Ian Curtis on stage is really something to see.

So says I.

In Joy Division (D: Grant Gee, 2008), you don’t see much (if any) footage of him off stage, without a spotlight attached, and virtually every photo of him presented connects him to the band (press photos, concert stills, stuff captured during rehearsal, etc.), so there’s really no way of saying whether he was something to see in a more mundane context – Ian Curtis is always “Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division” and so inseparable from the story, a character, nearly a myth if you know how his story ends (which, if you’re watching the movie, you probably do). The rest of the band (the future New Order, a band I’m actually far more fond of) being, well, alive, escape this fate; they’re human after all, very real, present before us as either a series of regularly appearing close-ups – there to tell the tale – or in the live performances from the archives, where they do just that: perform, playing their parts both musically and as components contributing to the scene, figures filling out a “live show” template. (Peter Hook, probably the most earthbound figure here, highlights this functionality at one point (and I’m paraphrasing here, all apologies): ”When we were live, my only goal was that we sounded as good as we did in rehearsal.”)

If at those moments they’re fulfilling a role, Curtis, up front and center stage, is doing something else. Objectively he fulfills the requirement of a performance – Curtis vocalizes, attunes himself to the music, lets it guide his rhythm – but that’s the only visible seam in the experience presented, the necessary trace of affect. He never really interacts with anything else on screen though, nor does he seem capable of the awareness that would allow such interaction; his attention seems to extend, at most, three millimeters outside of himself, so the audience before him, the band behind him, and the camera directed his way may as well be lucky bits of circumstance, equivalent to furniture or the weather.

This feels apt – as a figure, “charisma” and “presence” are simultaneously appropriate and too weak to describe Curtis on stage. From the instant we see him in motion, he’s not so much a component of the scene as apiece with it, leaving everything else indistinct, furniture and weather notwithstanding. He’s not in the moment, engaged in the scene, but rather he carries the scene with him; the field of interest established doesn’t wax or wane according to anything that “happens”, but is defined exclusively by Curtis’ body, a body whose actions never refer to anything but itself.

“Nervous energy” is probably a faulty description – that phrase implies impulse, a chaotic swirl which can explode into exuberance as easily as it subsides into listlessness. Curtis’ movements are whole, sustained, both unrehearsed and certain; witnessing them, we suspect they can’t be executed otherwise, as if they were dictated from a trance (a comparison heard often in the movie), the actor picking up on some distant frequency.

“Trance” is pretty on the nose – from there you can no doubt (and “no duh”) extrapolate a connection between Curtis on-screen and off, specifically his battle with epilepsy. At its most elaborate, his body resembles the end point of an equation, a set of clearly delineated values of chaos and control interacting repeatedly in the vain hope of reaching stasis, cancelling out the remainder: his head still (near rigid) as can be above arms and torso in a state of stick figure frenzy, a jittery disconnect between limbs enacting actions which never flow from one to the next so much as shift into three or four different configurations per second (hit pause and every pose is easily measurable via protractor), while his legs twitch a precise unwavering line across the stage. As pure movement, it’s a drama unto itself, endlessly replayable, with release, catharsis, continually suspended for the sake of friction, a tension too tough to shake. This may be the most emblematic instance of Curtis on stage but, funny enough, it doesn’t feel climactic. This frenzy, we suspect, isn’t potential made fully manifest, just another expression of what was already there – as he sways choppily behind the mic or grasps it tight to his lips, intoning the lyrics while his body accommodates the beat as a gentle but definite pulse – the most kinetic end of a spectrum of motion. Whatever we perceive from Curtis, it’s plain at any given instant, however the variables shift, however it presents itself.

A more conventional performer par excellence, the kind keyed toward rapture (James Brown, for example, though feel free to insert your own fave), may serve as a neat contrast, i.e. someone intent upon leading the audience to a state of transcendence, the aforementioned release, giving a communal vent to emotions that have no conventional outlet beyond, say, sex. Curtis does something similar, but what is made manifest isn’t so much passion as interiority – he’s not projecting outward but giving us a view of something concentrated, something of undoubted and unknown significance conveyed through a vocabulary of (let’s call them) private gestures. To reframe this comparison, if the preacher is the working model for most pop performers, the tools of the trade being seduction, acceptance, communion, then Curtis’ stagebound qualities peg him as more akin to a shaman, who doesn’t spread the word so much as embody it.

What I’ll reach for to describe this is terribilita*, a bit rarefied but suitable; it translates into the all-too-loaded “terribleness” and might be generally defined as “awe-inspiring”. More exactly, it implies a brush with an ideal, the uncanny sensation which results from encountering something wholly and completely itself, an absolute. Regardless of your familiarity with the terminology**, you probably have your own points of reference w/r/t this quality: some proper Bressonian moment of ineffable stillness, a thrill-power throttled Jack Kirby double-splash page, whatever. What leaps to my mind is the titular figure (as portrayed by Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, standing at the threshold of the Zone a third of the way through the movie (click here and go to the 59 minute mark; unless you’re versed in Russian, don’t forget the closed captions); he’s a believer standing in a place which, to him, may as well be a footprint showing God’s passing, somewhere which is both Heaven and Hell, a man who’s witnessed more terribilita than he knows what to do with and so can’t help but be infected by it, and never moreso than then, as he – ecstatic and anguished and low-key all at once – tries to communicate this miracle to two doubtful dilettantes. Burdened by knowing the only thing worth knowing, he, at this moment, exists at the very edge of himself, aware that implicit in this state, haranguing these men, is every action he’s taken in his life thus far.

Naturally, moments like that are rare***, even in a Tarkovsky movie (though if there is a shortlist of artists who could possibly offer the absolute a comfortable and accommodating frame, he’s on it). Grant Gee and writer Jon Savage bring a whole mess of essayistic intent to Joy Division – documenting the band’s rise and abrupt fall (due to Curtis’ suicide) the better to view them as a cultural signifier of the threshold through which the past becomes whatever we call “the modern” in the early 21st century and, heaped onto that, of said progress reflected specifically in their hometown of Manchester (this latter bit means footage of lots o’ pretty cityscapes) – and there’s some (very loose) validity there, insofar as much of the music remains good ‘n’ potent; gauging the expiration date on art is probably a shell game, but I doubt the cultural moment for a song like “Ceremony” has passed yet. It’s all nice notions, kinda diffuse – Curtis, his presence, destabilizes everything, enough so that what’s left in his wake is a decent rote rock doc, albeit one that’s very lovely to look at. He justifies himself without a foundation of talking head testimony or the scaffolding of a dramatic arc; better to just stitch together performances and end up with a nice package of undivided moments – the pure stuff.

Or you could just watch this:

*”Transfiguration” is another good term, though a bit too weighty for me to wield at the moment.

**Originally gleaned from Alberto Manguel in Reading Pictures and gleaned by Manguel from Vasari’s Lives Of The Artists, where Vasari uses it as a key descriptor of the work of Michelangelo. So there.

***Though the last five minutes are a good contender as well.

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This was originally “published” in FA Online back in March 2011 via the good graces of the late great Martin Skidmore.

Comic Book Comics #5 (Evil Twin) by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

Pedagogical comics! I approve! Comics can’t all be syringes and scalpels about to be plunged into eyes, you know? I mean, those are my favorite – when, at the moment the number of exclamation marks on the page is at its most vigorous competition with the dollops of red coloring to be seen, our tale of terror gives way to a robed and snaggle-toothed framing device delivering some glorious self-cancelling moral replete with a pun groan-inducing enough to ensure that the occasional giggle punctuates my screams during the ensuing nightmares. But when whatever good graces I possess prevail, I’m bound toward my well-worn and near crumbling set of Rosary beads for a few dozen frenzied rounds of supplication and then the time-tested edu-tainment of a Larry Gonick tome as penance. Yes, Larry Gonick, he of the multi-volume Cartoon History Of The Universe and sundry related books – let’s accompany him as he glides with ease through the dense quagmire of millennia foregone; once a week you’ll hear me exclaim “Oh boy, Sumerians!” with the wide-eyed wonder of a now reclaimed innocence. “Do you not feel better, my child?” the Virgin Mary will say as her index finger, no doubt bearing a perpetual anointment of holy water, guides my eye’s passage from panel to panel. “Yes, Mother of God. Yes, I do.” Until the next cycle…

Alas, my own everyday existence, however mundane it may appear, is just dozens of these complex and overlapping rituals of pleasure, remorse, and redemption, whether they involve ghastly glee writ in four-color glory or certain other lonely rites which entail a locked closet with a towel shoved at the base of the door so that no light may penetrate and even I may presume not to know my own sin. Catholicism and it’s unending round of prostration – that’s a man’s life!

But worlds do collide, after all, and sometimes the easy equations falter. I’m thinking in particular of my first encounter with Comic Book Comics (issue three, specifically) – a tricky proposition. A glance revealed a familiar feel to the terrain – the anecdotal trod through a subsection of history (comics, natch): Julie Schwartz; Jack Kirby; Frank Gorshin and Adam West at an orgy – the classics! Reading a bit further and then it hit. There on the page: the EC Comics saga! William Gaines sabotaging himself before the Senate Subcommittee! Arch-villain Fred Wertham as something other than stern-faced party pooper! The only bit of Un Chien Andelou that anyone remembers ready to be enacted there on the page! My edification – a sacred rite corrupted! The intermingling of illicit pleasure and remorse looping in on itself – a mobius strip from which escape could prove well nigh impossible! I grasped for my rosary beads but they came unloosed from their tether – thrown into entropy like those on Martha Wayne’s necklace on that fateful night in Gotham! Such cognitive dissonance undermined the ramshackle foundation of my self… nay, my soul, dear reader! Like the black t-shirt of a snake coiled around a crucifix that the roadie was wearing at the show! And then to greet those old pals: the fetal position and liquid foods.

I got better, as the superheroes say.

Comic Book Comics is the second act of Van Lente and Dunlavey’s thoroughly entertaining promenade through the humanities, preceded by the very fine Action Philosophers (“Epictetus”, in case you didn’t know, is a synonym for “awesome”) and to be followed by Action Presidents, so you have that inevitable William Henry Harrison punch line to look forward to. The purview of the current series is the American comics industry – the mythos which it has accrued from its evolution from the pulps to its presence in the future, if the glimpse at the cover of the next issue it to be believed. BEHOLD – Simon & Kirby, Siegel & Shuster, Lee & Kirby, my fetishized EC Comics and its inquisitorial end begetting MAD Magazine, the rise of the ‘60s Underground, along with some subjects covered entirely at the whims of its creators (Pop Art gets an entertaining drubbing for some reason and Herge is always a welcome presence) – most things relative to the rise of that once-durable but now-precarious engine of the industry, the 32-page floppy. Tellingly, it is called “Comic Book” Comics, not Comics Comics – that’s taken (albeit, as of this moment, out of commission). So there’s nary a trace of Schulz or Gould or Herriman or McKay or King to be seen; that, I suppose, would entail another series (Comic Strip Comics?). So, in this case, history is a nightmare from which Little Nemo has yet to awake.

(Mind you, I could be talking out of my ass; I’m afraid I was late to this party, with the first and second issues, their specific contents unknown, either awaiting me in some golden-ticket back issue bin some time in my near future or, more likely, the subject of an avid perusal when the trade heads our way sometime in 2012.)

The cover promises an “All-Lawsuit Issue” and as such we are made privy to the various adventures in litigation, with an emphasis on the two most mythic – Kirby v. Marvel and Siegel v. DC, along with further members of this parade of the damned, all creators marching to nail their subpoenas to the doors of the DC or Marvel and getting quashed, for the most part, in the process. There’s also the tale of the underground cartoonist collective the Air Pirates and their not entirely sane attempts at stealing the copyright for Disney’s characters right under the all-seeing eye of the Mouse – calamity ensues, of the comedic kind. It concludes with comic’s own hallowed “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce”, the Everyone v. Everyone of the Marvelman/Miracleman saga, which, fittingly, spans time, space, and two continents, and leaves a wake of carnage akin to Kid Miracleman’s takedown of London. Litigation as entertainment: it’s this age’s sadistic eye injury!

Van Lente delivers these funnybook follies in a breezy manner, working within tightly structured pages which barely break the double digits to get all the pertinent information across. Dunlavey, on the art, is one of the more underrated cartoonists around; his skills as an imitator are formidable – I imagine his John Stuart Mill via Peanuts in Action Philosophers is cemented in the memories of most readers – but his work in CBC foregoes that, understandably considering the various personality-by-personality change-ups the earlier series demanded. He’s stricter here, sticking more for a direct symbolic pastiche as depicted in his own personal cartoony style, a blocky shorthand that nails the message precisely; as busy and worked over as they are, there’s no clutter. Like AP, the panels offer less for straight-up illustration and more for representation/further commentary of Van Lente’s accompanying text, with the ready-at-hand iconography (Mickey Mouse, Milt Glaser’s much missed DC logo, Spider-Man, everyone ever) appropriated for that extra punch of immediacy, ensuring that the copyright page is an easy match for the on-line bibliography in terms of size. Which means that you’ll encounter Mike Hammer shooting Captain Marvel Jr. in the back and Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore at sea, intent upon harpooning a Moby Dick which bears Rorschach’s very trademarked mask and fedora – and there’s no way a book so keen on broad strokes would skip over the “Watchmen as white whale” metaphor – among the cavalcade of images. First and foremost, these are lively comics, with no place for moribund panels.

Except for the final panel – a literally moribund image of Van Lente having hung himself in despair, his frustration at having to comprehend the damn zigs and zags his comics narrative has taken getting the best of him. I can relate. Comics – fuck ‘em. Let them serve neither as sin nor salvation – just let them be.

At least until the next issue – the next cycle.

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The Moralists

Barrel Of Monkeys by Ruppert and Mulot

The first time I mentioned Ruppert and Mulot on this site was about a year ago, in a review of the Tunes rock ‘n roll comics anthology. Amidst a collection of strips predisposed to fawning homage toward their subjects, their “Elvis” contribution stuck out as

“… a plain middle finger extended to the artist or America or both, which alternates between Elvis’ ignominious end on the toilet and a giant Elvis climbing atop various skyscrapers in the New York landscape, with possible allusions to King Kong or 9/11 – it’s hard to parse; either way, our final image is that of the King expiring on his restroom floor, pants down and strewn in vomit.”

To judge by Barrel Of Monkeys – the first English language collection of strips by the artists, ferried to our shores by the good graces of Rebus Books – my wary observation was on the mark. Such easy knocks at celebrity iconography are absent, but there’s no mistaking the comics contained herein as anything other than a systematic series of “fuck you”s, with, say, Johnny Ryan (per Joe McCulloch) or Takashi Nemoto as good points of reference. (Describing the book seems to bring out the best in its champions; blurb-wise, Dash Shaw refers to it as “evil and mean-spirited” and, from Lilli Carre, “an enjoyable slap to the face”.) Like those Veterans O’ Vile, Ruppert and Mulot specialize in provocations, spits in the face of propriety; there’s nothing perverse about the strips, insofar as there’s no private logic being obeyed, no fundamental compulsive innocence guiding the artistic soul, Darger-style – a spit in the face is meant to be felt as such.

More specifically, the typical strip here looks a lot like what would happen if you removed the two blithe sociopaths in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games from their metatextual context and put them in a world fitted to suit. It only occasionally reaches those horror show heights, but the same coy smirk (hi-jinks!) accompanies every bit of misanthropy which promenades across the page, with the two aforementioned male figures, near-ubiquitous all throughout, recognizable as obvious authorial surrogates, signatures too difficult to ignore. Narratives aren’t a priority here, just contrived situations where wafer-thin and damn near homogenous characters do awful things or watch awful things happen. Children are slapped and humiliated, bestiality is a frequent punchline, disabled folks are mocked and objectified, prostitutes are mutilated, etc. – all stuff which might give presumable customs agents cause for pause, their red red red stamp ready to brand (a proper seal of approval), were they willing to press on beyond the layers of deadpan formalism and distancing surrounding every strip’s sweet center.


Any notion of cackling jollies and excess is pretty much defused on first contact; Ruppert and Mulot overlay a neat willfully artificial aesthetic over everything, far from Ryan’s default Klassic Kartoonist Karicature or Nemoto’s Grimy Grotesquerie, one of scratchily rendered figures – all bearing semi-expressive but mostly mask-like angles on their face in lieu of features – framed by a rigorously maintained proscenium arch and performing their actions against nondescript backdrops within a mise en scene best described as “perfunctory”. Once a panel has been read, it’s been read – there’s beauty here to be sure, of the “stark and elegant” variety, but you never luxuriate in an image or consider the figures and objects in relation to each other; whatever your reaction to the stuff, the artists have indisputably conjured up a new and singularly elaborate approximation of Stick Figure Theater.

From that stylistic monotone often hangs a play on images, a blatant story-specific gimmick, thematically apiece with the content but sectioned off from the surrounding naturalism, a cool (as in cold) and ornate package which gathers the most overtly transgressive elements at play for the sake of a proper presentation – the punchline, basically.

They’re impressive set pieces which prod the reader along into a little extracurricular work, activities of interpreting, deciphering. Dialogue, in one story, is conveyed to the reader entirely in sign language, with a helpful key below each panel. Another, the story which frames the book, comes with a set of distorted images depicting sexual congress between an elephant and a woman (women?), replete with a series of steps on how to fold the picture in such a way as to perceive it properly, making it something like an unwieldly Al Jaffee affair. In “Phenakistoscopes With Dad”, one of the crueler strips here, the story in whole is made up of instructions on constructing the eponymous devices – simple optical devices which present animated images via a revolving paper wheel and a mirror – as relayed by a father to his son with verbal abuse in the vein of “Listen to what I’m fucking saying, you fucking moron; why the fuck are you crying?” punctuated by smacks to the head; the phenakistoscopes themselves, there to be cut out by the enterprising reader (or here, if you don’t want to damage your copy) are, naturally, patterns of motion illustrating idealized images of paternal love.

This “you can play along at home, kids – just follow the directions!” notion isn’t novel, but, more than most artists, you can feel a debt to Chris Ware in Ruppert and Mulot’s work : the artists giving these ancillary devices enough weight so that they’re integral to what surrounds, widening  the field of play beyond the basic sequential grammar of images to achieve a desired effect.

A set of scissors may not always be necessary, but this aspect of participation, crossing some not-considerable but nonetheless certain distance to meet the story on its terms, is consistent. These puzzles tend to tax the reader about much as a connect-the-dots page in a coloring book, but they assure some degree of self-conscious engagement, the reader more aware of him or herself as a reader and so, on some level, complicit in the book’s panorama of unpleasantness; as much of the work has roughly the depth of a Bazooka Joe strip (R. I. P.), there’s nothing too distressing about this state. That’s the common denominator though: the silly mean shit all throughout never happens in a vacuum, for its own sake ala a gag strip, but is instead a factor in a relationship between observer and observed, performer and audience; virtually every moment is premised on a foundation of “watching”, seeing as an explicit or implicit action.

Consider “The Portraitists”, the book’s key recurring strip. The titular figures are, as expected, two males and the purpose they serve is in their title – to photograph portraits, ensure that pictures get captured. Most of the stories are concerned with the commissions they undertake – their subjects and the circumstances under which they wish to be photographed, where and how they want to be seen in the picture – though sometimes they get creative, pursuing their own visions, much like their creators. In any case, stuff does happen – the world intrudes, wackiness ensues – but our portraitists stay outside the scene and focused, seeing everything to completion; they’re there to look, and to make certain that their looking produces results.

What emerges at the conclusion of every “Portraitists” story isn’t a visual hook or a bit of cleverness to be maneuvered through, but a still image – a man beheaded by a boomerang, a child dressed in a suit of armor which doesn’t cover key lower parts of his body, a prostitute bound on a bed with a rat shoved down her throat, a man bleeding on a floor, a man standing proud and victorious with a female sword-swallower chained to his belt serving as the sheath for his sword, etc. – with a frame around it. Removed from time, it is now something which exists entirely to be seen, the endpoint of a process of objectification or, less politely, dehumanization. It has become a portrait – something mobile, there to be possessed, sold, or discarded.

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I’m In Love (Part 4)

(And how we got here: UNO, DOS, TRES. Should this suit your fancy, those may be worth a look as well.)

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.

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I’m In Love (Part 3)

(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?

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I’m In Love (Part 2)

(Why not take a gander at Part 1, should you be so inclined?)

6. “Roadrunner #1” (not to be confused with “Roadrunner (Once)”)

“Roadrunner #1” was released on The Original Modern Lovers – not the first “official” album, but a hodgepodge compilation put out by Bomp of two Kim Fowley sessions from ’72 and ’73 (the “original” in the title is dubious, or so Richman claims in the liner notes). Fowley’s production, here at least, is in the punk/garage tradition of “as long as there’s not too much hiss, stay the fuck out of the way” which might go a way toward explaining why it’s my favorite version – it sounds nice and harsh, as if its ideal format isn’t a CD but a mix tape, something I recorded off the radio, its proper place sandwiched between “Soldier Boy” by The Shirelles and “Said Serial” by Unwound. A more obvious reason for my bias: it was the first version I heard, and so it’s the real Secret Origin of this essay, anecdotal points of entry be damned.

That this version feels like Ground Zero doesn’t hurt. It was recorded in the summer of ’72, after “Roadrunner (Twice)”, so it isn’t a “first” anymore than “(Once)” is a “finally”, but the raw power on display makes it feel like a song with something to prove, the kind of challenge only a white and unsullied canvas can provide. Listening to it is a lot like watching an unskilled but talented and eager rookie cross the football field, ball in hand, certain of only two things: a. the goal to be reached, and b. that moving is the only way to get there, so it just moves moves moves helplessly, all antsy clatter as it rushes and stumbles its way toward its conclusion. Most versions fit as “raw and unkempt”, but “#1” feels more singular, a spilling over of nervous energy.

That was my first impression of the song: a necessary ceaseless movement which begins by counting down to that movement and ends with saying goodbye to it. Everything in between those two actions is a whirlpool of association, one detail frequently indiscernible from the next – something about “love” and “Boston” and “faster”, a matrix of key words bouncing off each other. The only bits of stability we can seize onto in that tumult are Richman’s speed through the Massachusetts night and a statement indelibly phrased: “I’m in love with the modern world.”

That last one really sticks (and stuck, but more on that later) and it’s spoken as an honest affirmative, at that; there’s simply no space for posturing or an ironic sneer, no room to properly wield those big cudgels of sophistication – our only imperative is to move forward, to say what we mean! Had I heard the song in the context of the first Modern Lovers album (i.e. had Hogwild Records had it in stock), with the speedy but more coherent “Roadrunner (Twice)”, things might be a lot more convenient – I might have assumed this beloved modern world was apiece with the “modern world” described in the song “Modern World”, both of which were apparently opposed to the old world mentioned in, well, “Old World”, and every world named absolutely embraced by Richman. As it was, all I had was another version of “Roadrunner” at the end of the CD for comparison (consider those two in constant proximity and this essay seems inevitable).

Right now, though, there’s only this segment of time to go by, four-and-a-half minutes which pass in roughly fifteen seconds, an instant too dense for proper reflection; you grasp onto what you can, not quite certain what it is. We reach the climax, with Richman’s voice trying to outpace the song’s speed, losing and finding and losing himself as he more freely associates to the Modern Lover’s reliable shouts of “Radio On”, skillfully using them as punctuation or tripping over them haplessly; it’s a chaos which hasn’t so much been built up to as finally released, having been held in check since the first second, so the song is essentially all dramatic climax, a double splash page of a thing, thoughtless and confident.

This version, at least.

Click here for Part 3.

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I’m In Love (Part 1)

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.

Click here to read Part 2…

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