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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Off Beat: Achieving fame was a snap (and a couple of claps)

By , Columbian staff writer
2 Photos
Beth Harrington, right, onstage with the Modern Lovers circa 1982.
Beth Harrington, right, onstage with the Modern Lovers circa 1982. Harrington and harmony partner Ellie Marshall called themselves the Rockin' Robins. Photo Gallery

Boston kid Beth Harrington’s whole life changed because she can go like this:

Clap, clap, snap.

Clap, clap, snap.

Doesn’t seem like the kind of talent that catapults you to stardom, but Harrington eventually gained acclaim as a documentary filmmaker. She’s worked on such public television shows as “Nova” and “History Detectives” as well as her own independent productions. She’s made movies and TV shows about all sorts of cultures and subcultures: Boston miracle seekers, Portland brewmeisters, Chinese immigrants to Eastern Oregon and the women of early rockabilly music.

The Columbian focused on Harrington recently as her latest documentary, “The Winding Stream,” sold out the Kiggins Theatre with its polished look at the Original Carter Family and the history of country music.

But long before all that, Harrington was just a rock ‘n’ roll chick with a passion for Boston geek-punk Jonathan Richman and his sincerely goofy band The Modern Lovers. And through a series of small-world coincidences, Harrington met Richman just when he was getting frustrated with one of his backup singers — who couldn’t or wouldn’t go clap, clap, snap.

Harrington auditioned for Richman, showing off a sweet singing voice and some peerless clap-snap skills, and got hired on the spot. She spent three years in the early 1980s, adding the doo-wop to Richman’s retro sound as the group toured relentlessly — while utterly failing to get busted, trash a hotel room or do any other loony stuff that rock stars are supposed to do.

“Kind of boring. No sex, no drugs,” Harrington laughed. “There were four guys and two women and it was a very brotherly-sisterly thing in an annoying-sibling kind of way. It was pretty tame.” (A typically geeky Richman song of that time was about staying sober in a stoned world; he also insisted that his band do calisthenics before every show, Harrington said.)

Harrington eventually found a career in filmmaking, but she’s still in love with rock ‘n’ roll and still friendly with Richman — who would make a great subject of another musical documentary, she keeps thinking.

“He really launched a thousand ships in terms of other bands and singers,” she said. “There’s a real interesting legacy there.”

But there can be a thousand barriers to making movies about musicians, from the cost of licensing copyrighted material to the fact that Richman remains “quirky” and deeply protective of his image. “He has very specific ideas. And I would want to have editorial control. I haven’t talked to him about it yet,” Harrington said. She means to soon.

“I may be too close to the story,” she said. “But it would drive me up a wall if somebody else did it.”

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.