Song by the Modern Lovers from their album The Modern Lovers

Sounding like the insecure, hopeful, exuberant teenager he is, Jonathan Richman hollers "One, two three, four, five, six!" and the band comes crashing in with the best three-chord song the world has heard since Wild Thing. Jonathan's out driving late at night with the radio on, past the Stop n' Shop, out onto the highway and into the lonely woods where he can glimpse neon signs in the distance. He's in love with modern love, modern girls, and modern rock and roll; he's in love with driving fast, and with Massachusetts and he can hear the spirit of 1956 on his car radio. He feels, he says, like a roadrunner. Three-fourths of the way in he explodes the song from the inside and rearranges it into rambling, breathless free-form poetry punctuated by the band's shouts of "RADIO ON!" before it all comes staggering to an end.

When asked if there were any songs he liked, Johnny Rotten picked this one. And you can hear the Sex Pistols playing it (sort of) during a studio rehearsal on the Great Rock and Roll Swindle soundtrack.

Roadrunner, roadrunner
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive past the Stop 'n' Shop
With the radio on
I'm in love with Massachusetts
And the neon when it's cold outside
And the highway when it's late at night
Got the radio on
I'm like the roadrunner

Alright

I'm in love with modern moonlight
one-twenty-eight when it's dark outside
I'm in love with Massachusetts
I'm in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don't feel so bad now in the car
Don't feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner

That's right

Said welcome to the spirit of 1956
Patient in the bushes next to '57
The highway is your girlfriend as you go by quick
Suburban trees, suburban speed
And it smells like heaven
And I say roadrunner once

Roadrunner twice

I'm in love with rock & roll
And I'll be out all night
Roadrunner

That's right

Well now
Roadrunner, roadrunner!
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive to the Stop 'n' Shop
With the radio on at night
And me in love with modern moonlight
Me in love with modern rock & roll
Modern girls and modern rock & roll
Don't feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner
O.K., now you sing Modern Lovers!

Radio On!
I got the AM
Radio On!
Got the car, got the AM
Radio On!
Got the AM sound, got the
Radio On!
Got the rockin' modern neon sound
Radio On!
I got the car from Massachusetts, got the
Radio On!
I got the power of Massachusetts when it's late at night
Radio On!
I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts
I've got the world, got the turnpike, got the
I've got the, got the power of the AM
Got the, late at night, (?), rock & roll late at night
The factories and the auto signs
Got the power of modern sounds

Alright

Right

Bye bye!

The car produced by the Chrysler corporation under the Plymouth mark introduced in 1968. It was a light car for the year it was introduced, and you could get a 426 cubic inch hemi motor in it that simply had too much horsepower for any sane person to really want to use. Imagine a 5 seat car with a big trunk that that can perform like a race car.

It is the missing link between the Modern Lovers song and the Chuck Jones cartoon. It had a beep beep horn, and the Roadrunner wearing a racing helmet as a hood ornament. Really, like most muscle cars, a moving symbol of the excesses and freedom that seemed to be happening in the Sixties, and how deliciously dangerous that freedom can be. Impending doom and a celebration of life on wheels. It had the added bonus of a pop culture icon to identify with, and the strongest of the big motors as an option. (in fact professional drag racing engines are still usually a variation on it)

Little boy: When I grow up, I want to be a psy—pch—psychologist. Younger brother: Not me. When I grow up, I want to be a roadrunner. Beep beep ZIP bang!

~Warner Brothers cartoon

I was in Arizona last year, and I saw my first roadrunner. It didn’t look anything like the one being chased by Wile E. Coyote, and yet, for someone brought up on the Warner Brothers cartoon and eager to see a live specimen, it was instantly recognizable. Roadrunners are close to a foot high, have long pointy beaks, distinctive head crests, and white-tipped tails almost as long as their bodies, which they carry at a jaunty, upturned angle. Although roadrunners can fly for short distances, they spend most of their time on the ground, walking or running (up to seventeen miles per hour). That’s where I saw this one; it was walking along by the side of the road, amid the dry brush and agave.

The roadrunner, or Geococcyx californianus, is a member of the cuckoo family—a ground cuckoo. Also known as Chaparral Cocks, roadrunners weigh 8-24 oz. and can be up to 24” long from beak to tail tip. Their diet consists mainly of insects, rodents, other birds, lizards, and snakes—the roadrunner is one of the few animals quick enough to capture a hummingbird in mid-flight, or to catch a rattlesnake:

Using its wings like a matador’s cape, it snaps up a coiled rattlesnake by the tail, cracks it like a whip and repeatedly slams its head against the ground until dead. It then swallows its prey whole, but is often unable to swallow the entire length at one time. This does not stop the Roadrunner from its normal routine. It will continue to meander about with the snake dangling from its mouth, consuming another inch or two as the snake slowly digests.

Roadrunners are the state bird of New Mexico; they are found throughout the Southwestern United States, throughout the Chihuahuan, Mojave, Sonoran, and southern Great Basin deserts. They inhabit rolling, open, or flat terrain. Being carnivores, they get a good deal of the moisture they need from their prey; they also reabsorb water from their feces before excretion.

The way to a female roadrunner’s heart is through her stomach; in springtime, the male roadrunner will offer the female food as an inducement to mate. While both parents collect the sticks necessary for nest building, it is the female who actually builds the nest in the shelter of a small tree, brush, or cactus. Two to twelve eggs are laid over a three day period, and it is just as likely for the male to stay on the nest as it is for the female, for the 18-20 days that it takes until the eggs hatch. The first 3-4 chicks hatched are the most likely to survive; they crowd the others out, and later-born runts are occasionally eaten by the parents. The chicks only stay with their parents for a week or two before striking out on their own.

Maybe on my next trip out west I’ll see a jackalope . . .

______________

Source: A. R. Royo, The Roadrunner, http://www.desertusa.com/mag98/sep/papr/road.html , 5/2/02

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to spend the Memorial Day weekend going on a road trip through upstate New York and New England; I'd never been north of the Cloisters, while he's been to every state but Hawai'i. We spent two days in Lake George, its tiki bars, drive-in, and mini-golf eventually giving way to a trip to Salem, before heading down for a couple of days in Boston.

It was on the road from Salem to Boston that we saw the Stop 'n' Shop.

And then we realized we were on Route 128.

Getting out the iPod was inevitable.


Jump back to some tired, grey afternoon--I remember it was raining--late in 1992, when I'd come home from school and lock myself in my bedroom; laying on my stomach, twisting the dial of the clock radio that'd belonged to my dad, six years gone.

I was thirteen.

I was in junior high.

I was lonely and bored and tended to find my solace in music. I was clumsily feeling my way through the landscape of rock and roll; there was no web, no Pitchfork or Pandora, no Napster, and the closest record store was at the mall, which required my mom to drive. The only exposure, beyond friends, I had to new music was MTV, Rolling Stone, and the radio.

The radio in the early 1990s was in flux; AM had slowly been given over to talk, Christian radio, and Big Band music, which my uncle, who lived with us when I was a kid, played constantly. FM was king, and the king loved crap. I was frequently subjected to Phil Collins informing us of his inability to dance; to Extreme telling girls in the prettiest harmonies they could muster that talking was no substitute for fucking, so shut up already; and thankfully "The Humpty Dance".

I'd heard that there was an "alternative" station coming soon, but had no idea when it would arrive. So I sat, playing with the dial, hoping to find something. I found, instead of the new alternative station, a very old alternative station--the venerable WPRB, Princeton's college station, which found a way to bounce around the ionosphere, and end up coming into my old clock radio out in rural Pennsylvania.

And then I heard it.

One two three four five six--

Roadrunner, roadrunner
Going faster miles an hour
Gonna drive past the Stop 'n' Shop
With the radio on

A clanging guitar; a wheezing organ; a beat like a freight train going at full speed.

"What the fuck is this?"


There are few pure moments in our lives; moments that drive all other emotions out the window, moments like earthquakes, schocking you, changing you entirely. They form you, writing on your soul with india ink. I have three, so far: the first was my mother telling me my father had died; the third was the first kiss between me and the guy who became my husband, as we stumbled out of a bar on my birthday after a long, contentious night; but the second was me, laying on my stomach, playing with the radio, and hearing Jonathan Richman's barbaric yawp.

I'm in love with modern moonlight
one-twenty-eight when it's dark outside
I'm in love with Massachusetts
I'm in love with the radio on
It helps me from being alone late at night
It helps me from being lonely late at night
I don't feel so bad now in the car
Don't feel so alone, got the radio on
Like the roadrunner

Now, I once touched a metal plate that was accidently connected to an ungrounded wire. The schock left my arm hurting for days. Hearing "Roadrunner", with it's lyrics about listening to the radio while driving around at night as a way to stop feeling lonely, about losing yourself in music, about the power of the AM, was like that shock--my heart was filled with longing, a longing I didn't even know I had. It was painful and beautiful, the whole world ripping apart, like a veil torn away, so that I could see everything I didn't even know I wanted. I wanted to move, to get out on the road, to see the whole damn country, to race back and forth and see the coasts, to shake off the dust of my town--I wanted to drive, but that was three years away.

I fell in love with that song--instant, true love. And then I didn't hear it again for six years--not until I was a sophomore in college, when a friend had a compliation of Richman's songs, leading off with the original John Cale-produced version of "Roadrunner"--the same version I heard on the radio in 1992.

But this was 1992--there was no web, and I had no money or network for finding that song again. I just had this single, crystal-clear moment to hang onto--and four words, mumbled by the DJ: "The Modern Lovers, 'Roadrunner'".


The song was more than twenty years old when I first heard it, but I had no way to know that--it sounded like the freshest thing I'd ever heard. It's about loving the modern world, but ultimately, it's a song about the past--the spirit of 1956; listening to AM radio; driving around the suburban highways just for fun. And now it's 2012, and no one listens to AM radio; gas is inching back to $4 a gallon; the suburbs aren't the Shangri-La they were promised to be. And yet, when I hear the crash of Richman's guitar, it's like the time I shocked myself--it still feels revolutionary when I hear it. I still feel like that kid laying on her stomach in a small town, dreaming of driving around with the radio on.

Like a roadrunner...

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