It began just over a week ago. First, a light speckling of emails in my inbox, then a sudden flurry of tweets and Facebook messages. Was I aware, they all wondered, of my profound influence upon Massachusetts state politics?
I paraphrase a smidge. In fact, what they wished to draw to my attention was the relationship between a bill recently filed by a state representative, and an article I had written in 2007, in which I had flown to Boston and spent several snowy nights driving along a ringroad around the city known as Route 128, in tribute to one of my favourite songs: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers’ 1977 single Roadrunner.
Reading this on mobile? Click here to view the video
The bill, put forward by Representative Martin “Marty” Walsh of Dorchester, seeks to anoint Roadrunner the official rock song of Massachusetts. It is the result of a campaign by Joyce Linehan, former A&R for Sub Pop Records and one-time manager of the Lemonheads, now turned publicist and label boss. Last week Linehan told Boston.com how the idea was spawned by the article, and spurred on by her frustration at a poll to choose the inaugural song for a new Boston radio station, which elected the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ I Want My City Back over Richman’s masterpiece. “The song that represents Massachusetts to its core is clearly Roadrunner,” she said. Walsh, meanwhile, concedes that he had not heard Richman’s song before Linehan introduced him to it, but he needed little persuading to see both its merit and its perfection for official state rock song.
It is a strange thing how certain articles linger. People still contact me about that 2007 piece: I’ve been asked to give readings of it, and interviews about it. It even inspired a series of short stories I was commissioned to write that will be broadcast on Radio 4 later this year. I suspect the response is in part due to the madcappery of the assignment – a harebrained project dreamed up between me and my editor, Michael Hann, who would drift over to my desk to discuss the glory of Richman, and that song in particular. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, we decided, to recreate the journey Richman sings about for the anniversary of its release?
But I think the article persists mainly because Roadrunner is such an extraordinary, life-affirming piece of music. “Roadrunner was the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest,” Greil Marcus wrote in Lipstick Traces, and indeed it is, in its simplicity, a touch peculiar. It was recorded in 1972, produced by John Cale and first released in 1976. It has been described as the first punk song and was covered by the Sex Pistols, as well as Joan Jett and Yo La Tengo. But in reality this song is nothing more than a tribute to the joys of driving on Route 128 at night in a Plymouth Roadrunner, driving past the Howard Johnson restaurants and the Stop ‘n’ Shop grocery, driving alone, for driving’s sake, with only the radio for company. In essence, however, Roadrunner is more than that: a song about what it means to feel young, and free, and charged by the world. It’s a song about how glorious it feels to be alive.
There are three definitive versions; each begins with the bawl of “One-two-three-four!” and ends in a curious chirrup of “Bye-bye!”. In between, the verses roam the terrain of Massachusetts – from the North Shore to the South Shore, Quincy, to Deer Island, Amherst, Boston harbour and beyond. Richman’s eye falls not on the more obvious charms of the state, but on its emblems of modernity: the industrial park, the Prudential tower, Interstate 90. And as the miles roll by, ranging far from the city and back again, it becomes a joyous, heartfelt embrace of his home state. “I like this feeling of roaming around in the dark,” he sings in one version. “And even though I’m alone out there, I don’t mind/ ‘Cause I’m in love with the world.”
If the bill is passed, Massachusetts would not be alone in having an official rock song: Washington nominated Louie Louie by Richard Berry, Ohio has the McCoys’ Hang On Sloopy, and in 2009 the Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize?? was claimed by Oklahoma. Massachusetts, meanwhile, already has an official folk song (Massachusetts by Arlo Guthrie), a glee club song (The Great State of Massachusetts) and a polka (Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts by Lenny Gomulka), in addition to its official song, All Hail to Massachusetts by Arthur J Marsh.
The Roadrunner bill will now take on a life of its own, progressing to a public hearing, then to the House of Representatives and, if approved, on to the Senate, before being signed by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. If it is successful, we might even see Roadrunner pronounced state rock song later this year – at which point, I imagine, I will head over to Massachusetts to make some kind of victory lap of my old friend Route 128.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010