It has been a dream of mine for a long time to interview the Rockin Robins which enlightened Jonathan's music during the 80's. "Jonathan sings" is often quoted as a perfect album in the story of Jonathan's recordings, mainly due to the crucial presence of Beth Harrington and Ellie Marshall. Today Beth Harrington is answering my questions. After her days with the ModernLovers, she started a career in film producing and directing, she was nominated for a Grammy award and her acclaimed documentaries are definitely fascinating. But let's start in Boston during the 70's :
picture © Amy Mc Mullen
- Did you see the original Modern lovers on stage or Jonathan before he had a band ? and what were your impressions ?
I first became aware of the Modern Lovers in 1971 or 72, I believe it was. I was a high school student, a serious rock & roll fan and after school I’d volunteer at WBCN, a Boston progressive radio station, answering phones and doing small tasks for the DJs. The Modern Lovers were just coming on the local radar screen at the time. DJ Maxanne Sartori loved them and was championing them on the radio. I seem to recall she had a demo of “Roadrunner” that she’d play. Sometime in there ‘BCN had a big station anniversary party (maybe their 4th or 5th?) at the Harvard Boat House on the Charles River. And the Modern Lovers played. And I was absolutely smitten. It was such a great night. I still remember how thrilled I was to see them. The subject matter was stuff I related to, I had real connections to the places in the songs (I grew up about 20 minutes down Route 128 from Jonathan, I knew Government Center and the Financial District) and the raw, naked sound blew me away. Plus there was Jonathan’s hopelessly geeky look - pink corduroy pants and white belt and short hair – in those days that was REALLY odd. And that naive sincerity in a time of disaffection and cynicism and protest was pretty jarring. I couldn’t get over him. I was a fan from then on.
- I remember your contribution to the LP “Boston Incest Album”, as Willie Loco told me he really enjoyed recording with you. Do you remember those sessions ? What do you think of the album ?
The session I remember most from the Boston Incest Album was the Professor Anonymous one. Talk about an original! Professor Anonymous made Jonathan seem positively mainstream. The Prof was very Shaggs-like. Odd rhythmic stuff. Opera-gone-awry vocals. Crazy turns of phrase. Listening to a different drummer, for sure…
As for the album as a whole, I think it’s sort of an interesting sampler of music. I’m not sure it paints a cohesive portrait of the scene at the time which I think is what the title sorta suggests. But there are some great things on it. Besides Professor Anonymous, I love Willlie Alexander’s cuts, was always thrilled to sing with Willie – he’s a hero of mine. And – I’m prejudiced of course – but I like the cut my brother Lee’s band, The Peytons, did on the album.
- How did you get involved in the Modern Lovers ? Was Ellie already in the band or did you join together ?
Jonathan asked Ellie to be in the band about a month before he was scheduled to start a long overdue tour. He was forming a new band and had decided he wanted girl singers in the band. And he loved Ellie’s voice (which for the record is one of the great girl-group-y voices of all time. Beautiful, lush and unique). He’d become aware of her because of a song she wrote and recorded about him called, aptly enough, Modern Lover, and Jonathan also knew The Marshalls (the band Ellie was in with her brothers). So, Jonathan had selected Ellie and another woman to be his singers and go on a two-week California tour. But apparently at the last minute, Jonathan decided he was unhappy with the other woman. Not because of her singing (she was a very good singer, I hear), but because she couldn’t clap and snap her fingers. And, to be fair, I think he was looking for a more naïve sound. So he renewed his search for another girl singer. And Ellie suggested me. Which was wacky because I had done only a minimal amount of singing in the studio and NONE live. But I could clap and snap my fingers. And my sound I suppose could be called “naïve” or at least, unadorned. So he auditioned me in Ellie’s apartment one afternoon and hired me on the spot. I took two weeks off from my job at an AV company and spent it performing in the Modern Lovers!
picture ©Catherine Mc Dermott-Tingle
- Were you contributing to the writing of the songs with Jonathan ? suggesting other songs to cover ?
The kinds of contributions we made to the songs came about in rehearsal. Ellie and I would sometimes suggest vocal parts. And in the songs with spoken sections, like The Neighbors, we’d all make those up together. But Jonathan really did the writing. For our live performances he’d ask Ellie and I to suggest covers to do and he’d pick ‘em from our list. So Ellie would do “Too Many Fish in the Sea” and I’d do “Roll with Me Henry.” Stuff like that.
- How was life on tour ? I read in some interviews you did that it was not that fun ...
In 1980, when I joined the band I had never been in a band before and only knew other local level musicians. I guess I didn’t have much to compare it to. It was lots of fun at first – and always had elements of fun in it. But I did eventually come to the realization that it was exceptionally grueling and “shoe-string” as an enterprise. Though backed in theory by Berserkley Records, we were always incredibly short on cash. Essentially, we often needed whatever money we made on one gig to get us housed and fed and gassed up to go to the next gig! Those were in the days before lots of wanton “free credit” and there was no band credit card, no road manager most of the time, certainly no roadies, no fancy itineraries and not a lot of down time. So, we couldn’t afford to rent a van (it was cheaper to drive in two smaller cars), so the 6 of us convoyed everywhere (tricky in the days before cell phones) and shared the driving duties. I was the only person in the band with a credit card then (had that straight job at an AV company) so it often fell to me to put things on my card (maybe that’s why I was hired so easily as a backup singer?). Our drummer Michael was the defacto road manager and as a result, Ellie and I became his drum roadies, packing up his gear every night. We got pretty good at it. A typical day would be get up early after playing the night before and drive to the next place in time for sound check. Do sound check, check into a Motel 6, grab a burrito (Curley’s fave), do the gig, sleep for a few hours and then drive to the next place. Thank God we were all in our 20s and didn’t need much sleep. Jonathan told me later that those years were the hardest touring he ever did.
- This particular period in Jonathan’s career when he was backed up by the “Rockin’ Robins”, you and Ellie, is considered by some of us as their favourite. It was certainly a change compared to Jonathan’s previous albums. What is your opinion about it then and now ?
Well, being part of it made it a great period for me. I loved being able to contribute to the music and, hell, just being in a band would have been plenty but to be in that band, singing those songs! It was great. I will admit that the doowop-y sound we had was something that I appreciated as a music fan but never imagined myself doing. And some of it was a teensy bit sugary for me. I’m actually more of a Roadrunner-era Modern Lovers fan.
- What were your favourite songs to perform ?
Abdul and Cleopatra, hands down. I loved our vocal parts in that (and Ellie and I worked out a nice little bit of Middle Eastern choreography; also my hand clapping and snapping really came to the fore here, I must rather brazenly point out!) And I loved the old Modern Lovers songs that have to do with Boston (and my early years as a fan) so it was always fun to sing those – New England, The New Teller, The Fenway (Where I Dream My Dreams), Government Center.
- Were you also singing the older repertoire ? “Roadrunner “ and other songs from the first album ?
The ones I just mentioned we’d do. But Jonathan was very much in a period of disconnecting himself from the old Modern Lovers canon. Which I felt was sad because I loved those songs and his fans loved those songs. Roadrunner in particular was a sticking point for him (also Pablo Picasso). He just refused to do them even when people requested them. I do recall one night in Flint, Michigan in front of an exceptionally tiny crowd he did suddenly decide to do Roadrunner. I was shocked beyond belief, but quickly recovered in time to sing “Radio on!” Proud moment in my life.
- What about the Boston scene, which were the bands you used to dig ?
Loved, loved, loved The Nervous Eaters!!! Still do. Loved ‘em. Greatest unsung Boston band! Steve Cataldo wrote the greatest, rockin’-est songs ever. Did I mention I loved The Nervous Eaters?
Also loved The Real Kids. And Willie Alexander. And I must say, it was super-exciting going to the Rat in the early days and seeing The Cars come up through the ranks to become a national act. You could tell they had figured it out. My brother Lee and I used to go see them (and The Eaters and The Real Kids) a lot. BTW, a touch of nepotism here, but my brother Lee – besides being in the Peytons - was/still is a member of another fabulous Boston band, The Neighborhoods.
- Any regret associated with that time ? How did it end ?
Ah, well, let’s see. Hmm. Right after we finished the Jonathan Sings! album (which took us almost three rather grueling years to get made) Jonathan decided he “didn’t hear keyboards anymore” in the band. Which, as an artist, is his prerogative. Absolutely. But I have to admit it killed me because we’d just made an album with keyboards on it and , not for nothing, but pianist Ken Forfia was: 1) a supremely talented musician, and 2) a dear friend at this point and I thought it was a terrible idea to lose him. Especially when we’d just completed the album and were going to start touring to support it. Europe was in the offing. It would have been so great, a payoff for the three hard years of touring. So I said that to Jonathan when he told me his plan. I was pretty devastated. And then I did a sort of “you can’t fire me, I quit” kinda exit. I don’t really regret this. Jonathan prized honesty and I was always honest with him. But I felt a strong loyalty to Ken and hoped Jonathan would come around. But it was not to be. So Ken and I both stopped being Modern Lovers at that point. But Jonathan and I worked our way back to being friends eventually.
- Since then you have moved to become a very talented film director, I would like to discuss first about “Welcome to the club – the Women of rockabilly” which is to me a pure nugget. A documentary about the quest for the female Elvis ! I might be biased but I find it fascinating. What was your idea behind this project as I have asked myself if you were documenting Americana as Alan Lomax had done with the Blues, but I have the feeling you were having a true fan attitude. Am I right ?
Both things you mentioned. I am a fan but I am also a documentarian (and honored to even be put in the same sentence as the Lomaxes, thanks!) Actually, I first started researching the rockabilly girl thing when Jonathan wanted Ellie and I to pick a couple of covers to sing in the band. I found the “Wild, Wild Young Women” (Rounder) album. It was a revelation. I knew then that I wanted to make a film about the girls of rockabilly but it would be almost another 20 years before I’d have the experience and the funding to do it!
- People like the Cramps must have got in touch with you about that film ?
Never heard from the Cramps, but other people from that period seem to like it.
- Nowadays after several other types of documentaries with very different subjects from Miracles happening in Boston to Volcanos or an unknown side of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, which I recommend the reader to have a look at on your website, you are finalizing another work in progress about music, “the winding stream” which concerns country music through the Carter and Cash families. Can you tell us about it ? There are so many angles which can be opened as their stories could be a novel.
It’s a rich story and the film covers it from the early part of the 20th century all the way to the present generation of Carters and Cashes. I’m still trying to finish it. Like most film projects, it’s requiring a final infusion of money to complete it. But if JoJoBlog readers want to see a clip from it (with Murry Hammond of the Old 97s in it) it’s on my website: http://www.bethharrington.com/pages/thewindingstream.html
- There is an interview of you on You Tube which is also on our JojoBlog in which you say you would love to do a film about Jonathan and the Modern Lovers . I hope you are considering this seriously we will all be thrilled to see this happen... you are the ideal director for this.
I was even dreaming you could cover the whole Boston golden age time.
It’s crossed my mind to do a Modern Lovers documentary but never mentioned it publicly until that interview at a film festival in Eugene (which got posted to YouTube). [NOTE TO SELF: speculating aloud and on camera may have wide-ranging repercussions.] There are two issues. One is the aforementioned, ever-present money issue. How would I fund it? The second is even more fundamental. Would Jonathan want to participate and in what form? I’ve never even raised the idea with him so it’s sort of a moot point. But it might be fun. And yeah, a doc about the whole Boston music scene at that time would be great (although I understand there’s at least one like that out there). My pal Johnny Angel of Thrills (another great Boston band) had been prodding me to do this, too. So, if someone with the truckload of cash wants to just pull up to my backyard and dump it all off there, I’ll get crackin’ on these films.
- Have you seen the documentary Cheryl Hogan Donovan shot about the Real Kids?
Not yet, but I badly need to!!
- You told me you were a fan of the Flamin Groovies, what did you like in their music and did you happen to see them live ?
Never got to see them live. Just always loved those records. Something really exuberant about them.
- I suggested to Chris Wilson, former Groovies singer, to cover a Jonathan’s song. What Groovies song do you think you could have covered with Jonathan when in the Modern Lovers ?
Bam Balam. Even has a sorta Middle Eastern theme to it. “She’s my harem cutie from Hindustan, she’s got big red lips and a bam balam…” Also, good harmonies and a doo-wop-y bass vocal that Michael and/or Curley could have nailed. And Ken Forfia could have torn up the piano solo. And in place of the clarinet, Jonathan could have honked away on his sax! Perfect. I missed my calling as an A & R person.
- What do you think of Jonathan’s music today, his evolution ?
I think Jonathan’s remained true to himself and his audience and his music reflects that. I also think his passion for Italy, France and Spain and his acceptance there has made the move to singing in the romance languages an absolutely brilliant move. Organic but also brilliant.
- People after attending a concert of Jonathan’s are always leaving the venue smiling, could you explain this permanent miracle ?
It’s what Jonathan always contended in the jaded fading-hippie and punk periods and it is now an accepted fact of life, I believe, in a lot of contemporary alternative music (JoJo’s “progeny” if you will). People want affection. They want real emotion. They want to laugh. They want to connect to who they were as children. That’s what Jonathan is and always has been about. He’s absolutely the real deal and that makes people smile.
Are you seeing the other former Modern Lovers ? Ellie ?
I think of Ellie as a sister. We always stay in touch. I don’t see her as often as I’d like (we live on opposite coasts now) but our histories are very intertwined and I love her dearly. Jonathan and I talk occasionally and I try to see him when he’s in Portland but it’s been a while. Curley, Michael and Ken I miss - we haven’t seen each other in a long time. But it’s not for lack of affection. Guess time and distance have thwarted us. I’d love to see them all. Maybe it’s time to have a reunion?
- Finally, any anecdote related to Jonathan ?
More an image. I just recall numerous hardcore truckstop sojourns out in the American “heartland.” The band would eat lunch while Jonathan took the opportunity to do a full program of calisthenics out on the macadam as beefy men with Confederate flag-decorated ballcaps looked on, mystified.