Joyce Linehan convinced Elizabeth Warren to run for Senate and helped Marty Walsh become mayor. But will the former punk-rock promoter ever take center stage?
Just after four oâclock on a blistering June afternoon, Joyce Linehanâpunk-rock veteran, pit-bull advocate, proud Dorchester native, and close confidant of one of the leading candidates for mayor of Bostonâstood in the middle of the street and realized she was about to die.
As a Volvo took a blind left out of the Patâs Pizza parking lot and bore down on her, she froze. âAs I stood there in the middle of Dot. Ave.,â she later recalled, âand bracing for the impact to my legs, what flashed through my mind? Not âOh my God, who will take care of Charlie if Iâm hurt?â or âOh my God, how will I pay my bills if I canât work?â Nope. It was âOh my God, the campaign!ââ
Charlie Ashmont, her 10-year-old rescue pit bull, neednât have worried. Linehan managed to walk away from the accidentâthe teen behind the wheel of the Volvo seemed almost as shaken as sheâbut on that day, her candidate, Marty Walsh, realized that if Joyce had gone, his mayoral hopes might have gone with her. âI told him the story,â Linehan wrote on her blog, âand he told me I cannot, under any circumstances, get hit by a car before the election.â
Until recently, Linehan was best known as a publicist for some of Bostonâs top nonprofit arts organizations, among them ArtsEmerson, First Night Boston, and the Institute of Contemporary Art. If you were on the receiving end of her pitchesâas I was for many years as an arts editor at the Boston Phoenixâyou knew that she had already lived a wild, tumultuous rock ânâ roll life. In the 1990s, her Dorchester home served as the East Coast offices of the storied grunge label Sub Pop, where Linehan worked as a promotions director and talent scout. Over the years, Holeâs Courtney Love and Pearl Jamâs Eddie Vedder were among the hundreds who hung out at her legendary pad. But starting in 2000, Linehan pivoted between arts and politics,Â transforming a network of cultural movers and shakers into a powerful new constituency that seems poised to transform the city. I wanted to see how she did it, so I spent several months trailing Linehan as she oversaw Marty Walshâs bare-knuckled campaign to defeat John Connolly. (Sheâs now heading up the transition team that will carry the mayor-elect into office this month.)
Though she never had an official title in Walshâs campaign, she was indispensable to it. âIn todayâs Globe I am referred to as a âpolitical consultant,ââ she wrote on her Facebook page back in late August. âThey might as well have called me a lawyer or a serial killer.â In June, Walsh described her as âsenior adviser, and sometimes a conscience.â I once asked Elizabeth Warren about Linehanâs role in her 2012 U.S. Senate campaign. âShe was everywhere and did everything,â Warren told me. âIs there a special name for a role like that?â Linehanâs friends refer to her, simply, as âthe decider.â
Itâs still difficult to pin down exactly what kind of political animal Linehan wants to be. Sometimes she comes across more like an obsessive fan than a political operative. When we sat in her kitchen last June, she told me she has no interest in political office; she says she has never been paid for her political work and does not want to be. âI mean, define âpay,ââ she said. âI do it so that the place that I live in is better.â And yet occasionally, couched in the passive-aggressive language of a humble brag, she will let slip hints of deeper ambitions. âTo dispel any rumors,â Linehan wrote on her Facebook page on October 18, âI have no desire to be the arts commissioner if Marty wins.â She added, âI want to be the police commissioner. But Marty said no.â
âExcuse the dog smell,â Linehan said as we climbed into her Subaru Forester in Dorchesterâs bustling Peabody Square. A few minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of an 1880 quasi-Victorian house that Linehanâs friends have dubbed âAshmonticello.â When she bought the 4,200-square-foot home, in 2012, she gutted and renovated the interior with guests in mind. The driveway, Linehan points out, can accommodate âat leastâ two tour buses; the top floor now houses a recording studio. In September, as the mayorâs race heated up, members of the band Scud Mountain Boys rehearsed there for a tour. The most important feature of the renovation is an expanded living room, which can accommodate up to 150 people. Which is key, because Linehanâs living roomâonce a mecca for indie rockers touring through Bostonâis now arguably the most important living room in Massachusetts grassroots politics.
Ashmonticello is a larger version of Linehanâs old place, on Burt Street, which the Phoenix once called the âmost famous and best-loved rock-and-roll crash pad in Boston history.â Bikini Kill, Smashing Pumpkins, Elliott Smith, the Jesus Lizard, and Stereolab all stayed there over the years. But Ashmonticello is also a portal between Linehanâs many worlds: the tight-knit, hardscrabble Dorchester where she was raised; the cosmopolitan salon of Bostonâs nonprofit arts; and the scruffy universe of what one frequent guest to Linehanâs house calls âa real oasis in the desert of low-level indie-rock touring.â
Linehan, now 50, grew up steeped in old Dorchester. Her paternal grandfather, Tom, and her father, John, both served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Her mother, Yvonne, founded Interim House, a menâs halfway house for recovering alcoholics, in 1972. John, a heavy smoker and drinker, died of a heart attack at 33. Linehan was not yet five. Though she was too young to remember many details, Linehan said the thing that stuck with her about those years was that âmy mother was not alone.â Jim Hennigan, a longtime West Roxbury politician, gave Yvonne a part-time job at his insurance agency, arranged around school schedules. Linehan recalls the generosity of friends and neighbors as formative, and is fiercely loyal to the community that helped raise her.
As a teenager, Linehan edited the High School Times, a syndicated student newspaper whose staff included Gerard Cosloyâa Wayland native who went on to run two of the great indie-rock record labels, Homestead and Matadorâand Jeff Giles, later of Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly. To fund the struggling paper, Linehan organized several all-ages benefit concerts at the Channel, a legendary punk-rock club housed in a cavernous Fort Point warehouse. The Sunday-afternoon matinees, featuring local acts, were regular sellouts. She was hooked.
Through her early twenties, she was in and out of her momâs house, couch-surfing at friendsâ apartments or lofts. It was community that had saved her family when her father died, and another, alternative community sustained her. By the early 1980s, Boston boasted one of the most vibrant underground-rock scenes in the country. âLocal bands got played on even the large commercial stations,â Michael Azerrad wrote in his seminal indie-rock study, Our Band Could Be Your Life. âYouâd play at Cantoneâs, then youâd play a bigger club, then a bigger one,â Boston Rock editor Tristram Lozaw told Azerrad. âThen youâd go on tour and youâd be on WBCN.â
Linehan was a connector, booking national underground bands into small local clubs. She graduated to managing bandsâthe Smithereens, the Lemonheads, Six Finger Satelliteâwith her childhood friend Tom Johnston, who was managing prominent Boston acts like Buffalo Tom and Bullet LaVolta.
In the beginning, the shows were hit and miss. Johnston recalls that they booked Bullet LaVolta to play Malcolm Forbesâs birthday party, and yet somehow lost money when they brought an unknown band called Nirvana to play Jamaica Plainâs Green Street Station. Still, Linehan took pride in the fact that when Americaâs most adventurous bands came to Boston, they stayed not in Allston or Cambridge, but in Dorchester. Collaborations sprouted among bands whose paths crossed at Linehanâs, from homegrown talents like the Blake Babies to superstars like Holeâs Courtney Love, whoâlegend has itâwrote one of her best songs, âDoll Parts,â while staying with Linehan. âIt was a good gathering spot where I like to think a lot of ideas got bounced off other ideas,â Linehan told me. âMost of those bands didnât go on to have great success. There were a few who did. But it was a great, fertile period for a lot of people.â
In the â90s, Linehan took a job as Aâ&âR director at Sub Pop, the Seattle label that launched Nirvana and grunge into the mainstream. She spent most of that decade on the road through the U.S., Canada, and Europe. But as the millennium approached, she found herself at a crossroads. In 1998, Yvonne Linehan was diagnosed with leukemia. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. bought Sub Pop, and Linehan was suddenly out of a job. She spent most of her time caring for her mother, driving her to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for blood transfusions three or four times a week for months. Yvonne Linehan died in November 1999. A few months later, Linehan took a gig as publicist for First Night Boston, putting her indie-rock promotion skills at the service of Bostonâs fine arts.
The presidential election of 2000 was a turning point in Linehanâs political evolution. She was âdisgustedâ by George W. Bush, and horrified when court decisions handed him the presidency. So during the next election cycle, she got active. Linehan and Joe Perniceâone of her last rock-musician clientsâorganized three fundraising concerts for John Kerryâs 2004 presidential campaign, working from an email list of about 8,000 people, culled from their publicity contacts. They quickly discovered that some of their musical allies were political enemies. âI had lulled myself into thinking that these people who buy Joeâs records thought like I did and like Joe did,â Linehan said. âAnd I suddenly understood what Kurt Cobain was talking about when he talked about not liking his fans. It was a very rude awakening.â
Still, she had the bug. In the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, she was converted to the Deval Patrick cause at a meet-the-candidate house party. âYou walked out of there thinking, Iâd lay down in front of a train for this guy,â she said. When the Patrick campaign challenged its volunteers to each find 50 people in their community who would commit to voting for the candidate, Linehan took to Facebook and blew past 50 to 500.
âWhen you really look at it,â said the South Bostonâborn writer Michael Patrick MacDonald, âJoyceâs skills in the music world were grassroots skills. Punk rock is entirely of the grassroots.â This much is true: Many of Linehanâs friends from her music days later became activists. But activists and punks, by their nature, attempt to change the world from the outside. Now Linehan was choosing a different path: to wield influence and shape power from within the system.
From Patrickâs campaign manager, John Walsh, she absorbed a crash course in voter dynamics. She admired Walshâs ability to give people the tools they needed to organize. And she liked that the campaign drew on its volunteersâ particular backgrounds, interests, and expertiseâincluding her own. Linehan lobbied Walsh to pay more attention to an underserved voting bloc: the arts community. âPart of the education of John Walsh was Joyce making me appreciate how important it is,â he told me. âShe took the time, and at times it required her patience to get through to meâhow important an economic piece it was for neighborhoods like Dorchester.â
After Patrickâs election, Linehan continued to organize for Democratic candidates, including U.S. Congressman Mike Capuano in his failed bid for the late Ted Kennedyâs U.S. Senate seat. In 2011, though, she created a candidate. Republican senators were threatening to block then-Harvard professor Elizabeth Warrenâs appointment as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Insiders whispered that if Republicans wouldnât approve Warren, a suitable punishment might be to run Warren for Senate against Scott Brown. On May 13 of that year, Linehan tweeted, âElizabeth Warren: If youâre listeningâI will knock on doors until my hands bleed if youâll run for the U.S. Senate.â Months later, on a Sunday morning in August, Linehan received a phone call. Warren was considering a run. Could Linehan organize a meeting at her house? âWhen?â she asked, thinking sheâd have a few weeks. âTomorrow night,â came the answer. In 36 hours, Linehan had 70 people in her living room. âAnd there were about 50 or 60 people,â she said, âwho were pissed off because they couldnât make it on such short notice.â
And so it came to pass that Elizabeth Warrenâs Senate campaign began in Joyce Linehanâs living room. Warren credits the crowd with raising issues that would become touchstones of her campaign: education, Social Security, standing up for women. âThere were tears, people begging her to run,â Linehan recalled.
âIt was after that meeting,â said Warren, âthat I thought, If running for office is like this, I want to do it. Not, Can I do this?, which had been my question going in. I came out with this answer: I want to do this.â
Linehan remains a trusted adviser to Warren. âWhat Joyce made clear to me,â said Warren, âis that what we think of as issuesâbig national issuesâare very personal. Theyâre one-on-one. When I stood in Joyceâs living room, and people asked about Social Security, it wasnât an abstract question. It was: âWhat happens to my family? What happens to my neighbors?â We stay in touch, we talk about student-loan issues, the big banks, music, innovation here in the commonwealth, schools. I never visit with Joyce that I donât walk away having learned something.â
On a balmy night in August, the parking lot of Elks Lodge #10, off Morrell Street in West Roxbury, was packed. Inside, 150 voters had gathered for a meet-the-candidate event called âMondays with Marty.â At the front of the room, Walsh ran down his big topics: schools, jobs, housing. In the back row, Linehan tweeted like madâas Marty. As she typed, the candidateâs @marty_walsh account sprung to life: âIn my administration, the arts will be elevated to a cabinet-level position. . . . We will bring voc tech to every high school in Boston. . . . Microunits are only PART of a housing solution. We need Workforce Housing. Thatâs how we stabilize neighborhoods.â
Such was the mind meld between Marty Walsh and Joyce Linehan in the summer and fall of 2013. Their roots are deep: Walsh knew Yvonne Linehan through the recovery community. Even before Menino announced he would not seek a new term, Linehan was already introducing her constituents to Walsh, convincing him to file a bill on Beacon Hill to award the franchise for Massachusettsâ state rock song to âRoadrunner,â a driving anthem by an underappreciated Boston punk group called the Modern Lovers. It was an immediate boon to the visibility of both Walsh and Linehan: The âRoadrunnerâ campaign was noted by publications ranging from Pitchfork to the New York Times. And Walsh got his first taste of Boston rock-scene politics when a dowdy classic-rock station mounted a counter campaign in favor of an Aerosmith song.
As she had done with John Walsh, Linehan made sure Marty Walsh got an education in the arts. âShe pushed me on the issue,â he said. In some cases, Walsh would wonder why he wasnât meeting with a big crowd in Dorchester or South Boston rather than with four or five people from the arts community downtown. But he began to see the arts as part of the identity of the city, an avenue for economic growth, and a way to create opportunities for young people. He found that when he began to bring up the arts at some of these larger community forums, heads in the audience would nod in agreement.
Walshâs championing of the arts became a keystone of his campaignâwhich had the effect of underlining Linehanâs influence. After the election, Walsh quickly committed to creating a cabinet-level âarts czarâ position, and also pledged to earmark a percentage of city revenue to arts funding. Even before Walsh set foot in City Hall, it was a remarkable commitment of resourcesâa victory for Bostonâs creative class, and an impressive triumph for Linehan, who is also playing a top role in Walshâs transition team.
âShe won,â laughed Walsh about Linehanâs schedule-busting small meetings. âAnd Iâm grateful for it.â
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