Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” Is So Obviously The State Rock Song Of Massachussetts


BOSTON GLOBE: “Roadrunner” should be the Bay State’s official rock song. The influential early-’70s proto-punk anthem, written by Natick native Jonathan Richman, centers around a nighttime drive past Stop & Shop, name-checks a range of state roads and towns, and repeats the refrain, “I’m in love with Massachusetts.” “It is an unabashed valentine,” says Dorchester-based publicist and rock band manager Joyce Linehan, who proposed a bill to give “Roadrunner” official state honors, and found a lead sponsor in Democratic state Representative Marty Walsh. The movement quickly took off — earning a mention in Rolling Stone, and becoming a bipartisan effort as Republican Robert Hedlund signed on as Senate sponsor. Yet the effort has recently spawned a challenge: Two South Shore representatives filed a bill to give Aerosmith’s “Dream On” the honors, on the grounds that Aerosmith is Aerosmith and the Pilgrims once had dreams. But “Dream On” is depressing — read the lyrics — and has no local references. MORE

ROCK SNOB ENCYCLOPEDIA: Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers: aka Jojo, the immaculate heart on the dirty sleeve of rock ‘n’ roll. Richman’s story begins in late-’60s Boston, where he busked on campus quads and coffeehouses doing his best to look “sad and artistic” so girls would notice him. Upon hearing the Velvet Underground, he moved to New York, where he managed to gain entree to Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, and became something of a Lou Reed disciple. He was 18 years old.

He soon hatched a plan: Return to Boston, form a band and pick up where the Velvets left off. John Felice, Richman’s next-door neighbor from childhood, joined in on guitar. While hanging up a “Drummer Wanted” sign in a record store, Richman was approached by one David Robinson, who quickly signed on. Two Harvard film school students, Jerry Harrison and Ernie Brooks, attended an early gig with the intention of making a documentary about the band. Instead, they wound up joining as keyboardist and bass player, respectively.

The Modern Lovers’ early sound combined the raucous energy of mid-’60s garage rock with Richman’s Peter Pan naivete and monotone, “anybody got a tissue?”vocal style. Shorthaired and drug-free at the height of early-’70s hippiedom, Richman and his songwriting flew in the face of everything that was happening at the time. He liked his parents. He was in love with the idea of being in love. He couldn’t wait to grow old and dignified. He was Jimmy Stewart with an electric guitar, insisting, despite all the hard-bitten cynicism that surrounded him, that it’s still a wonderful life.

The band gigged frequently in New York, word spread quickly and soon David Geffen came calling and signed on as manager, eventually negotiating a record deal with Warner Bros. During a trip to California, Richman was introduced to Gram Parsons. The two hit it off over a game of mini-golf and Richman invited Parsons to contribute to the impending recording of the Modern Lovers’ debut, although it never came to pass. In 1973, Richman and the Modern Lovers recorded an album’s worth of material with VU alum John Cale producing. Richman deemed the results unsatisfactory as dissention within the band grew. Increasingly uninterested in fronting a loud rock band, Richman disbanded the group, explaining to an interviewer that the Modern Lovers “play at a volume level that would hurt a little baby’s ears and any band that would hurt a little baby’s ears sucks.” Felice would go on to form proto-punk Boston legends the Real Kids. Harrison would join the Talking Heads and Robinson would sign on as drummer for the Cars.

In 1975, Richman signed with the independent Beserkley label, which bought the Cale session tapes from Warner Bros. and released it as The Modern Lovers the following year. There are few moments in rock ‘n’ roll as adrenaline-pumping as the count-off that opens “Roadrunner”–“one, two, three, four, five, six!” and we’re off, racing across the Massachusetts Turnpike on a riff borrowed from VU’s “Sister Ray.” At the height of the Sex Pistols’ anarchic reign, when an interviewer asked Johnny Rotten if he thought there was any music heretofore that was not complete and utter shite, Rotten shook his head no and then thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said finally. “‘Roadrunner’ by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.” — JONATHAN VALANIA