotion that said, “The Modern Lovers —Warner Brothers’ Big New Hit Group!” That was a pretty comical, and it was the usual thing where a couple kids liked us and ran up and said, “Hey, you guys are good!” Or they handed us a note saying, “You guys are great,” because they were terrified to have their friends know that they liked this band that was getting booed off the stage.
At one of the last gigs we did, when we played “Roadrunner,” we still didn’t have a record out, but that was always a catchy song, and we actually got some applause—and then Jonathan said, “People like that song too much; I don’t think we should do it anymore….”
I think it was just part of Jonathan’s natural inclination that when things seemed to be going well—to go against it. He was very contrary. He was very difficult. I mean, anybody who is on to something new has some element of being a contrarian, because they’re rejecting the status quo. They’re doing something in the way they’ve figured out how to do it—and they don’t want to hear something different, even if it could make things better. When Jonathan said, “I won’t play ‘Roadrunner’ anymore,” it was pretty much the classic case—you can’t really get any more contrarian than that.
So we got in a heated debate, and I said, “Yes, I can understand how one can be suspicious of people liking something, but at the same time, we are a functioning band, you know? We’re not going to be so particular; we’ll do something if people like it, not to please someone but because it’s a great song. We like it too, so we’re not pandering to anyone by playing it.”
By that time, Jonathan was already rejecting the use of electricity, and a head guy from Warner Bros. called and Jonathan said, “We’ll play the songs for the record, but we won’t do any of these songs when we play live.” Jonathan said this to the guy who had given us this fairly substantial record deal to record the songs—and who didn’t want to hear that.
Jonathan started saying his old songs were too negative and dark, and he started writing things like “Hey There Little Insect,” and maybe he was way ahead of us, but we couldn’t follow him—he wanted us to go, “Buzz, buzz, buzz” on stage, but we were too cool!
Later, there was a conversation with the guy from Warner Bros., who said, “Listen, if you guys aren’t going to do these songs on the road, if you’re not going to play them, we’re not going to keep on putting money into the recording…”
We got about four crazy, not very satisfactory tracks done, and then came the moment when Warner Bros. continued to put pressure on us, which led to Jonathan saying, “Well, I’m just not gonna do this anymore…”
So Warner Bros. dropped us.
So that was a turning point. It had gotten to where, if we had something that people wanted to hear, Jonathan would refuse. It was a conceptual way of approaching rock ‘n’ roll—but not a way to make a living or feel very happy.
So we were like, “Jonathan, maybe you’re brilliant, but we’re not gonna go there…”
But I never said, “Fuck you, Jonathan!”
I never said, “I’m not talking to you…”
The last time I played with Jonathan was for Joey Ramone when Joey was sick, at the Continental. It was before Christmas, so it wasn’t one of Joey’s Christmas shows. I think it was Joey’s birthday party. I didn’t know Joey was sick, but he was. Joey talked to Jonathan and said, “Would you set up with the band and do ‘Roadrunner’?”
So I played bass with Jonathan and, I think, Tommy on drums. It was fun, and the crowd loved it. Of course that made me think, “Hey, let’s do this some more!