The Decider

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?

By | Boston Magazine |
joyce-linehan

American Bandstand: During the 2013 mayoral race, Linehan (left) was never far from Marty Walsh’s side. (Photograph by Paul Marotta)

Just after four o’clock on a blistering June afternoon, Joyce Linehan—punk-rock veteran, pit-bull advocate, proud Dorchester native, and close confidant of one of the leading candidates for mayor of Boston—stood in the middle of the street and realized she was about to die.

As a Volvo took a blind left out of the Pat’s Pizza parking lot and bore down on her, she froze. “As I stood there in the middle of Dot. Ave.,” she later recalled, “and bracing for the impact to my legs, what flashed through my mind? Not ‘Oh my God, who will take care of Charlie if I’m hurt?’ or ‘Oh my God, how will I pay my bills if I can’t work?’ Nope. It was ‘Oh my God, the campaign!’”

Charlie Ashmont, her 10-year-old rescue pit bull, needn’t have worried. Linehan managed to walk away from the accident—the teen behind the wheel of the Volvo seemed almost as shaken as she—but on that day, her candidate, Marty Walsh, realized that if Joyce had gone, his mayoral hopes might have gone with her. “I told him the story,” Linehan wrote on her blog, “and he told me I cannot, under any circumstances, get hit by a car before the election.”

Until recently, Linehan was best known as a publicist for some of Boston’s 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 pitches—as I was for many years as an arts editor at the Boston Phoenix—you knew that she had already lived a wild, tumultuous rock ’n’ 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, Hole’s Courtney Love and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder were among the hundreds who hung out at her legendary pad. But starting in 2000, Linehan pivoted between arts and politics, 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 Walsh’s bare-knuckled campaign to defeat John Connolly. (She’s now heading up the transition team that will carry the mayor-elect into office this month.)

Though she never had an official title in Walsh’s campaign, she was indispensable to it. “In today’s Globe I am referred to as a ‘political consultant,’” she wrote on her Facebook page back in late August. “They might as well have called me a lawyer or a serial killer.” In June, Walsh described her as “senior adviser, and sometimes a conscience.” I once asked Elizabeth Warren about Linehan’s role in her 2012 U.S. Senate campaign. “She was everywhere and did everything,” Warren told me. “Is there a special name for a role like that?” Linehan’s friends refer to her, simply, as “the decider.”

It’s 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. “I mean, define ‘pay,’” she said. “I do it so that the place that I live in is better.” And yet occasionally, couched in the passive-aggressive language of a humble brag, she will let slip hints of deeper ambitions. “To dispel any rumors,” Linehan wrote on her Facebook page on October 18, “I have no desire to be the arts commissioner if Marty wins.” She added, “I want to be the police commissioner. But Marty said no.”

 

“Excuse the dog smell,” Linehan said as we climbed into her Subaru Forester in Dorchester’s bustling Peabody Square. A few minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of an 1880 quasi-Victorian house that Linehan’s friends have dubbed “Ashmonticello.” 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 “at least” two tour buses; the top floor now houses a recording studio. In September, as the mayor’s 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 Linehan’s living room—once a mecca for indie rockers touring through Boston—is now arguably the most important living room in Massachusetts grassroots politics.

Ashmonticello is a larger version of Linehan’s old place, on Burt Street, which the Phoenix once called the “most famous and best-loved rock-and-roll crash pad in Boston history.” Bikini Kill, Smashing Pumpkins, Elliott Smith, the Jesus Lizard, and Stereolab all stayed there over the years. But Ashmonticello is also a portal between Linehan’s many worlds: the tight-knit, hardscrabble Dorchester where she was raised; the cosmopolitan salon of Boston’s nonprofit arts; and the scruffy universe of what one frequent guest to Linehan’s house calls “a real oasis in the desert of low-level indie-rock touring.”

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 men’s 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 “my mother was not alone.” 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 Cosloy—a Wayland native who went on to run two of the great indie-rock record labels, Homestead and Matador—and 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 mom’s house, couch-surfing at friends’ 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. “Local bands got played on even the large commercial stations,” Michael Azerrad wrote in his seminal indie-rock study, Our Band Could Be Your Life. “You’d play at Cantone’s, then you’d play a bigger club, then a bigger one,” Boston Rock editor Tristram Lozaw told Azerrad. “Then you’d go on tour and you’d be on WBCN.”

Linehan was a connector, booking national underground bands into small local clubs. She graduated to managing bands—the Smithereens, the Lemonheads, Six Finger Satellite—with 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 Forbes’s birthday party, and yet somehow lost money when they brought an unknown band called Nirvana to play Jamaica Plain’s Green Street Station. Still, Linehan took pride in the fact that when America’s most adventurous bands came to Boston, they stayed not in Allston or Cambridge, but in Dorchester. Collaborations sprouted among bands whose paths crossed at Linehan’s, from homegrown talents like the Blake Babies to superstars like Hole’s Courtney Love, who—legend has it—wrote one of her best songs, “Doll Parts,” while staying with Linehan. “It was a good gathering spot where I like to think a lot of ideas got bounced off other ideas,” Linehan told me. “Most of those bands didn’t go on to have great success. There were a few who did. But it was a great, fertile period for a lot of people.”

 

In the ’90s, Linehan took a job as A & R 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 Boston’s fine arts.

The presidential election of 2000 was a turning point in Linehan’s political evolution. She was “disgusted” 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 Pernice—one of her last rock-musician clients—organized three fundraising concerts for John Kerry’s 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. “I had lulled myself into thinking that these people who buy Joe’s records thought like I did and like Joe did,” Linehan said. “And I suddenly understood what Kurt Cobain was talking about when he talked about not liking his fans. It was a very rude awakening.”

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. “You walked out of there thinking, I’d lay down in front of a train for this guy,” 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.

“When you really look at it,” said the South Boston–born writer Michael Patrick MacDonald, “Joyce’s skills in the music world were grassroots skills. Punk rock is entirely of the grassroots.” This much is true: Many of Linehan’s 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 Patrick’s campaign manager, John Walsh, she absorbed a crash course in voter dynamics. She admired Walsh’s ability to give people the tools they needed to organize. And she liked that the campaign drew on its volunteers’ particular backgrounds, interests, and expertise—including her own. Linehan lobbied Walsh to pay more attention to an underserved voting bloc: the arts community. “Part of the education of John Walsh was Joyce making me appreciate how important it is,” he told me. “She took the time, and at times it required her patience to get through to me—how important an economic piece it was for neighborhoods like Dorchester.”

After Patrick’s election, Linehan continued to organize for Democratic candidates, including U.S. Congressman Mike Capuano in his failed bid for the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat. In 2011, though, she created a candidate. Republican senators were threatening to block then-Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren’s appointment as head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Insiders whispered that if Republicans wouldn’t approve Warren, a suitable punishment might be to run Warren for Senate against Scott Brown. On May 13 of that year, Linehan tweeted, “Elizabeth Warren: If you’re listening—I will knock on doors until my hands bleed if you’ll run for the U.S. Senate.” 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? “When?” she asked, thinking she’d have a few weeks. “Tomorrow night,” came the answer. In 36 hours, Linehan had 70 people in her living room. “And there were about 50 or 60 people,” she said, “who were pissed off because they couldn’t make it on such short notice.”

And so it came to pass that Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign began in Joyce Linehan’s living room. Warren credits the crowd with raising issues that would become touchstones of her campaign: education, Social Security, standing up for women. “There were tears, people begging her to run,” Linehan recalled.

“It was after that meeting,” said Warren, “that 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.”

Linehan remains a trusted adviser to Warren. “What Joyce made clear to me,” said Warren, “is that what we think of as issues—big national issues—are very personal. They’re one-on-one. When I stood in Joyce’s living room, and people asked about Social Security, it wasn’t an abstract question. It was: ‘What happens to my family? What happens to my neighbors?’ 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 don’t walk away having learned something.”

 

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 “Mondays with Marty.” At the front of the room, Walsh ran down his big topics: schools, jobs, housing. In the back row, Linehan tweeted like mad—as Marty. As she typed, the candidate’s @marty_walsh account sprung to life: “In 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. That’s how we stabilize neighborhoods.”

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 Massachusetts’ state rock song to “Roadrunner,” 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 “Roadrunner” 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. “She pushed me on the issue,” he said. In some cases, Walsh would wonder why he wasn’t 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.

Walsh’s championing of the arts became a keystone of his campaign—which had the effect of underlining Linehan’s influence. After the election, Walsh quickly committed to creating a cabinet-level “arts czar” 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 resources—a victory for Boston’s creative class, and an impressive triumph for Linehan, who is also playing a top role in Walsh’s transition team.

“She won,” laughed Walsh about Linehan’s schedule-busting small meetings. “And I’m grateful for it.”

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