The Schmooze

Why Jonathan Richman Is the True Bard of Massachusetts

There’s Johnny Rotten laughing that he doesn’t remember the words while the rhythm kicks and drives. The bass is muddled but insistent, louder with every measure, angry that no one’s joined in. Johnny yells to stop so that someone can feed him his lines. The volume drops, but the band never does. Suddenly this song, a cover of the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” — which I’ve always heard as a song about being young and excited and about the thrill that comes when life is yet to be discovered — suddenly this song is about the drum and bass and power and about playing whatever you want to play, because this is your band too, and who cares if the lead singer knows the words?

Eventually Paul [Cook, the drummer] shouts the first sounds: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!”

He waits for Johnny to pick it up, but he doesn’t, so Paul adds “Roadrunner roadrunner!” and the band runs, or really they just keep going like they did before, pounding even more intensely. Johnny Rotten sings the way anyone would if they were forced to perform what they half-remembered. He mumbles random syllables [actual transcription: uhlalalalala] and shouts what words he knows: “Going faster miles an hour!” “With the radio on!” Somehow he remembers that there’s a verse about Stop & Shop, maybe because “Stop ‘N Shop” sounds vaguely exotic.

It’s impossible to call the cover better. I’m not even sure that I would call the cover good if I weren’t so deeply in love with the original. But there’s something enervating about the way the Sex Pistols, an ocean away, dive into a song that screams “I’m in love with Massachusetts,” and which celebrates neon lights in the cold, the AM radio, and route 128 (when it’s dark outside). It’s exhilarating to hear the song explode with a kinetic energy so different from the tight, organ-propelled original.

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Why Jonathan Richman Is the True Bard of Massachusetts

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