Joyce Linehan: The Decider

She convinced Elizabeth Warren to run for Senate and helped Marty Walsh become mayor. But will the former punk-rock promoter ever take center stage?

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.”