8. “Roadrunner” (Live 1973)
If both versions off The Original Modern Lovers would seem to come with the immediacy and energy of a live performance, this one genuinely is live, and the difference makes itself known pretty quickly. Which is understandable; even the most haphazard recording session comes with an implicit layer of self-consciousness – the performer aware, more than usual, of the song as a text and reacting accordingly. It’s close to yet not quite perfectionism (which is probably antithetical to “Roadrunner”), but there is a certain tidiness from the listener’s POV, each version a concentrated attempt to get something right.
Whatever it is, it’s notably absent here. It works within the general standards of classification which arise as I go about essayin’ and assayin’, cataloguing, putting things on display and all in a row, i.e. it’s early and noisy. But relative to the versions which surround it, it speaks only to its own moment, a moment which lasts exactly four minutes and fifty-five seconds.
For one thing, the tempo is slower than usual, slow enough that, as one Youtube commenter notes, it’s easy to hear the seedy endless glory of “Sister Ray” underneath, the Velvet Underground song from which Richman filched “Roadrunner”’s main chords. Even when we’re past the Stop-N-Shop and well down Route 128, et cetera, you half-suspect the song could, in fact, turn into “Sister Ray”, no big deal – why not?
It’s that kind of performance, by which I mean it’s a performance which largely deflects drama and tension, the lynchpins of every other version. With not much velocity, the song, like “Sister Ray”, becomes an exercise not in movement but in repetition – the lyrics come in quick steady bursts, with enough space between them to stall momentum so each line seems a self-sufficient event, disconnected phrases spoken with intensity but no urgency. Compound this with Richman not so much venturing way outside the song’s stock lyrical motifs (a first impression) as twisting them, gleefully fucking around, and you’re left with a funny state which makes the vocals register to the ear as all upper-case but without exclamation marks, each one a near-non sequitur-ish placard: “HEY KIDS, DON’T YOU LOVE THE DARK?”; ”WE THINK LIKE ROADRUNNERS”; “AND WE LOVE GOD’S WORLD”; etc.
The pace encourages you to sing along, “Louie Louie”-style, which you would – with time-travel-assisted first hand exposure and maybe a little alcohol in your system – if anyone could sing along to “Roadrunner” beyond the first verse and the punctuating shouts of “Radio On”. Even Richman can’t escape that heavy sway, not giving much of the typical push and pull in the closing climax – he’s just sputtering phrases, and then near-random syllables, against it, the obvious loser in this bout.
None of which really leads anywhere or at least anywhere of overt significance – lyrically, there’s no “x marks the spot”, no bumps to slow us down, the textual concerns here happily tossed to the elements, the elements being tonight’s audience, whatever chemistry has been established between them and the band so far, the adrenaline that’s accrued as the songs on the playlist have been checked off, et cetera. Why should the song go anywhere when we’re clearly somewhere already, locked in a nice vortex of a groove, a force strong enough that the song becomes a joyous expenditure of energy, running on its own fumes. We’re all in this together!
So naturally you wanna move, or at least bob your head a bit.
9. “Roadrunner (Thrice)”
This was released as the flipside to “The Morning Of Our Lives” single by Beserkley back in 1977. It’s another live performance, though quite different from the last; less a ramshackle bit of circumstance than a complete statement, something cohesive, thought through.
I don’t know when exactly it was recorded, but it feels like a definite notch on the timeline, ’74 or ‘75; various details – the coming shift Richman’s music would take in the mid-seventies and his consequent dismissal of his earlier catalogue (“Roadrunner” being the obvious emblem of that catalogue), this version’s eight-and-a-half minute length (the longest readily available; there may be longer ones, but I’ll leave those to bootleg collectors keeping the faith, wily torrentors, and anyone with patience enough to venture far into all those double-digit Youtube pages), the overall wistful mood (of which, see below) – conspire to make “(Thrice)” feel valedictory. It wouldn’t be the last time Richman would play the song but, relative to the other versions, it feels conclusive, the probable endpoint not of the song, but of Richman’s relationship to the song.
It’s a curious “epic”, insofar as you’re required to call it one by virtue of duration, eight-and-a-half minutes being just a slight violation of the common boundary of “pop song” and a footstep past the threshold of “imposing bit of reality”. It’s not that Sigur Ros song that played on my college radio station for three years straight or “I Am The Resurrection” – there’s no striving for effect, no presumption of effort on the part of the listener or the performer. It’s very much “Roadrunner” in its everyday ambition, the familiar dramatic structure of countdown, acceleration, bridge, and culminating chorus – the song isn’t built for flourishes. Or, rather, the song is a flexible and durable machine built precisely for flourishes, but not for excess. It can carry all the weight you, I, or Richman care to place, which is why that “finally” seems so false, why I’m writing this silly self-evident essay.
More specifically, “(Thrice)” is close tonally to “Roadrunner (Once)”, beginning with calm certainty (“Well here we go…”) and proceeding very simply from there; Richman’s voice takes a spot a few feet above the music, absolutely secure there, devoid of any tension, making sure to pull both the sound and us along with him as he journeys through the Boston outskirts. About two-and-a-half minutes in, just beyond the opening verses, the speed of the music subsides, slowing to a basic necessary movement; the song then unfurls into a catalogue of sensation, Richman patiently surveying what there is to see and feel, letting the memory at the song’s center decompress and expand so that the landscape comes anew. It’s salient to “Roadrunner” but it can get lost as we (or rather, I) listen to it repeatedly, as it becomes just another pop song, the perfect opening track on a playlist or a mix cd, a thing-for-use with a generalized meaning which has slowly and subtly overtaken what it actually is: an exploration without a pressing goal, only intent upon seeing what there is to see.
And everything there is to see elicits a quiet astonishment, these places taking care to reveal themselves to us while time blinks by in the freezing night. The song is always a present tense affair but here you can feel it receding into the past, when the urgency and haste have dropped away and all that remains is the world, uncluttered with notion or purpose, this place or that place as it was at the moment when it crossed the eye for a few seconds and let itself be seen. Across versions, this is the narrative we can read, one not of progression – the song remains its ineffable self however you play it – but of approach: the rush through the night slowing so that a world of lights and pulsing abstraction becomes one of stark beauty.
It’s a full meal, covering its chosen space meticulously, enough so that you could use the song as a handy travelogue, which is exactly what Laura Barton did in a very fine essay for The Guardian. The aforementioned objects of his affection – loneliness, the modern world, whatever – are present, but what’s inescapable is the literal terrain; by the time he states “I’m in love with the land where I grew up”, he’s being redundant. All my preoccupation with solipsism, the self, perception, and so forth slides easy, frictionlessly, off “(Thrice)” – I can say no more than the song says.
When the climactic round of “Radio On” comes, there’s the expected surge of energy, the song returning to its default mode, but Richman doesn’t lose himself in its frenzy (as is typical in every other version) – his stance is controlled; he’s still there, pointing our way toward the exit as ever, but just a little more distant from the moment, the better, maybe, to savor it and not let it swallow him whole. Whatever release was there came earlier if you were paying attention; it’s enough that the song snaps back into shape, that the momentum returns to see us off.