The car, the radio, the night – and rock’s most thrilling song

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“I’m out exploring the modern world,
By the pine trees and the Howard Johnsons,
On Route 128 when it’s late at night,
We’re heading from the north shore to the south shore,
Well I see Route 3 in my sight and
I’m the Roadrunner.”

Roadrunner (Thrice), by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers

Dusk in a supermarket carpark in Natick, Massachusetts. Outside there is snow in the air and the wind is up. A shopping trolley whirls its way across the tarmac unaided and the cars Route 9 rush by. I wind the window down. It’s cold outside.

People make rock’n’roll pilgrimages to Chuck Berry’s Route 66, to Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey Turnpike and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61. They flock to Robert Johnson’s crossroads, to Graceland, to the Chelsea Hotel, hoping to glean some insight into the music that moves them. In January this year, I made my own rock pilgrimage to the suburbs Boston, to drive the routes described by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers in the song Roadrunner, a minor UK hit 30 years ago this week.

Roadrunner is one the most magical songs in existence. It is a song about what it means to be young, and behind the wheel an automobile, with the radio on and the night and the highway stretched out before you. It is a paean to the modern world, to the urban landscape, to the Plymouth Roadrunner car, to roadside restaurants, neon lights, suburbia, the highway, the darkness, pine trees and supermarkets. As Greil Marcus put it in his book Lipstick Traces: “Roadrunner was the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest.”

One version Roadrunner – Roadrunner (Twice) – reached No 11 in the UK charts, but the song’s influence would extend much further. Its first incarnation, Roadrunner (Once), recorded in 1972 and produced by John Cale, but not released until 1976, was described by film director Richard Linklater as “the first punk song”; he placed it on the soundtrack to his film School Rock. As punk took shape in London, Roadrunner was one the songs the Sex Pistols covered at their early rehearsals. Another 20 years on and Cornershop would cite it as the inspiration behind their No 1 single Brimful Asha, and a few years later, Rolling Stone put it at 269 on their list the 500 greatest songs all time. Its impact would be felt in other ways, too: musicians playing on this song included keyboard player Jerry Harrison, who would later join Talking Heads, and drummer David Robinson, who went on to join the Cars. Its power was in the simplicity both its music – a drone guitar, organ, bass and drums around a simple two-chord structure – and its message that it’s great to be alive.

Maybe you don’t know much about Jonathan Richman. Maybe you’ve heard the instrumental Egyptian Reggae, which hit No 5 in 1977 and earned him an appearance on Top the Pops. Or perhaps you recall his cameo as the chorus in There’s Something About Mary (the Farrelly brothers are dedicated fans). But if you want to know what Jonathan Richman was about, first think the Velvet Underground, and then turn it inside out; imagine the Velvets cooked sunny side up. Imagine them singing not about drugs and darkness, but about all the simple beauty in the world.

What characterises Richman’s work, and Roadrunner especially, is its unblighted optimism. “Richman’s music did not sound quite sane,” Greil Marcus wrote. “When I went to see him play in 1972, his band – the Modern Lovers, which is what he’s always called whatever band he’s played with – was on stage; nothing was happening. For some reason I noticed a pudgy boy with short hair wandering through the sparse crowd, dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt on which was printed, in pencil, ‘I LOVE MY LIFE.’ Then he climbed up and played the most shattering guitar I’d ever heard. ‘I think this is great,’ said the person next to me. ‘Or is it terrible?'”

There are plenty versions Roadrunner. The Unficial Jonathan Richman Chords website lists 10 discernibly different versions: seven given an ficial release and three bootlegs. Richman apparently wrote the song in around 1970. The 1972 John Cale version was a demo for Warner Brothers, and only saw the light when the Beserkley label in California collected the Modern Lovers’ demos and put them out as the Modern Lovers album in 1976. Two more 1972 demo versions, produced by the notorious LA music svengali Kim Fowley, would be released in 1981 on a patchy album called The Original Modern Lovers, and a live version from 1973 would appear a quarter a century later on the live record Precise Modern Lovers Order. In late 1974, Richman recorded a stripped-down version the song for the Beserkley, which apparently took a little over two hours. This would be the Roadrunner (Twice), the most successful version. A further take, extended beyond eight minutes, and recorded live, was titled Roadrunner (Thrice) and released as a single B-side in 1977.

While every version Roadrunner begins with the bawl “One-two-three-four-five-six” and ends with the cry “Bye bye!”, each contains lyrical variations and detions in the car journey Richman undertakes during the song’s narrative, though it always begins on Route 128, the Boston ringroad that Richman uses to embody the wonders existence. In one, he’s heading out to western Massachusetts, and in another he’s cruising around “where White City used to be” and to Grafton Street, to check out an old sporting store, observing: “Well they made many renovations in that part town/ My grandpa used to be a dentist there.” Over the course the various recordings he refers to the Turnpike, the Industrial Park, the Howard Johnson, the North Shore, the South Shore, the Mass Pike, Interstate 90, Route 3, the Prudential Tower, Quincy, Deer Island, Boston harbour, Amherst, South Greenfield, the “college out there that rises up outta nuthin”, Needham, Ashland, Palmerston, Lake Champlain, Route 495, the Sheraton Tower, Route 9, and the Stop & Shop.

My pilgrimage will take me to all these places. For authenticity’s sake I have chosen to make the trip in January, because, as Richman observes in Roadrunner (Thrice) on winding down his car window, “it’s 20 degrees outside”. Having consulted a weather website listing average temperatures for Boston and its environs, I find it is most likely to be 20 degrees at night-time in January. And, as in Roadrunner, I will drive these roads only at night, because “I’m in love with modern moonlight, 128 when it’s dark outside.”

Richman was born in the suburb Natick in the May 1951. It was there that he learned to play clarinet and guitar, where he met some his Modern Lovers. But that is not where I begin my journey. If you want to find out where Richman was really born, musically speaking, you have to head to a redbrick building in central Boston. On my first afternoon, as I prepare for my inaugural night drive, I pull up on Berkeley Street, within spitting distance the Mass Pike, trying to find the original site the Boston Tea Party, the venue where Richman first saw the Velvet Underground as a teenager.

Richman was infatuated with The Velvets, from the first moment he heard them on the radio in 1967. He met the band many times in his native Boston, opened for them in Springfield, and in 1969 even moved to New York, sleeping on their manager’s sa. Roadrunner owes its existence to the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray, though the three-chord riff has been pared back to two, just D and A.

A live recording from the Middle East Cafe in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made in October 1995, has Richman introducing his song Velvet Underground with the recollection that he must have seen the band “about 60 times at the Boston Tea Party down there at 53 Berkeley Street”. So along Berkeley Street I walk, counting down to number 53, the cold from the pavement soaking up through my boots, the air before me hanging in frosty white wreaths. The venue is gone now, and today it is a civilised-looking apartment block with no hint the rock’n’roll about it save for a plaque announcing that Led Zeppelin and the Velvets, BB King and the J Geils Band all played here. It does not mention Jonathan Richman.

That evening I drive along Route 128 for the first time. I head up towards Gloucester, as the night drifts from rain to sleet to snow. All the way there, the road is quiet; the rush-hour traffic has thinned, and I drive behind a minibus emblazoned with the words Greater Boston Chinese Golden Age Center. The street lights peter out and at times I can barely see the road markings; by the time I reach the North Shore I am hunched over the steering wheel squinting at the road. In Gloucester, I draw into the carpark Dunkin’ Donuts. Cars swish by on Eastern Avenue, rain falls heavily. Inside, one lone figure in an anorak is buying Thursday night doughnuts. This is the very end R128.

It feels exhilarating, alone out here in the darkness. I peer through the windscreen at the cosy houses Gloucester, a seaside resort and home to 30,000 people. Televisions blink behind drawn curtains, and I think how cold and late it is and how by rights I should be indoors. But what matters right now is out here: the radio, and the dark and the night and this glorious strip tarmac before me.

Route 128 was opened in 1951, and is also known as the Yankee Division Highway. It runs from Canton on the South Shore up here to Gloucester. At times it intertwines with I-95, the interstate highway that runs from Florida to the Canadian border. Route 128, and what it represents, is an important element in Roadrunner. Between 1953 and 1961, many businesses, employing thousands people, moved to lie alongside Route 128, and the road became known as America’s Technology Highway. During the 1950s and 1960s, Boston’s suburbs spread along the road, and the businesses were joined by people, the residential population quadrupling in the 50s and then doubling again in the 60s. This was the world in which Richman grew up, a world that rejoiced in technology, that celebrated the suburbs and the opportunities fered by the highway.

In Tim Mitchell’s biography There’s Something About Jonathan, Richman’s former next-door neighbour and founder member the Modern Lovers, John Felice, recalls the excitement driving that route with his buddy: “We used to get in the car and we would just drive up and down Route 128 and the turnpike. 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. We’d drive past an electric plant, a big power plant, with all kinds electric wire and generators, and he’d get all choked up, he’d almost start crying. He found a lot beauty in those things, and that was something he taught me. There was a real stark beauty to them and he put it into words in his songs.”

Driving back towards Boston, past factories and blinking red lights, I head down to the South Shore, to Canton, where Route 128 becomes I-95, heading f towards Providence, Rhode Island, and way on down to Miami. Canton is the home Reebok and Baskin Robbins, and I drive aimlessly through its dark streets before scooping back up to Quincy, where Howard Johnson’s and Dunkin’ Donuts began, and out along Quincy Shore Drive. I put on Roadrunner (Thrice), my favourite version Roadrunner. “Well I can see Boston now,” it goes. “I can see the Prudential Tower/ With the little red lights blinking on in the dark/ I’m by Quincy now/ I can see Deer Island/ I can see the whole Boston harbour from where I am, out on the rocks by Cohasset/ In the night.”

The next day I head out to Natick. My mission is to see the suburban streets where Richman grew up, and to visit the Super Stop & Shop, on Worcester Street. The Stop & Shop is a supermarket chain founded in 1914 and which now boasts 360 stores, most them in New England. The Stop & Shop is one the key locations in Roadrunner, for it is where Richman makes a key discovery about the power rock’n’roll radio: “I walked by the Stop & Shop/ Then I drove by the Stop & Shop/ I like that much better than walking by the Stop & Shop/ ‘Cause I had the radio on.”

The experiment is important. Richman states that having the radio on makes him feel both “in touch” and “in love” with “the modern world”, and the presiding connection with modernity throughout Roadrunner – with the highway, with the car, with rock’n’roll, conveys Richman’s delight at living entirely in the moment.

Natick Stop & Shop looks too modern to be the same store Richman walked past, then drove past. “How long has this Stop & Shop been here?” I ask the cashier. He is young and slightly built, a faint brush hair on his top lip. “Uh, I dunno … ” he frowns. “Did you know there’s a famous song that mentions the Stop & Shop?” I press on. “No.” He looks at me, hairs twitching, and his colleague interrupts as she packs my bags: “Can I take my break?” she demands, squarely. Outside, I walk slowly past the Stop & Shop. Then I climb into my silver Saturn with its New Jersey plates and drive past the Stop & Shop, with the radio on for company. I feel in touch with the modern world.

Some hours later, having driven out along Interstate 90 – the Mass Pike – and down the 495, past Framingham and Ashland and Milford, I find myself in the Franklin Stop & Shop, standing at the Dunkin’ Donuts counter. “Oh my gawd! We’ve almost run out glazed!” cries one the attendants. “The other day we sold one glazed all day!” “Mm-hmm,” replies her colleague, in a world-weary tone. “Some day you sell none at all, other days they all just go.” They are playing Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract in the cafe, and I sit there with my doughnut and my cfee and my map Massachusetts, plotting my route out towards Amherst and the University Massachusetts, and up to Greenfield, about two hours west. I love to think Richman making this drive, about the “college out there that just rises up in the middle nuthin’/ You’ve just got fields snow and all a sudden there’s these modern buildings/ Right in the middle nothing/ Under the stars.” There is the glorious feeling driving for driving’s sake, away from the draw Boston, away from the ocean, and delving deep into the heart Massachusetts.

It is late when I get home. After staying a couple nights at a hotel overlooking the harbour I have moved to the Howard Johnson, out by Fenway Park, home the Red Sox. It is a low-rise hotel across from a McDonald’s, inside it is filled with a weary light and the stale smells the Chinese restaurant attached. In its heyday, Howard Johnson’s was a hugely successful chain motor hotels and restaurants, famous for its 28 flavours ice cream. Richman loved the Howard Johnson’s chain, devoting an entire song to it in his early days, in which he declared happily: “I see the restaurant/ It is my friend.” At one point, Tim Mitchell writes, Richman personalised his Stratocaster guitar by cutting out a piece it, spraying it the recognisable greeny-blue the Howard Johnson logo and then reinserting it. Today, there are only a couple Howard Johnson’s restaurants in existence, none them in Massachusetts, and the logo lives on only as part a budget hotel chain.

Outside the hotel tonight the snow is deep; it piles up around wheel arches and lies thickly across bonnets and windscreens. I haven’t really spoken to anyone for days, and my firmest friend has become the radio. I’m tuned to AM, in homage to Roadrunner, with its gleeful shouts : “I got the AM!/ Got the power!/ Got the radio on!” Tonight in the neon glow the carpark, I flick through stations broadcasting only in Spanish, music shows, adverts for dating websites, custom replacement windows, car loans, Dr Kennedy’s prayer show, until they blur into one long rush song and speech and advertisement “Truththattransforms.org, for $29.99 you get one free, You wouldn’t stay away as much as you do/ I know that I wouldn’t be this blue/ If you would only love me half as much as I love you.”

For my final night’s drive it is snowing heavily. I decide to cover every single geographical point on the Roadrunner map in one long drive, setting out shortly after nine o’clock for Gloucester. It is a beautiful night, the roads empty, the snow falling onto my windscreen in great beautiful plumes, I put my hand outside the window and the flakes float gently, coldly on to my fingers. I drive past the Stop & Shop, I drive out towards Amherst, to south Greenfield. I take in Route 128, the Mass Pike, Route 3, from R9 I loop down to R495, down towards Quincy, I head out to Cohasset, to the rocks. And as I spiral about the snowy landscape I feel like a skater, pirouetting across the ice.

I drive for hours. “But I’m hypnotised,” as Roadrunner (Thrice) puts it. And it is a funny thing, driving alone, late at night; pretty soon you come to feel at one with the car, with the road, with the dark and the landscape. This is one the themes that rises up out Roadrunner, that feeling that “the highway is my only girlfriend” that here, loneliness is a thing to be cherished. “Now I’m in love with my own loneliness,” he sings. “It doesn’t bother me to feel so alone/ At least I’m not staying alone at home/ I’m out exploring the modern world.”

It is the early hours the morning. I am tired. My mouth is thick with cfee and my throat dry from the car heater. As I loop back towards Route 128 for the final time I turn f the radio and put on Roadrunner (Thrice): “One-two-three-four-five-six!” Suddenly there is a lump in my throat. I pull over and wind the window down, let the cold night air rush in, and through the falling snow I watch all the lights the modern world, blinking out over Boston.

“Well you might say I feel lonely
But I wouldn’t say I feel lonely
I would say that I feel alive
All alone
‘Cause I like this feeling
Of roaming around in the dark
And even though I’m alone out there
I don’t mind
‘Cause I’m in love with the world.”

· Click here to see a map the celebrated Route 128 itself.