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
. 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--
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...