Germany, 1978, Jonathan Richman and the Splinter
Asa Brebner played with the Modern Lovers from 1977-1978, and again in 1985. He passed away in March 2019.
“If you wish to avoid being a charlatan you must shun platforms. Once upon them, a charlatan you must be — otherwise the crowd will throw stones.”– Chamfort
I was young and green as a Christmas tree when Jonathan Richman plucked me from the minor leagues and took me out on the first European tour of his career. “Roadrunner” was solid gold in England! I was working in a health food store at the time and Jonathan, who I did not know from Adam, would occasionally come in to the place for a fruit frappe or some vegetarian chili.
One day Robert Burden pointed him out to me and told me he was a famous local rock star. Robert Burden was the brother of Chris Burden, a well known conceptual artist and I had every respect for Robert’s taste in music and art. Somehow, I made it known to Jonathan that I was a guitar player and he came to the Club in Cambridge to check me out with my band Mickey Clean and the Mezz. I had an audition with the Modern Lovers shortly after as the bass player, trying mightily to fill the shoes of Curly Keranen.
We rehearsed relentlessly maybe four hours a day. When I was told a month out that I was a member of the Modern Lovers, my heart soared like an eagle! I felt that I had achieved at least a rung in the ladder of rockstar success.
When we finally got to England, I was too shocked to be nervous as we played three thousand-seaters all over England, Holland, Germany and France. Previously, I was just getting used to the twelve people who stood impassively in front of the Mezz at the Rat! Moshing had yet to be invented.
Nick Lowe came backstage in Manchester. The Sex Pistols came to see us at the Hammersmith in London. The Stones came to see us. All shows were sold out. Jonathan, if nothing else, was the flavor of the week.
Once, while I was sitting in Hyde Park, I saw Sid Vicious with his famous swastika t -shirt being followed by a journalist who was furiously scribbling notes, while Sid paused, periodically, to primp his trademark spiky hairdo in every rearview mirror that crossed his path. I thought these “punk rockers” had risen above such vanity. I stood corrected.
I found out later that Elvis Costello had tried to get on the tour as the opening act but Jonathan had opted for a juggler instead. I was blissfully unaware of most of these now interesting facts. I was young and just trying to keep up. We did three tours of Europe in the next year to come and now, looking back at the events that comprised them, they blend together as if they were one. That said, one show does stand out.
We were, I believe, in Hamburg in a big amphitheater that held maybe 1200 very expectant German rock fans. The place had the lighting of a medical theatre; it was very sterile. We played though tiny amps that would in all fairness had given the promoters credibility if they had billed us as “unplugged”. This made us totally naked and microcosmic and only added tenfold to the starkness of that particular venue. We came out and did a song and the Germans sat there quiet and unimpressed, with only a smattering of applause in the sweaty, tension-charged moment. Really, you could have heard a pin drop. It was all on us. I remembered, at the time, when Jonathan got a milkshake thrown at him at the Mogodor Theatre in Paris. I did not think there was much to throw at us now but the aluminum chairs that stood in perfect symmetry, cooling the butts of our could-be executioners.
Jonathan sat down on the edge of the stage and took off his shoes and socks. He made a cursory explanation to the audience that he had a splinter and began digging at a toe in the pregnant silence. Finally, after what seemed to the rest of the Modern Lovers, Asa, D Sharpe and Leroy, like a month, some outraged Teutonic macho yelled, much louder than we were physically equipped to be: “THIS IS BULLSHIT!”
I didn’t disagree. Jonathan asked the guy if he would like his money back. As if this had been scripted, our road manager went up through the seats to give the disgruntled dude his cash. We started to play songs again. This incident had somehow kickstarted the audience to our side. It wasn’t conceptual art they were watching. This was real. By the time we finished our set the audience was clapping and shouting enthusiastically. We brought the house down. It had gone from the possibility of a public lynching to its polar opposite. We were suddenly gods who had changed peoples lives — Ouch.
I still am friends with Jonathan to this day. He is a guy who did it his way. I don’t know of anybody who can match his onstage confidence. He doesn’t play huge shows anymore but tours constantly in smaller venues. Recently he played the upstairs at the Middle East. He makes the audience listen instead of bombarding them with volume . Anybody that has been backed in to a corner by him with an acoustic guitar by him might disagree. But I think he has given us a lot. If you have time, he makes you listen.
I think that is his big secret. The audience has to participate by being receptive. He makes us, If we are willing, all Modern Lovers.
Published on February 20, 2013