This is a blog post to accompany a playlist to accompany a book, Roadrunner. The book is about the song “Roadrunner” but about never gets it right. I’ll try to say something more useful in a minute but before I forget, some notes on the playlist. There are in truth two. Faster Miles an Hour is the bare bones version featuring songs central to the book’s ideas. Faster and Then Some includes all those songs and numerous others that come up over the course of the book, more or less in the order they appear, not every single title mentioned, but every song that gets a gloss, even if it is just a sentence. Well, almost every song. Some songs are missing from Spotify and some are misnamed. There is a track correctly labeled “Roadrunner (Twice)” but the track called “Roadrunner” should rightly be titled “Roadrunner (Once)”; this distinction is at the heart of Chapter 2. A live version released as a B side in 1977, discussed at the outset of Chapter 3, cannot be found on Spotify but here it is: “Roadrunner (Thrice).” That chapter concludes by revisiting “Johnny B. Goode” and mentions in passing the Sex Pistols cover, which as many will recall, they assay as part of a catastrophic two-song medley with the book’s title song: “Johnny B Goode/Road Runner.” Chapter 4, oriented by a Cornershop song secretly recasting “Roadrunner” from the Global South, culminates with discussion of an extended mix; the playlist has the radio edit, but not the miraculous “Brimful of Asha (Norman Cook Remix Extended Version).” Finally, the last chapter returns to the title song via a later Jonathan Richman track of profound sweetness, also absent: “Chewing Gum Wrapper.”
This book is not about any of these songs. And if it is about “Roadrunner” that is because “Roadrunner” is about much more than it lets on. It can’t help it, that is how songs work, drawing some portion of the everything into themselves whether they mean to or not. The book claims early on, “it is the greatest rock song of all time, or the greatest American rock song of all time, or the greatest American rock song of that era.” But it continues, “I offer those specifications not to diminish the claim but because ‘American’ and ‘rock’ matter to the song and to this book, and ‘that era’ matters.” If the book is about the song, this is because it is trying to understand what America is, and where it is going, and it approaches this by trying to think about the world that the song makes available, that thing of which it cannot help but be a trace — trying to think about the situation in the United States in and around 1972 when the song was recorded. Or some fraction of that situation. I am especially interested in that relatively recent phenomenon that has transformed the life of pretty much everyone on the planet: capitalism, a disaster that, across the globe and the centuries, took its most pure form with the industrial boom in the United States after World War II, during the exact years that would mark the rise & peak of rock & roll. These two things are, I think, inseparable, and that inseparability is the book’s topic, and how that allows for a revised history of the genre. Or maybe it is about the largely unremarked story that rock & roll can’t stop telling from the very start, what I call the ur-story, which contains a great paradox and yet is made of simple pieces that snap together into that astounding and finally awful thing called rock music, a story which will never be told more magically than in “Roadrunner.” Or maybe it is just about driving around.
But now I am at risk of summarizing a book that is already itself a summary, of explaining a book that is an effort at explanation, of revising a book that is already a revision. So I will turn away, which is ironic, since if you are driving along a ring road, as the song does and as the book does, the ring road outside the Boston metropolitan area, the ring road of global history, then you are always turning away, just as you are always turning toward. I will turn for a minute toward a personal story. This is the inaugural title in Singles, a series which I co-edit, each book about a single song. We made a few agreements when we were just starting out, my co-editor Emily J. Lordi and I. For example, we agreed that we would limit the number of classic rock titles in the series, though I was granted an exception as a founding editor. As a corollary we decided to avoid Bob Dylan books, not because there were no good ones left out there but because there were surely quite a few, and yet it was not clear that the world needed our help in churning them into the open air. We agreed to leave them in the ground. And we also agreed that the books should be very limited in their autobiographical scope. There can be little doubt that there is something deeply personal in how we come to love songs, but that is not the same as what is interesting about a song, what a song can know about the world, and that finally is where our commitments lie. So I have tried to leave almost all of that out, save the fact that I happened to be a kid in Boston during the period when the song was recorded and released and recorded and released and recorded and released — it kept happening, in very confusing ways — and that no doubt shapes my attachment.
But the personal story I want to sneak into this note happens in Berkeley in 1981. It goes like this. One afternoon I was walking across campus, something I did quite often as someone who was neither enrolled nor employed and was mostly on acid. It was a good walk and it stood between some friends on northside and the bookstores on southside. So I was walking across campus high on acid and looking for street performers to help kill some of the time I was trying so relentlessly to annihilate. I had a few regulars I visited with, if they were around: the extremely delightful “Hate Man,” an interesting poet known as the “Bubble Lady,” numerous religious ranters, a rather dull political comic named Stoney Burke. If things broke right it could take me a couple hours to make my way from north to south, a journey of some 800 yards. Even longer if someone tried to induct me into a cult. I never wanted it to end because I never wanted to arrive anywhere. But on this particular day I was perilously close to reaching the southern edge of campus, having already passed through Sather Gate into the holy land of Upper Sproul Plaza, when I saw a few people standing around in a circle, no more than ten, and I heard from within that small circle what might have been the sound of singing. It was hard to tell, as I was at a bit of a distance, there was no singer in sight, and I was pretty high.
As I approached over the course of what seemed like a very long and distended time, it must have been about 120 feet, the mystery abated only slightly. There was definitely singing — sweet, labored, cheerful — but still no singer. When I drew pretty near I saw that one person was holding an acoustic guitar but really just holding it, like hold this for me for a minute, his hand on the headstock, its end pin resting on the dirty ground. The singing seemed to be coming from the ground as well? And indeed this turned out to be the case. There was some guy, he looked to be a teenager or maybe 40ish, and within this small circle of onlookers he was crawling on the dirty plaza just a few feet and a few years from Mario Savio and that police car and he was giving it his all.
Berkeley in 1981 not yet having fallen to the Buddhist billionaires and still being stocked with zanies just then showing their age, this was certainly within the range of local customs. But still, this is one of the moments where you check in with yourself to see if you can figure out how high you are really, and I believe I mentioned I was pretty high but I was pretty sure that this was really happening, an incredibly happy busker was crawling around on all fours, frolicking really, periodically looking up and singing in a pretty adorable a cappella, “I’m a little dinosaur.” It’s a song about an entire category of animal and how they have to go away and the children are sad and plead for the dinosaur to return and it does. And that was the first time I saw Jonathan Richman live, more than a decade after he wrote the greatest American rock song of the era, nearly a decade after he recorded it, about the same amount of time after he very carefully, very thoughtfully, utterly implausibly threw it all away. This is a book most of all about why someone might do such a thing.