(Parts One and Two there to be glanced at.)
7. “Roadrunner #2” (not to be confused with “Roadrunner (Twice)”)
“Roadrunner #2” is also off The Original Modern Lovers, recorded by Fowley in 1973, the album’s final track, as I mentioned earlier. It’s the shortest version I know of, not quite breaking the three minute mark.
“#2” doesn’t even bother with the “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6”, beginning straight away with the dominant riff, which is played by the band, whoever the Modern Lovers were at that moment (Richman claims, in the liner notes, that Mars Bonfire (i.e. the dude who wrote “Born To Be Wild”, apparently) played guitar on this version, instead of him), as tightly as it can conceivably be played, so it emerges into view machinelike, an engine already in motion. If “#1” veered in and out of its set path, reckless on its own energy, “#2”, like “(Once)”, has a beat close to an unwavering metronome, a gallop which never wavers. We enter in medias res and our job is to keep up.
“Roadrunner”s #1 and #2 share the same brand of you-are-there energy, the inimitable intimacy that can only be engendered by some shitty overworked amps in a controlled setting (Fowley’s is a specific brand of non-production); what really distinguishes one from the other might be this tension, the feeling of being a step or two behind. And apparently, Richman feels it too, at least during the first few seconds, hollering his roadrunners as he tries to assert himself in the opening verse. Unlike us, he manages it soon enough, getting a foothold into the groove when he states “I’m in love with my own loneliness”. Its presence is especially notable as it takes the place of the more typical “I’m in love with the modern world”, a line which will come later, blurted in the final climactic “Radio On” frenzy.
(And, Christ, can you imagine anyone else singing that line, singing it outside of the template set down by Richman? As a self-sufficient sentiment, divorced from context, it has, no doubt, launched a hundred thousand bad songs, valentines to entitled self-pity sung with either a lazy sneer or ponderous self-regard. They don’t say “I’m in love with my own loneliness” but by God they mean it, loneliness cultivated for effect and as affect, the emphasis on the “I”, “I” having no real interest in meeting up with you, sharing anything really, the sole reason for the song being “I”’s satisfaction in your willingness to cross that distance and so validate the presence of “I”.
How Richman makes that otherwise isn’t quite alchemy but, hell, it’s probably close, by which I mean he’s just Richman, i.e. his voice has the quality of meeting the listener face to face – it’s a piece of crude simplicity which he points in one way or another to get the job done, all purpose, all intimacy, no fuss.)
As the song proceeds, Richman returns to this, mentioning his loneliness, being alone, lonely, not having a girlfriend (“…but I don’t mind”), every statement emphatic or made so by the rapid succession dictated by the song’s short length, so that first mention can’t help but stand tall. It’s been embedded in the song all along – why else embrace the cold loneliness but the lack of any other embrace? – but here it feels foregrounded, given full vent.
In a neat and probably unintended bit of sequencing on The Original Modern Lovers, “#2” follows “Girlfren” (the name given on the back of the album but known everywhere else as “Girlfriend”, true believers), a song not so much preoccupied as in helpless thrall to that feeling. It’s one of the more pensive early Modern Lovers tracks, a quiet cracked voice confession of vulnerability set to a country-blues-ish guitar twang; Richman wanders around Boston, to the Museum Of Fine Art to look at the Cezannes, to Fenway Park – social places, places of comfort and consolation, things he wouldn’t need to search out if he had a girlfriend.* That’s the essence of the song, Richman full-on indulging in one of the most likeable forms of female objectification: the idea of a girlfriend, the mid-to-late adolescent male (mostly) longing for that idea, the conceptual girlfriend who’s less than a salve for lust than a salve for (yup) loneliness; someone who’s a vague ache throughout the day and a distinct absence – the hand that you’re not holding – when you’re idle.
Instead you just hold your heart in your hands and hope someone will notice – thanks to the juxtaposition, it’s easy to imagine Richman carrying it from one song to the next, his voice still cracking, no longer crying but with his tear stains visible in the night, lust and frustration sure to carry this Roadrunner along well after the fuel gauge hits E. You can chart the songs in relation to each other beyond this anecdotal progression – we might peg “Girlfren” as “loneliness as a stark burden” and “Roadrunner” as “loneliness as a strength”. Or, more elegantly: “loneliness defining Richman vs. Richman defining loneliness”, passive versus active.
Correspondences of that sort in Richman’s early work, the songs that lean angsty and introspective, are a given. They don’t so much sprawl into a web of connections as form a straight line of continuity, 90% of that catalogue comprising a before-and-after scenario, two different kinds of frustration: the pure naïve longing for a girlfriend, lust and intimacy intertwined as they often are in real life (“Girlfriend”, “Astral Plane”, “I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms”, “Someone I Care About”, etc.) and the messy actuality of having made that connection (“I’m Straight”, “She Cracked”, “Hospital”, “Dignified And Old”, etc.).* (From the way this latter category often boils down to desperate pleading for the other party to come to her senses, realize herself, and change her ways, evidently Richman was fond of self-destructive ladies.) “Roadrunner” works as something like a bridge between these two, a makeshift one – Richman’s still lonely, still without a girlfriend, but “the highway is your girlfriend” and he’s in love with his own loneliness. Straddling those categories, a song which stands as a consummation, an expression of absolute satisfaction, without want – there’s only Richman, the music, and the world.**
“Roadrunner #2” isn’t the exception which proves that rule, but of all the versions it may come closest; if the song is a race, here you can get an idea of what’s to be outrun.
8. About a decade ago, when I was in school, I listened to “Roadrunner #1” constantly, at least once a day for roughly a year, more or less (maybe less, probably more). As far as obsessions go, obsessions with a pop song are the least debilitating, the most common, fixations which fit easily into most daily routines, so I like to think I was alright. My first exposure to the song was inauspicious: it was good, probably great – not quite a fully immersive experience, a stop-everything-for-the-next-few-hours epiphany like say “Heart Of Glass” or “You Got What You Got”, but, like most songs I like, a notable event with a few lingering sensations, stray bits of resonance I’d happily return to.
I got stuck on it via a cognitive leap or two. “I’m in the modern world”… It’s a wonder of a phrase. bold and stupid and brilliant, multivalent enough to mean anything. Like much of the song’s ever-changing lyrics, it feels like something spoken in the heat of the moment, with conviction but without much forethought – a declaration of love like you see in the third acts of movies, the kind which, if it had been spoken earlier, would have saved our lovers a lot of trouble. But here it’s, more often than not, spoken well before the first verse ends, so you’re stuck with it. “Roadrunner” is full of a whole lotta love, “the modern world” being just one of a collect-‘em’-all set, but, as I said earlier, if there’s any phrase remembered in its wake, this is it.
As it is, it’s one of the finer “fuck you”s to uncertainty you’ll find, really, attractive enough that you wanna hold tight to it. Or at least you do if you’re twenty-one and you’re lonely and you’re half convinced that you’re doomed and half convinced that you can make up the rules of the game as you go along, no sweat. What it really means, who can say? The only way to vouch for it is to say it out loud and taste the conviction as it exits your mouth.
To Richman, it probably means nothing more than the world outside the windshield, “…the modern suburban bleakness” as he calls it in “Roadrunner #2”, with a lot of rough equivalents besides – Massachusetts when it’d dark outside, etc. (the lyrics change alot, man) – to cover its ass interpretation-wise; this isn’t Broadcast or mid-period Scott Walker or “She Came In Through The Bathroom Window”, y’know? Richman’s songs mean what they say and say what they mean; they’re about crushes on bank tellers, wanting a girlfriend, Vincent Van Gogh, the undue social weight of “marriage” versus love and fidelity, about feeling more alive than you’ve ever felt before.
“Roadrunner” is a grasp at the sublime, putting it in modern suburban bleakness terms – a direct statement like the rest, but also an invocation of something else, a listing of a set of conditions surrounding an inherently undefinable state. So maybe it’s okay to stew in this love for the modern world, let it fall from the song as a payload of ambiguity.
Carrying the line around with me like charm, I’d dwell on it and, naturally, it would haul the rest of the song along with it. You don’t need the ability to write a song as brilliant as “Roadrunner” to get as drunk on your surroundings, to stand properly in awe of the vague all-encompassing generalization of stuff, as Richman is – not to be too on the nose, but I had my own love for the modern world, albeit one a bit more solipsistic, aestheticized. Like the song, I’d let music serve as the soundtrack to what I saw outside my (passenger seat) car window, with the buildings and road signs outside the glass there as patterns of circumstance, an accompanying rhythm. Sometimes (frequently) I swooned to people in hallways, moving in every direction, obeying their own rhythm, people being only themselves, pursuing their own plot – a perfectly coordinated chaos worth contemplating, with no overarching occasion to bind them in this panorama of motion beyond, let’s say, a Thursday afternoon in early June. Or, at the party I was at last week, seeing tree leaves glistening under a fluorescent street light from a light constant rain at 5:30 AM, not so much reflecting as absorbing the light into themselves as a weak pulse aglow against the violet sky, with excess light dripping onto the ground. There were plenty of situations like that, mysteries in the capital-M sense which dot the day. You fall out of sync with things and you get a glimpse of something else.
These little things, they were always there – the song came amidst them, giving things a name, an encapsulating phrase. I’d listen to “Roadrunner #1” and “#2” in frequent proximity, as the bookends they made on the Bomp comp or just as random components of whatever today’s soundtrack was, so a love for the modern world and a love for your own loneliness – lines which jut out easy after way too many replays have worn most of the other details down to barely perceptible nubs – bound together in my head. As I perceived them, they weren’t interchangeable but connected, parts of the song’s private equation, being in love with your own loneliness the likely flipside to upending your reality to the rhythm of the radio or, more precisely in my case, the next song playing on the mix in my headphones – the solitude which is a precondition of that freedom.
In that light, it bears stating: these buildings, these people, these glowing leaves seen when I was near exhaustion from dancing for five hours straight, don’t exist as beauty without me, the gilded frame of perception I can’t help but tote around wherever I go (even the bathroom!). It’s not too hard to shift the song like a kaleidoscope and read it from this angle – the music, the world, this love for whatever, as a pretext for exuberance in the void, getting lost in yourself, a reverie about venturing out into the familiar and find yourself lost in the hall of mirrors. (Somewhere between the earthbound and ethereal associations the song conjured up was a little realization: to declare your love for something is simply a way of saying you’re not a part of it.) Following this trail of thought (half-thought, really), you’d fall – or just dive – down a trapdoor into the comfy chasm of solipsism, uncovering that beneath this love for the commonplace beauty of chance (or something) was, one supposes, an assertion of the self. Was that “this modern feeling”? Weighing yourself and teeming miraculous horrible reality on the scales and finding the two balanced? Is that why so many of the lines leave Richman’s lips as epiphanies realized the instant he says them?
Within those parameters, you don’t necessarily need to set course down Route 128 or any hallways of happenstance. Whatever the “modern feeling” was, I’m pretty sure I mainlined it daily way back when, carrying my modern world around with me, a place which for the sake of this ramble I’m imagining as a lot like one of those scenic painted backgrounds which were pedaled into motion for amusement back in ye olden times. It was (and is) a place not so much constructed as curated, culled from books, movies, music, everything I could find, past and present there to plunder for salient pieces, “Roadrunner” among them, to form its impromptu pattern. When I first heard the song (and maybe forever) that was me; I may have worked at a movie theater or a bookstore, but my real job was being the most active passive receptacle I could be. Which isn’t to say I lived in denial of the world, receding into my little shell of obsession and reducing my interaction with folks to three or four trivial and increasingly irritating topics of conversation – no, my disconnect was probably more minor: drifting along, playing the expected role of “student in his early twenties”, but rationalizing everything outside of my head within some ingenious and delusional precept of “change thyself and the world will follow”. Maybe you can relate? I didn’t pin the sacred objects of my taste like butterflies to a board as gather details from the margins – “Ray And Maggie Down At Leo’s”, Rosalind Russell pulling the image toward her while speaking on the phone amongst an audience of character actor reporters in His Girl Friday, the sudden wall-of-sound intro to Belle & Sebastian’s “Dirty Dream #2”, time portrayed in basic sequential motion and as stuttering movement by the strobe light cars at the intersection in Happy Together, etc. ad infinitum – to form “chains of rapport and intimate knowledge”, to quote Manny Farber, a very mutable environment made up of intuitive links and correspondences; most importantly, it was a place to be, ever-shifting but always fitted to suit. “Roadrunner” stood as something like a synecdoche of that life, giving myself a glimpse of my own turtle-like way of living inside my own head, when maneuvering through each day often seemed like a little lonesome reverie – a part representative of the whole.
But enough. That trail of association can go on for a while. Plainly, I listened again and again and again, to see if this swirl of detail meant the same thing this time as it did when I heard it last. If I did drive, the song would have accompanied me wherever I went and I imagine every day would be a closed system, listening to a song about listening to music while driving while driving***; instead I rode the bus (with a set of headphones welded on tight), so it was an imperfect one, but pretty damn potent in broad strokes.
*“Roadrunner”, content-wise, is apiece with “Girlfriend”, “Walk Up The Street”, and maybe a few other songs I’ve forgotten about, all of which boil down, in terms of content, to “wandering around, being lonely”; “Walk Up The Street” is about roaming around your neighborhood and nearby environs when you have nothing else to do, making a base effort to escape boredom and loneliness. It’s not especially interesting – a bit of perfunctory punk which won’t wreck the atmosphere, something best heard between two better songs.
**This paradigm ignores a few songs. “Modern World” and “Old World”, earlier mentioned, are both appreciation pieces, off-hand manifestoes about a love for the day to day in its totality. The glorious “Government Center”, included as the final track on later editions of The Modern Lovers, puts those manifestoes into action, i.e. it feels like it was smuggled in from Richman’s post-75 period. It’s a song about putting on a show for a bunch of hardworking office drones stuck at the government center, making them feel alright with the power of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s short, sweet, and awesome.
***Classic rock, after all, exists for a reason. It may have once, and probably briefly, referred to the popular standard of rock, but that notion has long been superseded by a specific use – it is music convenient for driving. You can have a fine time with any music (especially “Roadrunner”) on while driving, but this is music which serves that exact purpose, music which is subordinate and functional, ala Erik Satie and muzak; it doesn’t demand one’s attention and, as of now, is there to only enhance the driving experience, fitting itself into the rhythms of the road. No one has listened to a Foghat song outside of a car since December 3, 1987.
Click here to head on over to the far less autobiographical and far more conclusive Part 4, because why not?