February 12, 2013

It doesn't bother me to feel so alone
At least I'm not staying alone at home
I'm out exploring the modern world



Allan Tannenbaum, back steps CBGBs, 1977

* The Car, The Radio, The Night -- And Rocks Most Thrilling Song, an article about Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner. excerpt:

Roadrunner is one of the most magical songs in existence. It is a song about what it means to be young, and behind the wheel of an automobile, with the radio on and the night and the highway stretched out before you. It is a paean to the modern world, to the urban landscape, to the Plymouth Roadrunner car, to roadside restaurants, neon lights, suburbia, the highway, the darkness, pine trees and supermarkets. As Greil Marcus put it in his book Lipstick Traces: "Roadrunner was the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest."

One version of Roadrunner - Roadrunner (Twice) - reached No 11 in the UK charts, but the song's influence would extend much further. Its first incarnation, Roadrunner (Once), recorded in 1972 and produced by John Cale, but not released until 1976, was described by film director Richard Linklater as "the first punk song"; he placed it on the soundtrack to his film School of Rock. As punk took shape in London, Roadrunner was one of the songs the Sex Pistols covered at their early rehearsals. Another 20 years on and Cornershop would cite it as the inspiration behind their No 1 single Brimful of Asha, and a few years later, Rolling Stone put it at 269 on their list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. Its impact would be felt in other ways, too: musicians playing on this song included keyboard player Jerry Harrison, who would later join Talking Heads, and drummer David Robinson, who went on to join the Cars. Its power was in the simplicity both of its music - a drone of guitar, organ, bass and drums around a simple two-chord structure - and of its message that it's great to be alive.
...
While every version of Roadrunner begins with the bawl of "One-two-three-four-five-six" and ends with the cry of "Bye bye!", each contains lyrical variations and deviations in the car journey Richman undertakes during the song's narrative, though it always begins on Route 128, the Boston ringroad that Richman uses to embody the wonders of existence. In one, he's heading out to western Massachusetts, and in another he's cruising around "where White City used to be" and to Grafton Street, to check out an old sporting store, observing: "Well they made many renovations in that part of town/ My grandpa used to be a dentist there." Over the course of the various recordings he refers to the Turnpike, the Industrial Park, the Howard Johnson, the North Shore, the South Shore, the Mass Pike, Interstate 90, Route 3, the Prudential Tower, Quincy, Deer Island, Boston harbour, Amherst, South Greenfield, the "college out there that rises up outta nuthin", Needham, Ashland, Palmerston, Lake Champlain, Route 495, the Sheraton Tower, Route 9, and the Stop & Shop.

My pilgrimage will take me to all of these places. For authenticity's sake I have chosen to make the trip in January, because, as Richman observes in Roadrunner (Thrice) on winding down his car window, "it's 20 degrees outside". Having consulted a weather website listing average temperatures for Boston and its environs, I find it is most likely to be 20 degrees at night-time in January. And, as in Roadrunner, I will drive these roads only at night, because "I'm in love with modern moonlight, 128 when it's dark outside."

Richman was born in the suburb of Natick in the May of 1951. It was there that he learned to play clarinet and guitar, where he met some of his Modern Lovers. But that is not where I begin my journey. If you want to find out where Richman was really born, musically speaking, you have to head to a redbrick building in central Boston. On my first afternoon, as I prepare for my inaugural night drive, I pull up on Berkeley Street, within spitting distance of the Mass Pike, trying to find the original site of the Boston Tea Party, the venue where Richman first saw the Velvet Underground as a teenager.

Richman was infatuated with The Velvets, from the first moment he heard them on the radio in 1967. He met the band many times in his native Boston, opened for them in Springfield, and in 1969 even moved to New York, sleeping on their manager's sofa. Roadrunner owes its existence to the Velvet Underground's Sister Ray, though the three-chord riff has been pared back to two, just D and A.

* "Music is much like fucking, but some composers can't climax and others climax too often, leaving themselves and the listener jaded and spent." -- charles bukowski

1 Comments:

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