As I spent this past weekend in Boston, one thought that kept going through my head as I wandered around the city was, “Man, I can’t think of the last time a really great band came out of Boston.” Sure, there where some good ones that rose out of Beantown’s underground scene in the 80’s (Mission Of Burma, Dinosaur Jr., Pixies), but beyond that, I’m kinda drawing a blank. Anyways, The Modern Lovers may have been Boston’s first great underground band, which back then was another way of saying they were just unsuccessful. Still, they managed to craft a song that for me embodies the timeless bond that teenagers form with rock music, and also serves as a nice tribute to the state of Massachusetts.
Song: “Roadrunner” by The Modern Lovers
Album: The Modern Lovers
Written By: Jonathan Richman
My Relationship With This Song
The first time I can remember hearing about The Modern Lovers was in this high school class entitled “Rock 101”. I’m sure you can guess that this was just a bullshit elective class, and though I took quite a few of these bullshit electives in high school, this very well might have been the bullshittiest. Over the course of this class, we watched this documentary that basically recounted the history of rock music in fairly broad strokes. The documentary made it seem like Jonathan Richman and his Modern Lovers were the vital link between what The Velvet Underground where doing in the late sixties and the whole CBGB’s punk scene of the mid-seventies. Of course, this is way too reductive of an explanation of punk’s evolution, but I’ll agree that The Modern Lovers were still a pretty key band in the development of the American punk scene.
Not longer after that, I was compelled to snag a copy of The Modern Lovers’ debut album, which happened around the same time that I got my driver’s license. This was pretty much perfect timing, since it was immediately apparent that “Roadrunner” was a song that seems like it was created with the sole purpose of being blasted in cars that were driven by mopey rock-obsessed teenagers, which I undoubtedly was. So for those first few months of driving around in a garish purple Ford Windstar (lovingly nicknamed The Spaceship), “Roadrunner” and the rest of that self-titled debut was pretty much my go-to driving music. I don’t know if it’s a song that I’ve returned to that much in the preceding years, but whenever I hear it, “Roadrunner” has this power to instantly transport me back to a time when the only thing that truly mattered was the bracing sound of rock and roll coming out of my car stereo.
Reasons Why I Love This Song
It Bucks Traditional Rock Numerology: Since the inception of rock and roll, there seemed to be this unspoken rule that if you’re going to count off before starting your song, you should do the traditional “One, two, three, FOUR!”, but “Roadrunner” doesn’t play by those fascist rules. It instead starts with an unheard of “One, two, three, four, five, SIX!”, and thus lead the way for trailblazers like U2’s “Vertigo”, which proved that we can live in a world where it’s O.K. to begin a song by poorly counting to fourteen in Spanish. This concludes the section in which I try to make the act of counting to six interesting.
That Ridiculously Simple Guitar Riff: By the early seventies, riffmasters like Tony Iommi and Jimmy Page made it seem like you needed to come up with something fairly intricate if you wanted to create an iconic guitar riff. “Roadrunner” however returns to the “Louie Louie”/”You Really Got Me” formula of taking a basic but nonetheless effective guitar riff, and milking it for all it’s worth. Some people have said that the riff is a “reworking” of The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”, which I guess means that they both revolve around bashing out the same two chords over and over again, and are therefore similar. But I don’t know, I never really understood the comparison.
Jonathan Richman’s teenagery-ness: Richman supposedly started performing “Roadunner” when he was 19, and it definitely sounds like a teen writing about “what they know” with the utmost sincerity. He’s mainly singing about the boring shit that was a part of his life as an awkward teen in suburban Massachusetts, but it feels relatable no matter what part of the country you grew up in. Also, there’s something really refreshing about the that fact that he embraces all that mundane stuff, instead of denouncing it like most people seem to do when writing about their hometowns. And then there’s Richman’s nasally “Fred Schneider meets David Schwimmer” vocal delivery, which I’m sure could be polarizing for some, but for me just adds to the gawky earnestness of the song.
Jerry Harrison’s Tasty Organ Parts: Besides featuring the aforementioned talents of Jonathan Richman, this original Modern Lovers line-up also featured future Cars drummer David Robinson, as well as future Talking Head Jerry Harrison on piano/organ. Though I’ve already praised the simplicity of “Roadrunner”, I think the song would crash under the weight of its boneheaded structure without Harrison’s slinky organ work. Harrison’s organ has a few little solo sections parceled out over the course of the song, and though they’re not overtly flashy, they add a much-needed dash of musical sophistication.
“Radio On!”: I suppose another thing about “Roadrunner” that might be polarizing is the fact that it has no discernable chorus. And because Richman has such a rambling stream-of-consciousness vocal delivery, it’s not the easiest song to sing along with, unless you’ve spent hours of your life pouring over it like I have. But then you get to that “Radio On” section, where the rest of the Modern Lovers chime in with their back-up vocals, and it’s just magic. I’ve always had a thing for songs that build and build to some sort of anthemic climax, and I’m sure this song had something to do with shaping that predisposition.
Why I Will Continue To Love This Song
Because it will always appeal to my innermost music geek. “Roadrunner” is ultimately a song about loneliness, and yet it joyously revels in the idea of having rock music as the ultimate companion on the road of life. I suppose there is a certain glow of nostalgia to the song, as it romanticizes a time when all a kid needed was a decent set of wheels and the power of the radio to keep himself occupied. But I think “Roadrunner” is ultimately timeless because it’s so overpowering and so full of enthusiasm that its heartfelt devotion to rock music can’t help but transfer over to the listener.