Wednesday, June 13, 2007

“Roadrunner” /
Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers

I understand that Jonathan Richman may be an acquired taste. That tuneless, off-key voice isn’t for everyone; not everybody gets his peculiar sense of humor. But for sheer pop goofiness, it’s hard to outdo this classic road-trip song. Recorded in 1973 (but not released until 1976), it isn’t angry enough to be punk, or arty enough to be new wave -- but I can testify that you could not hear this band perform it without NEEDING to sing along and dance.

In criticspeak, we’d call the Modern Lovers’s vibe something like “affected artlessness” – it goes well beyond garage-band simplicity. Those lyrics sound like what a 15-year-old would sing to himself in the shower -- no rhymes, no plot, no deeper meaning. He even loses track during the traditional opening countdown – “one two three four five six …”

This song is as American as it can be – he’s just a kid with a driver’s license, that quintessential ticket to freedom in Metrosprawl USA. He’s driving past the Stop and Shop, going on Route 128, past factories and auto signs – anybody who knows Boston knows these places. He half-sings, half-speaks in jerky rhythms, floundering through repeated monotone melodic phrases: “I’m in love with Massachusetts / And the neon when it’s cold outside / And the highway when it’s late at night / Got the radio on.” I can picture the kid slapping his steering wheel as he tools around the Bosstown ‘burbs, just grooving on the fun of driving and listening to rock radio.

Richman does slip in a little poignance eventually: “I'm in love with the radio on / It helps me from being alone late at night / It helps me from being lonely late at night / I don't feel so bad now in the car / Don't feel so alone, got the radio on.” Being a teenager is hard, and Richman – singing in a voice sounds like any ordinary high-school dweeb – captures it perfectly. If all else fails, “The highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick / Suburban trees, suburban speed / And it smells like heaven.” Just don’t stop moving and everything will be all right.

Underneath it runs that unflagging instrumental, rock-steady drums and chugging guitars, pumping away with its own internal combustion engine. The sweet organ solo in the break is worth waiting for – I believe that’s Jerry Harrison, who’d soon after become a Talking Head. Sure, their sound was stripped-down, uncluttered, but they were tight, with a propulsive energy you couldn’t resist.

The backing vocalists sound just as hapless as Richman – I love the part where he calls them out, “O.K., now you sing, Modern Lovers!” Modern Lovers – what sort of a name is that for these callow geeks? But they’re gamely singing in the backseat, trading off their yelps of “Radio on!” with Richman’s rambling phrases “Got the car, got the AM…Got the rockin’ modern neon sound…I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts…” Whatever pops into his head.

I’m sure Richman was also alluding to the cartoon character Roadrunner. We all grew up watching those cartoons, with Roadrunner zipping mindlessly around the desert, defying the well-laid plots of Wile E. Coyote. But I love the fact that he doesn’t make a big literary deal out of it. He says “Roadrunner,” we picture Roadrunner, and then we’re back with our buddies in the cold late Massachusetts night, whizzing down Route 128, with the AM station blasting on the car radio. AM, you notice – no mellow-voiced djs and album-oriented rock, but Top Forty radio! All the hits all the time! Yeeessssssss!

Roadrunner (Once) sample


g12 said...

Niiiice. The Sex Pistols did a good cover of this on the Rock And ROll Swindle Album, though it's not as weird as JR's. If he was bron just 5 years later, I think he coulda been a much bigger star, in the age of Devo and the new wave. The almost monotone voice would have worked so much better then.

Also check out his Pablo Picasso, much funnier (and straighter) than John Cale's.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes!! What a great album and song.

Great summer song. Drive around, roll down the windows and turn it up to eleven!

Thanks for the tip..

Anonymous said...

Holly, most of the time your choices are wonderful. This times even more. JR & The Modern Lovers are really favourites of mine - and Roadrunner is a classic!
Sex Pistols did a great cover of Roadrunner. Check it.