1. In part, this began a few years back, when I was hanging out with a friend, listening to music. Or rather, singing and dancing ridiculously to music, because playing it cool in most contexts, music foremost, isn’t our style. I put “Roadrunner” on, probably “Roadrunner #1” – thankfully we both knew it well, so our silly singing and silly dancing were executed with confidence, which may or may not have been more entertaining, but it was certainly something.
After it ended and before we could begin another furious round of singing and dancing to whatever song came on next, she asked me a question:
“Who played that?”
2. Another seed was planted when I read Lipstick Traces last year. Greil Marcus opens his section on “Roadrunner” with this: “As Richman finally recorded it, ‘Roadrunner’ was the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest.”
Well who doesn’t love a bit of hyperbole, especially as delivered by Monsieur Marcus? Before you’re halfway through reading it, you’re already immersed in the slight echo the sentence makes as it resonates, steady and unwavering, through a large and dimly lit lecture hall. And who am I to disagree? The anecdote I relayed above certainly testifies to the song’s “obviousness”. The “strangeness” fits as well, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.
If anything in that statement irks, it may be that “finally”. It implies cause and effect, as if the song’s distinction resides in a specific gesture or a last dab of paint, the x-element common to the heroic narrative of the artist which transforms a pop song into “the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest.” One can somewhat understand Marcus’s position – it simplifies the essayist’s job tremendously to state at the onset that this is a closed matter, that the aesthetic object at hand is a concrete thing; the man has an underlying thesis and Jonathan Richman and “Roadrunner” are only stepping stones there – that “finally” obliterates any number of pesky footnotes.*
3. “Roadrunner” isn’t quite as stable as Marcus makes it out to be. You can, like my friend, let the song’s exuberance carry along, fully partake in that “obviousness” and “strangeness” without having heard “Roadrunner (Once)” – the common title for the version Marcus speaks of, a title which highlights itself as a creature of circumstance – or any of the other versions Richman recorded between 1969 and 1975, when the song was still a going concern for him. She knew it from covers, live performances, as a standard among punk and garage bands, as a song you could love for itself, something shared rather than fetishized, as perhaps befitting Richman’s own Statue-Of-Liberty-like generosity.
4. But if – like me, like Marcus – you can’t help but follow a trail back to a presumable point of origin – some easy signifier of authenticity, recording-wise – the path quickly becomes diffuse. There are, let’s say, eight versions direct from the source, all recognizable relations to each other, each a subtle or grand shifting of the song’s emphases – the road markers along the song’s path are identical, but a constant flux marks the lyrics and speed. They’re distinct enough that the term “version” seems more apt than the more hierarchical “variant”; none of them quite override each other – like any song, the best version is the one you like.
So you can generalize “Roadrunner” quite easily into “music and the road and the night” – key ingredients to plenty of good songs (“music and the road and the night” – both the title of a poem and the poem itself) – along with many an attendant theme for the listener to latch on to: rebellion, escape, lust, alienation, teenage kicks, [insert subject here]; those work within it, some quite well, but the song isn’t reducible to them. “Music and the road and the night” is really what the song is about entirely, detail compounded upon detail – nothing more than the grandeur of the world seen on a freezing night from behind a steering wheel travelling down Route 128 with the AM radio as your personal soundtrack. Even when the song reaches beyond those specifics, when Richman declares his love for something, something concrete or abstract, indeterminate, but absolutely in love – with the modern world, with loneliness, with Massachusetts, with whatever – it’s something which refers back to this hermetic state, as he drives for the sake of driving alone in the night. From performance to performance, “Roadrunner” feels out that exact moment, sees how much weight it can carry, and relays it to the listener as a concentrated burst, an anecdote elaborated upon at length, or some form in between. Nostalgia is too weak a term – better to invoke Proust and describe it as Time Regained.
The song is a memory continually unfolding.
5. Fittingly, “Roadrunner” made its verifiable Billboard-approved mark on the culture as a thing dispersed, with two of those versions – “Roadrunner (Once)” b/w “Roadrunner (Twice)” – released on a seven-inch which hit #11 on the UK charts back in 1977 (Holy Moley! Top Of The Pops! Dancing ladies!).
“Roadrunner (Once)” was recorded (“finally”, perhaps) in 1974 and first released as a split seven-inch with Earth Quake, “Friday On My Mind” being their contribution. The song next appeared on the Beserkley Chartbusters Vol. 1 compilation before ascending to said seven-inch glory a few years later as a UK-only release. As it is, it’s a perfectly formed piece of pop, with all its energy pointed inward, an unfussy exercise not in adrenaline but in effect, a full flexing of the charm and exhilaration implicit in the song, clean and deliberate. This is the version with the Greil Marcus Seal O’ Approval and there’s little to add to his own excellent analysis in Lipstick Traces. It may be the only version of the song you’ll find not intended as a demo or originally recorded live, something maybe intended as a final draft, though who knows? The only other version of “Roadrunner” with such production value is probably a cover of “Roadrunner”.
“Roadrunner (Twice)”, the flipside, may be the earliest version recorded, originating as a demo produced by John Cale in 1972, making it the possible alpha to “(Once)”’s omega. It arrives in the ears fully formed, in no way a rough draft, but how could it be otherwise? For many, this is the definitive “Roadrunner”, labeled as such, no numeral nomenclature attached, as the opening track on The Modern Lovers album, a collection of those Cale-produced demos along with extant tracks – the first LP and so the bearer of a not-insignificant amount of authorial weight. This, pre-internet, was the version most readily available, the one you’d find at your friendly local independent record store, the first remastered for CD. It’s perfectly fine on its own – one can imagine the joy of discovering it after “(Once)”, the raw and unkempt counterpoint to the completely calibrated a-side – but relative to the other versions it feels muffled under a thin layer of gauze, the immediacy and intimacy embodied in varying degrees elsewhere present here only theoretically.
The other versions soon followed – bootlegs quick to become official releases, live recordings assigned places on b-sides – all emerging after the fact. Well before the song had made mass impact Richman had put it to bed, playing it (along with pretty much every song he’d written up to then) infrequently, if at all. He’d written it in 1969 and played it, one can presume, as the certain set piece for every Modern Lovers show from then until the mid-seventies. Had it remained a regular bit of repertoire, it might have settled down, stayed in place like your more typical monuments, weighed to the earth by the burden of a pedestal. As it is, it’s a thing in motion.
*This essay can be read as that series of footnotes.