Tuesday, December 18

Interview #26: a Modern Lover, Leroy Radcliffe

We all remember fondly the Modern lovers #2 which recorded the Beserkley albums with Jonathan. It was the perfect band which created the pristine classic "Rock'n roll with the Modern Lovers" LP. Following previous interviews with other  members of that mythical line-up, Greg "Curly" Keranen and Asa Brebner (click on the names to reach the interviews), this time I was happy to interact with Leroy Radcliffe who kindly agreed to share with us his memories of that time. At the beginning of the long version of  "Dodge Veg-o-matic" one musician is making fun of Jonathan's old car, that was Leroy indeed.
Leroy has moved to California nowadays and is active in producing and composing music for films and artistic events.
He is also a scientist keen on Astrophysics. 

What is your musical background?

The year was 1957. I was 7 years old and living in the Polish section of Philadelphia known as Port Richmond.
My mother came from a Polish family. We were quite poor, although this was not apparent to me at that time. I was the only child, searching for fantasies and escapes from moment to moment. One day, during "Polka hour", when my mother was across the yard, visiting my grandmother, I discovered that I could switch stations on the kitchen radio and switch it back without getting caught. Off went the polkas and on came Duane Eddy and the Rebel Rousers. it was true love. In particular it was the sound of his guitar for me.

I began taking lessons. 

I immediately became addicted to the smell of the instruments - the wood, the cat-gut strings, the plastic picks - as I would climb to the second level, above the music shop where the instructors taught.
I was able to burn through each lesson with ease. I was a natural musician. it was like breathing air. perhaps it was in my blood. my father had some experience with a banjo mandolin, my mother with an accordion.

The lessons eventually became private lessons at the house at great expense. Simultaneously, I had an interest in science. I joined The Franklin Institute at age 8 (the youngest member) and studied things like Tesla Coils and witnessed the first demonstration of a hover-craft in 1958.
However, music seemed more freeing and creative. It won out over science, although to me, the two remain intrinsic to each other to this day.


As a teenager, I liked the Beach Boys, the Animals, Them, Beatles, etc. but not Doo Wop so much though vocal groups were literally singing on the corner of my street.
I went to The Granoff Conservatory of Music in downtown Philly for classical ear training and piano. I met a few local musicians there and ended up frequenting the bohemian coffee houses nearby, on a regular basis. then came The Velvet Underground days with Mo Tucker's hypnotic drums, John Cale's violin and Nico's enchanting voice. I was forever changed.

This was all in Philly.


Soft Machine and Woodys Truckstop
  Electric Factory Poster, featuring Woodys Truckstop



Were you involved in music before the Modern Lovers? 



When Todd Rundgren left Woodys Truckstop to form The Nazz, I was invited to replace him. this eventually led to my first record deal with Mercury Records.we opened for acts like Jimi Henfrix, The Doors, Cream, Van Morrison and The Beatles.  I was 17 years old.


Woodys Truckstop disbanded after an unsuccessful album tour and numerous personnel changes. i eventually moved to Cambridge Mass and became employed at AT&T (Bell Labs), commuting everyday via bicycle and subway to the lovely and mysterious downtown Boston. i exercised my left-brain, taking an opportunity in the "lull" to study Physics and Astronomy at Harvard University.



How did you become a Modern Love?



        One day, I heard a song on the radio that reminded me of the early Velvet Underground. it was Roadrunner, by The Modern Lovers. I was struck by the drone and the energy of the ending. it was like nothing else on the radio. it was pure.
At this time, above my apartment, lived John Brody, a disk-jockey at WBCN. he was aware of my musical past and that I was longing to get back into it, despite the good paying job. he told me that the ML were looking for a guitar player, so he set up a meeting between me and the leader, a man named Jonathan Richman.

It was late-winter in New England, and still well below freezing. the time of the meeting was at hand. the doorbell rang. I ran down the steps and opened the door to find a shirt-less, sweating and odoriferous man in boxer shorts and sneakers, asking me if I were Leroy Radcliffe. well, the rest can be termed historical . . .
I had never seen him or the original band on stage prior to that meeting. hearing Roadrunner on the radio was the extent of my ML experience.
Now - for hours - we were face-to-face, acoustic guitars in-hand, in-the-moment, creating, exploring, sweating, laughing, crying, sweating some more. it was heavy.

Jonathan was in the middle of reforming the band. it was me, Jonathan, Curly and a tentative David Robinson. David would be the first to opt-out of the push-ups and D.Sharpe (RIP) the drummer who would replaced him. Somehow, I had not picked-up on the  "scene" in Boston. I had performed at Jack's in Cambridge a few times with another fractured R&B form of Woodys Truckstop, but now, I was thrust into a vibrant, incestuous musical scene that for me anyway, had been truly underground.


    “Rock’n roll with the Modern Lovers” is my piece of choice in Jonathan's discography, could you elaborate a bit on the recording sessions of that album?


The studio was a multi-track: glass windowed control room overlooking a room with a piano. it was perfectly "dry" so that the engineer and producer could "control" all aspects of the sound - typical for the Industry in general right ? yep.

But it was so dry in fact, that the sound of a clapping hand was absorbed (almost) before your hands came together !
Jonathan was glum to say the least. we could tell by the look on Mathew "King" Kauffmans' face that this would be a difficult time.
Glen Kolotkin deserves credit here. he rolled with the punches like the professional that he was . . having engineered the finicky Rolling Stones in their very early days, he was prepared for the worst
We moved all the equipment into the Men's room where the sound had more life, but that wasn't the end of the story. no way. it wasn't perfect.
with a remote cabling system running out the doors, down the halls, around the corners and into the control room, hooked up and working with the bugs worked out, we recorded a few sample tracks all of which got the "ho hum" from JR.

So . . . to the girls' room we went !

We reconfigured all the instruments, remote cabling system et all, recorded a few takes and - ooops - not so good - back to the mens' room with different placements. What was the decisive factor ?
It was undoubtedly the male urinals that had an impact on . . . "that certain sound" - and - it was absolutely true !

The preparation for touring (which would require overcoming sometimes angry fans wanting that electric drone of the old repertoire) included the most unusual but ingenious methods for solidifying and prepping the group for any circumstance. this went beyond mere push-ups, and physical well being. . .
Jonathan, left and Leroy right

Performing outdoors, at the edge of The Charles River, in the middle of nowhere, all acoustic, poor Curly with his upright base  - "surprising" absolute strangers, romantic couples, MIT students studying . . . . THE SWEEPING WIND, NEW ENGLAND, LONELY FINANCIAL ZONE
performing at the Children's Hospital (Hospice Center) at the noon hour, the nurses wheeling out the Chemo kids into the garden area, remaining in their beds . .
HERE COME THE MARTIAN MARTIANS / THERE'S AN ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN / HEY THERE LITTLE INSECT, etc
rehearsing at the local Old Peoples Home, learning and playing songs from the 1920's and IMPORTANT IN YOUR LIFE, SPRINGTIME, AMAZING GRACE


 
How did the audiences react to the new setlist and the change of style compared to the original Modern lovers repertoire?
 
You see, winning over total strangers, children without much hope and the elderly without many friends or family, made winning over some angry fans desiring the old repertoire the most easy of tasks. and it worked.

One of our first concerts at The Hammersmith Odeon in London . . .



 We were told by the promoter that historically, the audiences consisted of equal numbers of "punks" and "rockers". a typical evening-out in this neighborhood would consist of hell-raising out-of-control behaviour during AND after the performances, usually culminating in morning newspaper headlines like "14 injured, three hospitalized . . ." etc. 
M. Jagger was purported to be in attendance.

The juggler had taken his bows, the curtains were closed and the sounds of the road crew came to an end quickly since there was just a minimalist set. We all had the jitters as the curtain opened. we began.
 For me it was a thumbs up. the monitors sounded good and the stage lighting was pleasant and warm - inviting a good performance from everybody. There had been a set list but that became obsolete when Jonathan started calling out songs as he read the audience.

 Slowly, the audience began to feel uneasy, voicing their frustrations with shouts, cat calls and then obscenities.. "Road Runner"  "Pablo Picasso"  "Route 128" "hey you f_in fag"


Then something whizzed by my shoulder and splattered next to D. Sharpe's Zebra drum. at this point I think Matthew King Kauffman may have been considering the implementation of evacuation plans. However, the power was on stage, not in the audience. we had rehearsed in all types of difficult situations before on purpose and we knew the motif and body language of our leader by heart. 


While staring down the audience, Jonathan motioned for us to be still. absolutely still. The crowd noise rose up accordingly now with clamoring and pounding on the seats, screaming and shouting.   
Then Jonathan began to speak softly into the microphone. 
even softer still. now away from the microphone.

now whispering. even less than a whisper.



After a few l o n g minutes of shear agony, the crowd slowly began to lose intensity, seemingly turning-in upon itself. people began shouting "quiet down there. we can't hear what he is saying". "quiet you a-holes", etc etc.

 It became surreal. I mean really surreal. all were silent. audience and stage. there were some people who began to leave, of course but at this point, Jonathan turned to me and said "gimme an A, Leroy". we all knew what was coming.



He began to sing, "uh uh uh may zing Grace, how sweet the sound . . ." not into the microphone but at the edge of the stage in the direction of those who were leaving. Then the signal to join in with the music. . . . after the song, thunderous applause was followed by an amazing performance of Fly Into The Mystery. and then the remaining set according to Jonathan ensued.

The audience witnessed an overpowering individual strength of conviction, consistant and pure. 

this was a turn of events like no other i can assure you. That was also the turning point for us as a group. we gelled. we often encountered similar situations like this in (West) Berlin for instance, eventually culminating with perhaps 6, 7, or was it 8 encores of Ice Cream Man ???


Whenever Jonathan did call for Pablo Picasso, or Road Runner, or Hospital, or Lonely Financial Zone, it was like a gift from heaven for the newest and oldest of the faithful followers. 

Any memories about life on tour ?



I recall taking the train from Amsterdam to Eindhoven during one of our few breaks. we had been travelling as a group in a confined space (like a VW bus i think) and finally I was alone and falling into deep thought.
I was questioning my path in life since the tour so far had been both a major chore and a major blessing.
there was this zen-type attachment to our music but was it real or imagined / contrived ?
The compartment began transforming before my eyes -
there was something happening outside my window - morphing into an overwhelming warm and hospitable deep golden hue that seemed alive ! 
I was abruptly and lovingly brought back into the moment, those thoughts being ejected like trashing files on a mac. There were hundreds of thousands of tulips - maybe more, horizon to horizon - proudly standing tall and giving praise to the sun. later, the room turned to a gorgeous and comforting lavender, then later a rainbow of color . . . etc etc.
It was Jonathan who talked about being able to - at times - see in the dark and  being able to - at times - "hear" certain colors - so, who was I to question anything as mundane as "real vs. imagined ?"


-          What do you think of Jonathan’s evolution through the years, are you still listening to his music?



In the end we were to disband. eventually, Jonathan factoring down his performing equation to just himself and Tommy Larkins on drums. there was always a good feeling surrounding the JR stage and audience and there still is. I go to see them perform whenever I can.

Two years ago, I spent a lovely three days at Jonathan's home on the Castro hill in San Fransisco. it was a time filled with memorable inspiration and typical ML musical mystery I can assure you.

Were you involved with the Mustapha recordings done with Jean Touitou ?

I was not involved with the Mustapha recordings,  but did have some involvement with Jean Touitou in Montmartre. He had graciously hooked me up with a mastering facility in Paris for a local Boston project that I  thought might sell in Europe.
WRONG !
Mickey Clean and the Mezz. I had also brought local tapes of The Real Kids as a test.
Those were some confusing times for me. . . . some poor decisions coupled with professional / personal failure.
I remember Jean Touitou putting me up in an abandoned building for the first night :) jet lag included.
I thought it was a joke but it was not actually. Apparently the original plans had fallen apart and there were no options and no money. Sleeping on concrete, I awoke to the sound of a bustling and sunny Paris and the view of a lifetime - I remember the huge gargoyles across the street, perched on an ancient church of some kind. they seemed to erase all memory of discomfort. they seemed welcoming.

What happened when the Modern lovers ended?

Post Modern Lovers times in Boston were filled with what seemed like a game of "musical chairs"; musicians adding, subtracting, switching places. a bubbling incestuous soup, if you will. I became part of this for a short time. I met Asa Brebner at an audition for Mickey Clean and the Mezz, which was in a rehearsal studio around the corner from The Rat. Asa and I fell into an immediate musical alliance, whereas Mickey (Michael Cleanthis) seemed not satisfied and still struggling with his voice and songwriting.
We performed in NYC at CBGB's and Max's Kansas City a few times. Jimmy Harold. hired us to play The Rat based on reports of how terrible we were ! hey, a gig is a gig right ?
The highlight came when Mickey was playing his harmonica upside-down while swinging by his legs on the black water pipes above the stage. he swung around and around in a circle, landing on the floor with both feet on the ground timing the final chord of the song perfectly. the crowd went bananas. this was pretty incredible.

Then you and Asa became part of Robin lane and the Chartbusters which I liked very much...
 
Leroy on the right, Asa on the left
Asa came over to me and said that there was this chick from LA who had seen us and wanted to hire us both, as a unit, to play in her new band. she said she had a recording contract. so, a try-out was set-up for the following week.

For me, it was an effortless exercise of musical expression. Robin Lane & the Chartbusters.

Every new song had merit. every new song would come together quickly with Asa and I (seemingly) in perpetual alignment in the spirit of the moment. jangling merrily along. I remember delivering our fresh-pressed indie single to the local record shops via my bicycle, over and over and over again since it sold-out on nearly a daily basis. Then it was a Warner Brothers recording contract and the question I posed to myself:
"How could anything go wrong ?"

 What was your next step ?

In the very end, I exercised my right-to-self-exile from the music scene. I had produced bands in Europe and the States (Buster Smiles / Andy Pratt) but I found myself fleeing from a drugged out NYC life-style -  to a sunny warm recuperating life-style in southern california.
I briefly appeared on the leading edge of digital electronics (beta-testing color palettes for Fuji) and visual art, but eventually found myself with a DAW recording studio, writing and arranging musical themes for modern dance and film.

Artists often yearn for complete freedom, resolving that: if not encumbered by their surroundings, their art could soar high above their own expectations. as interesting as this may sound, it is not very true. I found that art needs a reference. artists need their "village" of friends and enemies, to bounce-off new ideas - to experiment and re-work a style.

Any anecdote related to Jonathan and the Modern Lovers?

Returning from our first European Tour, we had arrived quite late in the evening. we had just dropped-off  D. Sharpe.
Curly, Jonathan and I were to stay overnight at my apartment in Cambridge. we were all wiped-out. According to my wristwatch, it was about 2am. I remembered resetting it at the airport. I was looking forward to collapsing onto the bed. We were about to climb the outside steps when I felt an influence, a pull of some kind. I can't explain it any other way.
 I turned in the direction of my musical friends and they turned as well - all in unison it seemed, toward the sky behind us.
Over our shoulders, we  looked up into the clear night sky. there was this beautiful red pinpoint of light that was sitting there surrounded by black emptiness. i began mentioning Mars then - it suddenly zig-zagged a few times, with precision right angle turns which were totally amazingly accurate and then zoomed backwards into what seemed like an infinite nothingness - disappearing from sight.

We then turned back simultaneously again, as if choreographed.
Very strange I thought, but very beautiful. 

I asked them both "did you see THAT?" they acknowledged with a smile. when I got upstairs, the clock and my watch agreed - it was just before 4am. so, nearly two hours had passed during that last 3 minutes.
further inquiries the next day produced fading memories, so I wrote a reminder to myself to remember this always.

Thank you Leroy for these fascinating stories. 

9 comments:

  1. What a lovely interview! Fly into the Mystery, indeed... Thank you Jacques, for elevating the form to the level of art. Thank you Leroy, for your generosity and awesomeness. And by the way, Happy Birthday today Leroy Radcliffe!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words rb but I have to say that all the merit goes to Leroy who highlighted our conversation in such an easy way.

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  2. Thank you Jacques!!! Superb and facinating interview!

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  3. Thanx great!
    Thanx Mr J

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  4. Wow, tremendous. Well done.

    my only quibble is why start at the third album "rock 'n roll with…", when Leroy was present at Jonathan Richman and the modern lovers, the album that was Jonathan's first recorded break with the old style? Was Leroy discomfited, as a velvet underground fan, with this new direction at all? What did David Robinson think?

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  5. another question I haven't quite understood down through the years, is which guitar parts does Leroy play. I'm not a musician, so Im kind of dumb about these things. for example, who plays this beautiful lead from April 1976? Jonathan or Leroy? http://icecoldnugrape.com/icecoldnugrape/media/songs/home/thereWasALittleGirlWhoHadALittleCurl.mp3

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  6. OMG ... just noticed this: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-USk69pvHmfo/UNBpnYtW5vI/AAAAAAAAAec/wvjWpSYjr7o/s1600/jonathan-richman.jpg

    This is now my fave MLs pic ever. And I have to find that 45.

    And check this one too:
    http://www.discogs.com/viewimages?release=1151811

    Matthew was sure working overtime in getting the overseas licensing cranked up.

    And that period of 75-80 had to have been the golden age of the $% pic sleeve.

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  7. yes, those are wonderful emmett! wouldn't it be nice if jonathan released some 45s with fab picture sleeves in this day and age... (hint hint to vapor)

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