There are a number of recorded versions of “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, but this extended live version released as a single on Berserkly is the one that really does it for me. Richman takes the listener on a long ride around the highways of Massachusetts “late at night when it’s cold outside.” Musically, the song is a tribute to the heroes of his youth, The Velvet Underground. It echoes “Sister Ray,” but builds on a scant two chords where “Sister Ray” cloaks itself in an opulent three. Consequently, rhythm and dynamics play a huge part in carrying this song down the road, as does the occasional guitar lead gently suggesting the doppler bend of Richman’s passing station wagon.
But it’s Richman’s earnest, heartfelt vocals that really bring the song to life. His vocals echo the recordings of fellow Massachusetts native, Jack Kerouac, who famously predated him as a roadrunner, chronicling his peregrinations with Neal Cassady in On the Road. Richman, like Kerouac, is one of those rare people almost completely bereft of guile, of irony. So, when he sings “I’m in love with my own loneliness” (a Kerouacian line if ever there was one) or “I’m in love with the modern world” or “I’m in love with Massachusetts,” he means it. “Believe me now” he implores near the song’s end, trying to win over the few remaining doubters in the room. As in the recordings of Kerouac, you can hear the love of the subject matter in the way he caresses it with a soft, nostalgic, yearning coo.
I think there’s a certain courage required in the modern world to bare your thoughts and emotions unambiguously and without the slightest hint of embarrassment. Because of this habit, Richman, like Kerouac before him, has endured much abuse from the cynics and hyenas. But I think we need the Kerouacs and Richmans among us to get us out of our own heads every once in a while, to make us find the beauty in the blinking red lights atop the Prudential Tower, or even in the industrial park we speed by in middle of the night. This beauty is there for us to fall in love with while we can, because before we know it we’ll be pulling off Route 128 to make way for the new roadrunners merging onto the highway behind us.
Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers perform “Roadrunner Thrice”:
Jack Kerouac reading his essay-poem, “Charlie Parker”: