Monday, April 10

The Bostonians #11 : JJ Rassler

JJ Rassler is some garage rock veteran, he co-founded DMZ in the 70's, a band of too many talents which never got the right recognition though the cult status was always there. David Robinson, on leave from the disbanded Modern Lovers played with DMZ before joining the Cars. JJ had other bands , the Odds, the Queers and today he is leading Boston's most creative band The Downbeat 5. His sharp guitar playing cuts through well aimed licks and reverberates Jen D'Angora singing , these two play as if their lifes were in danger.
(see also the Bostonians #10 : Jen D'Angora)

JJ in action

- When was the first time you saw Jonathan Richman live and how was it ?

Jonathan used to appear on the Cambridge Common, a small park outside of Harvard Square. They used to feature bands playing for free on weekends. Usually local ones, sometimes a national act, but usually who ever they could get. Every now and then a young kid would get up by himself and sing with just his guitar. The songs are off-kilter and odd in many ways. Often witty, some just strange. This was not be be mistaken for any singer/songwriter of the kind that Boston was known for, the Tom Rush, James Tayplor type, not at all. This was very different, but unusually popular. The locals, as I was newly transplanted from hometown Phila. PA, all went nuts for him. My friends noticed the quizzical look of 'what the fuck..." and was quickly told, rather matter-of-factly, "that's just Jonathan, he's great, ya oughta see him with his band!" This was in 1970.

- What did you think of the Modern Lovers then, thinking that nowadays
they are considered as the godfathers of punk rock ?

Several weeks after seeing the Cambridge Common solo show, I did see Jonathan with the band, the Modern Lovers. I was instantly hooked. Very forceful in an unpolished, raw way. Primitive, but clearly on a mission. I had been in my own band in Philadelphia in the 60's and had seen many many shows by a wide range of rock acts, including The Velvet Underground. This music was fresh to me, but not at all foreign. I was clearly on a path to make myselff available to any local show the Modern Lovers were to play. I did see them about 6 or 7 times within the next couple years. I was very much into them and their sound. As ragged as it might have been on occasion, as quirky as some songs may have seemed, ther was something urgent and immediately identifiable to me.

- Were you familiar with the members of the Modern Lovers as local musicians ?

I saw the drummer, David Robinson, around before we actually met. There was a club called the Grog that alot of the more rock and roll bands hung at. Cambridge was rather parochial in their tastes. Blues or folk reigned supreme. Boston had fewer clubs that catered to non-commerical bands, but some, like the Grog and the Catacombs, were haunts. When their 1st LP was finally released, which seemed to take forever, the local scene had evolved more. The tune, "Roadrunner", was a local fave on the radio station (WBCN) where I worked, and was a kind of anthem for a lot of the crowd I ran with. By then, there several more bands around town that had a leaning towards NYC and UK sounds rather than Boston's common fare.

- Did they influence your band, DMZ in the same sense as the New York Dolls ?

Well, it's difficult to to say we were'nt. Of course we were, but not as a design or pattern. "Roadrunner" like I say, was rather anthematic and a call-to-arms in many ways, as was "Mass.Ave", by Willie "Loco" Alexander. Both of those tunes we (Peter Greenberg and myself; DMZ's founders) felt were very much akin to the music we wanted to create. The Dolls of coursed influenced us as well. I'd seen them a dozen times or so, and their straight ahead approach to real rock and roll and blues ala Stones, with the over-the-top on and off stage mentality hit straight home with us. This was at a time when the Clockwork Orange framework of the Droogs was transfering itself into bands. We were caught up in that. Jonathan and Willie on the homefront and the Dolls and Dictators in NY were all influential on us. This was 1975 heading into 1976. In Dec 1975, Greenburg and I went to see Patti Smith, one of her first shows outside of New York. That sealed the deal. We'd talked for months about a forming a band and that week started what was to become DMZ. All of those elements had their effect. In May of 1976 I ran into David Robinson who stopped by and asked if I was in DMZ. "Yes" I said and he proceeded to tell me how much he liked us and asked, "how's it going?". I told him we were lookin for a new drummer, and asked him what was up. Said he'd left the Modern Lovers and his LA band called POP, and was now back in Boston looking for a band. He joined DMZ right away.
By then of course, we were playing frequently with the Real Kids, whose leader, John Felice had also been in the Lovers. When DMZ signed to Sire, we ran into Jerry Harrison a bit. So, I don;t know if it was influences as much as connections and coincidences.
DMZ : JJ is top left, in front Monoman
- What do you think of Jonathan evolution when he changed his style ?

Well, many artists go through their changes and sometimes the audience can go with them or say they want the old "so-and-so" back. Look at Dylan in 65. Or the changes in Bowie, or Bolan throughout their careers. Or countless others, some drastic, some not so. Some continuously change. I think Jonathan had balls for taking such sharp turns in his career, and had strength of character to sustain it.

- You are working with Rounder Records, was Jonathan considered when he was on that label ?

Jonathan recorded several albums for Rounder records, the label where I've worked for close to 20 years. Each one had it's own character and personality. I was glad that Rounder offered him the room to be himself. We were a much smaller label then, and our promotional and marketing teams were stills years away from a reality. If those were in place when Jonathan was with us, we may have been able to go alot further together.

- What is your favourite Jonathan song ? favourite album ?

Probably "She Cracked" from the first Modern Lovers LP

- Have you been to his recent concerts ?

Yes a few.

- Do you think Jonathan has still some influence on Boston present scene or has he been forgotten there ?

I don't think he's been forgotten here in any way. As far as a continuing influence, I'm sure, on some. As his many different personas have reached different audiences, of course he has different effects on different people.

- Which Jonathan song can you imagine your present band, the Downbeat 5, covering ?

I've always wanted the Downbeat 5 to cover "Modern World"

The Downbeat 5 RULE !!

- any anecdote related to Jonathan ?

I remember when I was in my band, The Odds, we played on a harbor booze cruise with a band called the Bones. Joe Harvard who'd worked with the Real Kids and an old pal of mine from the early 70's was in the Bones. Dave Bone from Texas' answer to the Dolls, Sons of Hercules, was also in that band. Well we were all gathered at the pier waiting to cast off, a rainy chilly night, and the Bones drummer didn't make it, and Jonathan was there. The Bones wound up having Jonathan drum for them and jam with us all for the night. It was a cold but drunken blast. This was about 1983.

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