‘… He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.’ (William Blake)
‘We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary eyed .. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.’ (John Felice, childhood friend of Jonathan Richman)
‘… Roadrunner once, Roadrunner twice, I’m in love with rock & roll
and I’ll be out all night’ (Jonathan Richman)Embed from Getty Images
It is a matter of some hilarity in our family and eyebrow raising puzzlement to visitors to our home that whenever I perform any kind of count off I don’t echo the rock roadie, ‘One, two – one, two’ or the more conventional, ‘One, two, three, four …’.
When I count off I always chant with a crazed grin and extreme vigour:
‘One, two, three, four, five, six!‘
And, the reason for this is simple.
‘One, two, three, four, five, six!‘ is the intro to what may well be the most exhilarating rock and roll song ever recorded.
A song that never, ever, fails to thrill when you hear it – no matter which of its numerous live or recorded versions you chance upon or carefully select.
I refer, of course, to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers immortal, ‘Roadrunner’.
We should, as they say, begin at the beginning.
Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, Massachusetts 10 miles west of Boston on May 16 1951. After a conventional suburban childhood the teenage Jonathan had a Pauline epiphany which would change his life forever.
On the radio, among 1967’s kaleidoscope of folk rock, blues rock, summery pop and psychedelia something shockingly, wonderfully, NEW crashed into his consciousness.
From the dark heart of New York City strange siren songs filled with sin and secrets – The Velvet Underground.Embed from Getty Images
The combination of Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison’s relentless guitar attack, Lou’s deadpan vocals, John Cale’s instrumental extremity and Mo Tucker’s zen drumming entirely redrew the map of the world for Jonathan.
From that epochal moment whenever The Velvets played Boston, invariably at the Boston Tea Party at 53 Berkeley Street, Jonathan was there – absorbing the music through every physical and spiritual pore.
A particular favourite of his was, ‘Sister Ray’ a dervish three chord cataclysm that could last for anything up to half an hour until the band and audience were transported to undreamt of dimensions of being.
And, no one listening flew further or higher on the astral plane than Jonathan. For he was a waking dreamer with dreams of his own.
Dreams of his own that would become songs like shooting stars.
Songs influenced by his beloved Velvets but glowingly imbued with the imagination of a young man who intuitively perceived the shining radiance of the everyday world all around him.
A young man who could make that radiant world burst into life through a few chords and the total immersion of his own being in the song he was singing.
A young man who could write and perform a transcendent anthem about listening to the radio as he drove round Boston’s suburbs.
A young man who could turn the, ‘Stop ‘n’ Shop’, Route 128, the suburban trees, the factories, the auto signs and the radio waves saturating the Massachusetts night into holy way-stations on an ecstatic journey to heaven!
Join Jonathan now on that journey.
Va Va Voom! Va Va Voom! Va Va Voom!
There are apocryphal tales of Disc Jockeys in the 1950s locking themselves into the studio as they played, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ over and over and over until desperate radio station bosses broke in with axes to restore sanity to the airwaves.
I know exactly how those DJs felt.
I remember, as if it were yesterday, buying in August 1976 the vinyl LP, ‘Modern Lovers’ which had, ‘Roadrunner’ as its opening track.
I believe it took me several dazed days and nights before I even attempted to play another track on the record as I obsessively wore out the Roadrunner groove.
As soon as I got back to college I announced with a prophet’s zeal to anyone who would listen that their lives would be transformed by listening to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, ‘Roadrunner’.
Look what listening to it a couple of hundred times had done for me!
Jonathan wrote Roadrunner in 1970 and recorded it first with John Cale as producer in 1972 – though such were the vagaries of the music business that it took until 1976 for it to emerge.
You can hear the homage to The Velvet Underground and especially Cale’s organ sound all through this version of Roadrunner.
The rhapsodic keyboards are courtesy of Jerry Harrison who would later achieve fame with Talking Heads. David Robinson, later of The Cars, provides the foot to the floor and keep it there drums. Ernie Brooks anchors everything on the bass.
And Jonathan? Well, miraculously, Jonathan brings his innocent eye and his full heart to the song and conjures a lustrous landscape where the spiritual and physical realms we live and move in balletically entwine.
In this song, and to my mind particularly in this version, Jonathan Richman achieves something very rare.
He manages to create a work of art which captures the quantum quick of life.
The reach and energy of his imagination takes him to a place where is viscerally aware of the unique distinctiveness of the people and objects in the world around him.
And, surrendering his ego to that vision he accepts it as a gift and offers it to us.
If we accept it, as he did, we too will have had a glimpse of eternity’s sunrise.
There are many versions of Roadrunner.
‘Roadrunner Twice’ a hit single in the UK was recorded in 1974 with Jonathan backed by The Greg Kihn Band.
‘Roadrunner Thrice’ is a wonderful live version.
Jonathan is a mesmeric performer able to fill a room with joy with a capital J.
So the best version of Roadrunner ever may be one he is yet to play.
Hi Thom, another great post. You’re right about JR’s delight in the simple wonder that surrounds us. He’s the true Emperor of Ice Cream. Have you heard this version of Roadrunner by the Jazz Butcher? If you look at the video of the badlands of Northampton you will see Bauhaus bass player and all round inspiration David J who guested for a period with them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JlF_ytUD-yM
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Thanks Mark. He is an extraordinary figure. Thanks for the link. Regards Thom.