Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Roadrunner by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Written by Jonathan Richman and performed with the Modern Lovers. Several recorded versions exist. Here’s a version released by Beserkely records. Here’s an early recorded version.  Here’s a live version from 1973. Here’s a version recorded live in 1998 for a Joey Ramone Tribute. YOU can find others, incuding covers, on YouTube.

Sometimes you just have to drive. Late at night, find a highway and drive. No particular place to go. Turn the radio up loud (or CD or MP3 player). If you’re near Boston, maybe you take the car out onto Route 128 or drive up and down the Mass Pike; Massachusetts late at night with the radio on. The tires hum, the music sets a beat and maybe your heart matches it all, a Zen triad out on the highway, passing under the power lines, passing pine trees in the dark, going faster miles an hour.  Now you’re a roadrunner, in love with the modern world, Massachusetts late at night, when it’s cold outside and you got the power, you got the magic and you feel alive.

If you’re making that drive on Route 128 in Massachusetts or up and down 95 in the Carolinas or cutting across I-10 or maybe Route 80 pushing across Nebraska, you might tune into Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers and their exuberant road song, “Roadrunner.” Propelled by Jerry Harrison’s bass (he later joined the Talking Heads) and David Robinson’s drums (he later joined the Cars), Jonathan Richman hones the music to make you feel that light night drive, all sung in a voice of Richman’s typical child-like wonder, where even the neon of the Stop and Shop glows with hope and meaning.

This Modern Lovers staked a place in history, channeling the Velvet Underground, chasing the perfect three chord song, committing to a low-fi sound before anyone could put a name on such a thing, stripping down the 70’s excesses before the Ramones ever stepped on the stage at CBGB’s or the Sex Pistols ever thought to throw up on old ladies in airports (the Sex Pistols once tried to record this song, failing because Johnny Rotten was too drunk to make it work).  Of course, one measures their mark not in the number of records sold, but in the intensity of experience of those who did listen and the echoes heard in other bands to follow.

It’s not history that has me dialing this song up, it’s the rhythm of the road and the feel of the forever late night sky and the belief in the music that I’m not alone and I can go faster miles an hour. It is that odd feeling of setting out all alone, feeling displaced, disconnected, yet the road and the music envelopes you, and Roadrunner distills that moment:

I’m in love with modern moonlight
128 when it’s dark outside
I’m in love with Massachusetts
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
Like the roadrunner
That’s right

This band made some special music in the early 70’s. You can track down Astral Plane and Pablo Picasso (“Some people try to pick up girls and get called assholes/This never happened to Pablo Picasso”). The center couldn’t hold, members spun out to join other bands that made bigger splashes and more money, though maybe never to capture something so rare as they put together as the Modern Lovers. Jonathan Richman still performs solo, showing up at odds times in Farrelly movies and on Conan O’Brien, singing about that Summer Feeling with such earnestness that it will break your heart or Dancing in the Lesbian Bar to find some freedom.


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