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The Schmooze

Why Jonathan Richman Is the True Bard of Massachusetts

Image by Einar Einarsson Kvaran/Wiki Commons

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.

The cover is on YouTube where anyone can fall down a Sex Pistols rabbit hole and stumble on it. I first learned about it from Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, his extended riff on early punk, the Situationists, and Dada. Learning about the Sex Pistols’ cover of “Roadrunner” from a book of cultural studies is only slightly more cool than the way I first discovered “Roadrunner”: it was on the ESPN compilation album, “Slam Jams, Vol. 1.” I bought the CD because of the ESPN connection, but it started an enduring love of New Wave and post-Punk. I’m not sure when I realized that the voice behind the Modern Lovers was named Jonathan Richman and if I realized that he was Jewish and if I thought that mattered.

In December, 2013, the State Administration and Oversight Committee held a hearing on whether to name “Roadrunner” the official rock song of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Originally proposed almost a year earlier by Joyce Linehan, the publicist who became an influential political activist, the Roadrunner campaign was supposed to celebrate the Boston arts scene and to enshrine the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts. Instead — cue the “Behind the Music” narrator — it tore music fans apart.

South Shore lawmakers introduced legislation to make Aerosmith’s “Dream On” the official rock song. Newspapers and radio shows conducted polls to see what listeners preferred. Think pieces were thought. Jack Hamilton of Slate brilliantly defined the battle of the bands as a battle over class and education. The issue even made a cameo in the race to replace Tom Menino as mayor of Boston. Current mayor Marty Walsh had introduced the Roadrunner bill as a member of the state house and he’s since hired Linehan as his chief of policy.

None of this controversy should have surprised anyone who follows Massachusetts politics. In 2006, a bill was proposed to make the Fluffernutter the official sandwich. It was debated and shot down. In 2009, another bill was introduced to make the Fluffernutter the official sandwich. It was debated and shot down. We take naming things “official” very seriously in Massachusetts.

I’m anti-Fluffernutter, but I’m unabashedly pro-“Roadrunner.” I’ve spent the last year listening to “Roadrunner” over and over, thinking about how much I loved the song when I was 13 and lived in the suburbs and driving really did seem like liberation. I’ve spent the last year thinking about how much I still love it now. I wondered how I could ever describe the breathtaking last 63 seconds of the song when, without warning, Richman starts a call and response with the other Modern Lovers — and especially the last 51 seconds when Richman overflows the time signature with extra words and phrases, when the rest of the band desperately tries to keep the rock song going while Richman jams in disconnected pieces of language. It’s amateurish in the best senses of the word: full of love and seemingly spontaneous.

But all the reasons I love “Roadrunner” are all the reasons that “Dream On” partisans hate it. “Dream On” hides nothing and tells us, well, to dream on, to aspire. To conquer stadiums and judge “American Idol.” “Roadrunner” may be about Massachusetts, but it’s actually about nothing. Richman’s music is the soundtrack of daily life, the minutiae of what we see and do and hear and imagine. Lines like “4 o’clock in the afternoon in the Fenway / I have my heart in my hands…” disarm us because we know that Richman would say 3 or 5 if that was the exact hour and amount of light he wanted to describe.

“Roadrunner” vs. “Dream On” is a debate about what we want pop music to say and do. Does pop-music need to be aspirational — does it need to tell us to dream big or party hard or fail spectacularly — or can it, like poetry, like prose, be used to express the feelings that come from the most ordinary parts of life?

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, Massachusetts, in 1951. Brian Eno famously said, “I think everyone who bought [the first Velvet Underground album] started a band.” That began with Richman. He heard Lou Reed and started to play guitar. He moved to New York and befriended the band and its manager and producer. He stuck around for a while, but he didn’t catch on as a musician and the Velvet Underground petered out.

Richman moved back to Boston, but not before taking a trip to Europe and Israel. It was 1970 and he fell in love with the Israeli desert. His biographer, Tim Mitchell, claims that Richman made the decision to start a band while staring at a full moon one night in Jerusalem. The Holy Land affects people that way, but still the story is almost too perfect to believe. It’s as if Richman were a character in an Agnon short story, drawn out by the moon, given the rare power to hide deeply learned and serious themes behind silly little lyrics.

The original Modern Lovers only left behind a few demos and one self-titled album. “Roadrunner” easily stands out, but the first album is somewhere between very good and great. At times it sounds too much like a Velvet Underground impression. Other times, when the keyboard takes over and Richman lets his unique vision seep into the lyrics, the band sounds impossibly original, art rock with a suburban mind.

Richman never sounded like that again. The odd part about enshrining “Roadrunner” as the state rock song is how different its sounds are from the rest of his work. The Sex Pistols could explode “Roadrunner” in the studio. His solo music is better suited for Flight of the Conchords.

Yet the solo music highlights what makes “Roadrunner” so powerful and enduring. Richman’s songwriting is beyond mundane: the topics of his songs are downright boring. Even his “party anthems” are restrained, fuddy-duddy. Ke$ha tells us to make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young. Miley tells us a) that she’s just being Miley, and b) that if they’re playing her song she’ll put her hands up and things will be ok. Richman tells us on “Parties in the U.S.A.” that there was a lot of social strife in the ‘60s, but there were also a lot of neighborhood block parties, and now everyone has louder stereo equipment.

But what Richman does more powerfully than anyone else is embody the Punk Spirit. In “Lipstick Traces,” Marcus claimed that punk wasn’t initially about attitude, it wasn’t about clothes, and it wasn’t even about a chord progression. At its core, punk is about de-rarefying music. Punk was about pissing on the gates of music and letting everyone in, no matter their level of talent. Make music if you’re moved to make music.

That’s what we see in Richman, even when he became a great musician. There’s a song of his on “I, Jonathan,” called “Twilight in Boston,” that almost isn’t a song. It’s a spoken word poem set to folk and soft rock strumming, with a sung chorus. Jonathan takes us on a precise trip through the city. He starts by the public garden, “where the swan boats are / by the entrance that goes up to Beacon street.” He walks us into Kenmore square, then down the Riverway and the Jamaicaway, off in search of adventure. It seems as if he’s describing what he sees, but the song actually “takes place” in his mind. He’s alone somewhere, in a studio, remembering the walks he used to take in Boston and the suburbs, another wandering Jew looking for home.

Ultimately, it’s that sense that makes “Roadrunner” the perfect choice for State Rock Song: it doesn’t wow us with the parties we don’t go to — and prey on our collective FOMO — it tells us that nothing stops us from picking up a guitar and revealing what matters.

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