Certain Songs #1188: The Modern Lovers – “I’m Straight”

Album: The Modern Lovers (reissue)
Year: 1980

Like Big Star’s Third, it seems like theThe Modern Lovers has a different track listing upon each reissue, as the definition of what “counts” on a record that was released years after it was recorded expands and contracts over time.

This first happened in 1986, when Rhino reissued The Modern Lovers added three songs to the original LP: “Dignified and Old,” “Government Center” and “I’m Straight.” The former two were fine, if minor additions to the album (and “Government Center” is a horrible way to end the record, both aurally and thematically, after the summation of “The Modern World.”)

I called this number three
Times already today
But I, I got scared, I put it back in place—
I put my phone back in place
I still don’t know if I
Should have called up
Look, just tell me why don’t you
If I’m out of place
Cause here’s your chance to make me feel awkward
And wish that I
Had never even called up this place

But “I’m Straight” is a major, major song, as important as anything in Richman’s early canon in terms of establishing his voice and ethos. It also has an interesting history: after the Warner Bros. sessions with Cale disintegrated, they did one last session with the notorious Kim Fowley, at which they captured “I’m Straight” in all of its glory. Well, most of it anyways, as the sound quality of the Fowley sessions was a patch on the Cale sessions.

That said, because it recorded as part of the Warner Bros. contract, it was never considered for the original version of The Modern Lovers and languished in a vault somewhere until some marketing person decided it was time to put out a new wave version of their ongoing Warner/Reprise Loss Leaders series.

One of the most 1970s things ever, the Warner Reprise Loss Leaders series were usually double-album compilations of WB label artists that weren’t for sale at record stores, but were rather sold via magazine adverts, albeit with two different marketing hooks: 1) they often contained rare tracks, and 2) they sold for $2.00. The goal, of course, was to attract interest in some of their more obscure artists.

They started doing this in 1969, with The 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook and the very last one was called Troublemakers, released in 1980, and featured tracks from The Sex Pistols, Gang of Four, Wire, Devo, and of course — why else would I be writing about this? — two songs from the Fowley sessions, “Government Center” (confusingly at the time, a different version than was on Beserkley Chartbusters Vol. 1) and, of course, “I’m Straight.”

I saw you though today
Walk by with hippie Johnny
I had to call up and say how
I want to take his place
So this phone call today concerns
Hippie Johnny
He’s always stoned, he’s never straight
I saw you today, you know
Walk by with hippie Johnny
Look, I had to call up and say
I want to take his place
See he’s stoned, hippie Johnny
Now get this, I’m straight
And I wanna take his place

There isn’t really any singing on “I’m Straight,” (and I guess that some folks might think that there isn’t any singing on The Modern Lovers, but that’s missing the point), because what we’re listening to is Richman calling the girl he’s crushing on, and making one of the most unique cases for her love in rock ‘n’ roll history: he doesn’t drink or do drugs.

So “I’m Straight” starts off slowly, just Richman gathering his nerve over an acoustic guitar, while David Robinson hits his hi-hat, Ernie Brooks proves bass support and Jerry Harrison in deep disguise. Halfway through the first verse, Robinson kicks into a slow, marching beat as Richman gathers his confidence, not just to make his case, but to diss his competition.

Now look, I like him too, I like
Hippie Johnny
But I’m straight
And I want to take his place
I said, “I’m straight”
I said, “I’m straight”
I’m proud to say
Well I’m straight
And I wanna take his place

This has always been my favorite verse: the contempt with which Richman pauses every single time before he snaps “HIP-pie Johnny” every single time totally belies his claim that he likes the dude. Fact is, he’s disgusted by hippie Johnny, and — truth be told — he might be a little bit disgusted with himself for liking a girl who would like a guy like hippie Johnny in the first place.

But he’s mostly disgusted with drug culture.

Now I’ve watched you walk around here
I’ve watched you meet
These new boyfriends, I know
And you tell how they’re deep
Look but, if these guys, if they’re really so great
Tell me, why can’t they at least take this place
And take it straight?
Why always stoned, like hippie Johnny is?
I’m straight, and I want to take his place
Oh I’m certainly not stoned, like hippie Johnny is
I’m straight and I want to take his place

By this time, Jerry Harrison has surfaced, and if he’s not bending eerie noises around Richman, then he’s crashing on top of the rest of the band, especially every single time Richman declares his straightness at the end of the the song.

I said, “I’m straight!”
I said, “I’m straight!”
I’m
I’m straight and I want to take his place
All right you Modern Lovers what do you say?
(I’m straight!)
Tell the world now
(I’m straight!)
That’s it
(I’m straight!)
Yeah, I’m straight and I want to take his place

And with that, he hangs up the phone, definitely giving her something to think about, if not necessarily letting her answer. I’ve also always wondered if the other Modern Lovers, who weren’t necessarily as straight-edge as Jonathan, kinda rolled their eyes at doing the “I’m straight!” response vocals, knowing how it well it worked in the song. In the the version on Precise Modern Lovers Order, he sings the song about “hippie Ernie,” presumably aiming it at his long-haired bassist, though without the contempt dripping from his voice.

“I’m Straight”

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Contempt for Hippie Johnny

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