Sunday, April 25, 2010

ERNIE BROOKS: A Lover Looks Back at the Roots of the Modern Lovers

Text by John Morace, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1981; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Images from the Internet

The following article about Boston-based bassist Ernie Brooks was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #7, in 1981. It was written by John Morace.

By the time I saw the Modern Lovers in 1977, Ernie Brooks was no longer in the band. I did see him play a couple of times backing up other musicians, but never really got to know him personally, or as an individual musical entity. He certainly has had quite the career so far, as the list below will attest, as it is only partial. – RBF, 2010

Catfish Black Bassist (1969-70)
The Modern Lovers Bassist (1971-74)
Elliott Murphy Bassist (1976-)
David Johansen Bassist (1982)
Jerry Harrison Bassist (1990)
Gods and Monsters Bassist (1994-)
Gary Lucas Bassist (1994-)

[The original Modern Lovers; Jonathan Richman, Ernie Brooks, David Robinson, John Felice, Jerry Harrison]

FFanzeen: This is Ernie Brooks, formerly with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, and is now with the Necessaries.
Ernie Brooks: Yes, and you could also add formerly with Elliot Murphy, formerly with the Love of Life Orchestra [LOLO], and formerly with what was pretty much my own band, the Flying Hearts, which included Dave van Tiegham, currently of LOLO, Larry Salzman, who now plays guitar for Peter Allen, and Arthur Russell, who’s been making disco records. The Flying Hearts played about. We played at the Ocean Club a few times… (The Ocean Club) was on Chambers Street. It was owned by Mickey Ruskin [d. 1983]. He’s a famous New York character. He was the one who started the original Max’s (Kansas City) and made it the hang-out for everybody. The back room at Max’s in the late ‘60s was where the Velvet Underground and the rest of Warhol’s super stars used to go. Plus artists, poets, scenemakers of all descriptions. Mickey was great. He was almost a patrol of the artists and musicians, letting them run up tabs. Painters could sometimes settle their bill by giving Mickey a piece of their work to hang on the wall. He runs One University Place, but it’s not the old Max’s. Anyway, the Ocean Club had a lot of Tribeca artists and musicians hanging out, just as the whole punk-New Wave thing was starting. He used to occasionally have bands play there.

FF: So you used to hang out at Max’s.
Ernie: Yeah, when I used to come down here from Boston. In fact – it was before I knew him – Jonathan (Richman) was a bus-boy at Max’s, but I think he dropped so many things on people that he got fired [laughs]. Before starting the Modern Lovers, he used to come to New York. He’d hang out with Lou Reed, sleep on his sofa, and listen to the Velvets rehearse.

FF: So he goes way back with them.
Ernie: Oh, yeah. It’s interesting because in a way, Jonathan is the other side of Lou Reed’s coin. I mean, Lou was always very openly into drugs and every kind of sexuality and perversity. Jonathan’s thing was that while he borrowed a lot from Lou in terms of musical style – in his guitar playing and vocal phrasing – in his lifestyle he took an opposite course. He never touched drugs as far as I know, including alcohol and cigarettes. He was against casual sex. He put girls on pedestals and worshipped them, and met them more on the astral plane than in the flesh. It’s interesting, a stance of innocence, of purity like Jonathan’s, can seem perverse when it’s taken to an extreme as it is in some of his newer songs, the ones about how beautiful everything is and how beautiful he is. I mean, something about songs like “Ice Cream Man” bothers me. He's repressing the dark side of his nature. Why is he writing all these songs for children? In a way it’s neat, so maybe it’s just a matter of taste that I like the old songs better.

FF: When did Jonathan first get a band together?
Ernie: Ah, it must have been about 1969. He started it with David Robinson as the drummer and a bass player named Rolf. Soon after, John Felice, a long-time neighbor and friend, joined as a second guitarist. He was in and out of the band for years, finally leaving to start his own group, the Real Kids. Jerry (Harrison) and I joined the group a couple of months after it started; I think it was 1971. It’s hard to remember. It was when Jerry and I were in our senior year at Harvard.

FF: How did Jerry Harrison hook up with Talking Heads?
Ernie: There were the three of them, and I ran into Chris (Franz) at a place called the Local near the Bottom Line (in NYC). Mickey Ruskin ran that place, too. Well, we started talking and they were considering adding a keyboard player at that point. I was with Elliott (Murphy) and Jerry wasn’t really doing anything besides going to architecture school. So they sort of got together. That’s when he started commuting to New York to try and work it out… and jamming and it worked out, so they got together.

FF: So the Modern Lovers played around Boston.
Ernie: Yeah, we used to play at all the college dances, and all the so-called mixers. We could always get a job once; then they found out what we were really like [laughs]. We had a great song called “The Mixer.” It was like “Hey girls, do you notice the smell?” Things like that. It pointed out to the people at the mixer all the ridiculous things about a mixer, which was like a lot of guys and girls standing around pretending that they were having a good time.

FF: How many songs did you have? About nine of them made it onto the Modern Lovers album.
Ernie: We had lots. We recorded some stuff with Kim Fowley, which I assume is the stuff they might release. That was about another 10 songs. Plus, I have some, and David Robinson has some tapes. Two songs, “I’m Straight” and “Government Center” have been released on a Warners' discount LP called Troublemakers.

FF: How did David Robinson hook up with the Cars?
Ernie: I don’t know exactly, but I do remember the bass player and Ric Ocasck were around Cambridge for a long time. I had met them before. They had a band called Milkwood, a folk-rock band. I remember when the Cars were getting together. It was funny, David said this was the last band he was ever going to join. He was so fed up, he’d been in so many bands.

FF: And it worked.
Ernie: It worked; it worked incredibly. They have been one of the most successful bands in the last couple of years. Their albums are just… You see, they’ve made a perfect combination of somewhat New Wave, somewhat quirky lyrics with really simple, basic pop formulas, in terms of their hooks. They’ve taken their hooks and they’ve twisted them just enough and put in a bizarre synthesizer like here, a bizarre word or two there. It’s a perfect combination.

FF: Do you think it’s contrived, or is it just what they feel like doing?
Ernie: It’s not… Yeah, I think it’s contrived. But in a good sense. I think it’s really well-crafted. I really respect it. It doesn’t move me a lot. But I love the way it sounds. It has an incredible sound.

FF: One thing about rock music that’s different from other kinds of expression is that for it to be successful it has to generate an audience to pay to support it because of all the expenses involved in touring, equipment, and albums. That, of course, has an influence on the music.
Ernie: It’s always a compromise. But at least in rock’n’roll, there is something very honest about the fact that you’re doing what you’re doing; nothing else. In a certain sense, it’s very ironic because on the one hand rock’n’roll is the most commercial, most compromised of arts, and on the other it’s the most honest and has the most integrity of the modern art forms because it’s so direct. You’re there in front of your audience. Either you turn them on or you don’t; you’re not supported by state grants. You’re not kissing the ass of some humanities foundation so you can get a grant and go off into a cabin in the woods and write poetry. You’re not involved in the university system, making friends with a professor so he’ll make you a teaching assistant so you can survive to write your novel. Ya know, that’s what I like about rock’n’roll.

FF: But some people are contrary to that opinion, such as the Copeland brothers on IRS, who are distributed by AM. They say that the size of the act depends upon how much A&M likes them and not the act itself.
Ernie: I think that’s partly true in the sense that a group can be hyped by a record label and the record label can put a lot of money into advertising and promotion and stuff like that, but unless the goods are there and people like it, it’s still not gonna sell. Kids can only be hyped to a certain extent. Not to say that kids always have good taste. There are some really good groups that are really big, but you can have groups like Styx and Foreigner, who I find really boring. But you understand that they are competent. Copeland, I think, likes to paint himself as the adversary of the big record labels.

FF: Getting back to Jonathan Richman, I notice that some of the songs are about people who are intellectually recognized; Pablo Picasso or Cézanne, for instance. The way he treats them is very different from the way most people treat them. He is very casual about them.
Ernie: Yeah, in a way it was a self-conscious thing, to take Pablo Picasso and describe him in very weird terms. Ya know: “Pablo Picasso would walk down the street / And girls would turn the color of an avocado / And girls could not resist his stare / And Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole” [See video below – RBF, 2010]. But I think he really believed that. He used to think these guys had some real incredible magical quality. Obviously, he never met Picasso, but I think he sort of got his vision of him walking down a street and this is his description of him. I the case of Cézanne, he used to go to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts a lot, and he was really into that.

FF: It think that’s very different from rock people, outside of Factory people like Andy Warhol and John Cale, who were into all kinds of art forms.
Ernie: It’s true, and that’s where Jonathan’s work was really seminal, in a way, for a lot of the art-rock bands like Talking Heads. They deal with issues, artistic or literary. It opened up the concept of a rock’n’roll song as being able to deal with a whole range of issues that it never dealt with before. Of course, a lot of people did that; Dylan certainly did, and the Velvet Underground. Jonathan was just another person who helped open it up.

FF: How did John Cale get involved in producing the album?
Ernie: Well, the Velvet Underground was sort of looked up to by the band. And Cale had produced albums, like the Nico album and the first Stooges album, which were really important.

FF: Or the Patti Smith album.
Ernie: Yeah, but this was long before that. The first Stooges album was in ’69. Iggy’s been around for along time. He was someone who totally gave himself to an audience, even to the point of hurting himself. He’d jump into the crowd, offer his body to the crowd. He’s great; he’s one of the best.

FF: I remember reading about a Velvet’s show at Farleigh Dickinson (University) – one of their multimedia presentations – and people just freaked. They started throwing bottles at the stage.
Ernie: Sure, I remember in the Modern Lovers, we played with Lee Michaels and Tower of Power in San Bernardino, in California, in this huge arena. A real redneck town. People driving their El Caminos up and down the street outside. People went crazy. There was just this angry roar from the crowd and all of a sudden this stuff started coming up on the stage; bottles, cans, all sort of trash.

FF: That must have felt great.
Ernie: Yeah, right. Warner Bros. had also brought all their people out to see us, their great new group. It was great.

FF: Was that John Cale’s doing?
Ernie: Yeah, he was an A&R man, and a producer for Warner’s. But that didn’t last long.

FF: Who did the record finally come out with? Not Warner’s.
Ernie: Beserkley Records, a small label that has been through every conceivable distributorship. It’s run by this genial madman named Matthew Kaufman. He was the guy who wanted to manage the Lovers when the original band was still intact. And he had the idea, even back then, of starting his own label. And Jonathan always really liked this guy. After the band broke up, he started managing Jonathan and issued a Beserkley Chartbusters record with a few songs of Jonathan’s on it. Then he had the idea of putting out an album of the original Modern Lovers, which was just a demo tape we made for Warner Bros. He came to us and asked if he could buy the tapes from Warner Bros. No one else was really interested in them then, so we said OK – which I realize now was probably stupid. If we had waited and held on to them we could have made some real money off the tapes, I suppose. I’ve never gotten any royalties… When I get rich enough to afford a lawyer, I’ll sue them.

FF: How did the band break up?
Ernie: Well, it was philosophical differences about the music; Jonathan wanted to go in a more acoustic direction. He started thinking that electricity was too weird… At various points he decided he didn’t want any guitar. He didn’t want anything besides voice because that was the thing that was – real. Voice came from your soul and everything else was just trappings; extra. And we wanted to keep it a real rock’n’roll band. After all, David played drums, I played electric bass and Jerry played keyboards. And that’s what we wanted to do. And so we had these big arguments about that. Ya know, we were all living in this big house, just off Sunset Boulevard. It was big with a red-tiled roof; one of those Spanish palazzos. We were out there and we were totally dependent on Warner Bros. We’d have to go down to Burbank every couple of days and get some money from them. There we were, all these hardcore Easterners in LA, and I sort of loved it in a way, but it was also disorienting and crazy. Too many beautiful mindless people out there. We were all just crammed together in this house and had nothing else to do but get on each other’s nerves. It did make me realize the importance of just being together as a band. When you have to deal with the record company, when you have to deal with the business part of rock’n’roll, you really have to be together or you can be destroyed very quickly. That was really one of the problems. If we’d had a manager that we could have trusted, that would have made a big difference. Warner Bros., already worried by what they'd heard about Jonathan’s changing musical ideas, would call our house every day to talk to him. They really freaked out when he told them, “Yeah, we’ll make a record, but when we go on tour - if we go on tour – we won’t play any of the songs on it.” As his ideas about the sound of the band changed, he also changed his mind about the songs we were recording, decided most of them weren’t valid anymore.

FF: They must have loved that.
Ernie: Oh, yeah. That’s just what a record company wants to hear when it’s spending a lot of money on a band. Again, if only we had a manager at that time to mediate between ourselves, and between us and the record company.

FF: Where did the name Modern Lovers come from?
Ernie: That was Jonathan’s invention. The idea was to do modern love songs. Almost all of the songs that we did, in one way or another, involve girls and are about relationships that always involved, somehow, with the modern world of suburbs, shopping centers, beltways – a bleak but often beautiful landscape. That was part of it. Also, Jonathan always had the idea of being, along with the rest of us in the band, a “modern lover,” a modern romantic believing, as the song says, “I don’t want a girl to fool around with / I don’t want someone just to ball / I want someone I care about / Or I want nothing at all” [“Someone I Care About” – Ed.]. Of course, that wasn’t a modern idea, but expressed in a rock song and combined with the image of the group, it was at least different.

FF: Did Jonathan find what he wanted?
Ernie: I don’t know. Maybe he has. Maybe that’s why his new songs seem happier. This ties in with and half-contradicts what I said earlier: maybe the old adolescent pain and sexual frustration are resolved; maybe he has really exorcised the darker side of his character. Maybe I like the older songs better because I’m still adolescent at heart or maybe it’s true that repressed sexual energy sparks the best art [yawns].

FF: I notice all the songs on the first album are really simple, or repetitive. Even I can play “Roadrunner” on guitar.
Ernie: Sure, it’s two chords: A and D.

FF: Why was he doing that?
Ernie: Well, it was partly the fact that he picked up a guitar and didn’t know how to play it and he just started doing what he could do. And also, he believed there was a virtue in simplicity. Again, that’s certainly something the punk thing picked up on, because the whole idea, in a way, of New Wave was that technique didn’t matter. That it was the emotion and the feeling. If you did something with confidence you could do it. That’s always a part of rock’n’roll. What really mattered was the emotion, not the technique.

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