Rock and Roll Book Club: Joshua Clover's 'Roadrunner' takes a journey with Jonathan Richman

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Cover art for Joshua Clover, 'Roadrunner.'
Joshua Clover's 'Roadrunner.' (Duke University Press)

Boston is a terrible city for driving, which is probably why its best-known automotive references in pop music are heavily ironic. The Cars applied glamorous mid-century cheesecake imagery to music that looked forward rather than back, anticipating the tight throb of '80s hits. Jonathan Richman, meanwhile, is best-known for the song "Roadrunner," a song that merges frantic energy with an insistent pulse — featuring near-absurdist lyrics about "going faster miles an hour."

"The highway is your girlfriend," sings Richman in a line that could have been penned by David Byrne; as Joshua Clover notes in his new book Roadrunner, journalist Lisa Robinson described Byrne as being "like Jonathan Richman without the warmth."

Roadrunner, Clover's book, has plenty of warmth; in fact, it runs positively hot as the poet and cultural theorist veers off onto one exit ramp after another. If anything, Roadrunner could have used a little more cool-headed history: there's a whole chapter tracing the connections between M.I.A. (yes, you read that right) and "Roadrunner" without ever noting whether Maya Arulpragasam has ever had anything in particular to say about Jonathan Richman. It doesn't seem that she has, but Clover did remind me that the opening lines of Kala are a reference to "Roadrunner"; Richman, in fact, has a writing credit on opening song "Bamboo Banga," which further refers to having "your radio on."

You've got to give credit not only to Clover, but to Emily J. Lordi (author of The Meaning of Soul), who along with Clover co-edits the Duke University Press series aptly called Singles. The series, in which Roadrunner is the inaugural volume (no successors have yet been announced), does the 33⅓ series one better by devoting single volumes to single songs.

"Roadrunner" is far from the most obvious choice to kick the series off; whereas songs like "Formation," "Respect," or "Bohemian Rhapsody" could pretty obviously merit book-length treatments, Richman's shaggy-dog rocker doesn't seem quite as substantive. As Clover notes, even Richman's had complicated feelings about the song. When the Massachusetts Legislature, in 2013, considered a bill to name "Roadrunner" the official rock song of Massachusetts, Richman demurred: "I don't think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind." (Legally, of course, he has no say in the proposal, which has been slowly advancing and may well eventually be enacted.)

Unlike 33⅓ authors, Clover has no apparent mandate to present historical legwork; thus, unless you're already a Richman stan you'd be well-advised to whip through the Wikipedia entry on "Roadrunner" before cracking Roadrunner. Even there, though, you won't read about Private Lightning, the Boston band Clover devotes his book's opening chapter to. I even thought they might be fictional until I listened to "Song of the Kite" and found it just as Clover describes it: just another song about the freedom of the road and the power of the radio. There are a lot of those out there, which makes the book's title track — and Clover means this as high praise — "the most ordinary single of all time."

It all goes back, of course, to Chuck Berry: the late poet laureate of the American automobile. Clover duly pays tribute to the author of "No Particular Place To Go," "School Days," and of course "Maybellene." Driving cars to driving beats has been part of rock and roll's DNA since the very beginning ("repetition without tedium," Clover quotes Robert Christgau as saying), and while the Velvet Underground weren't exactly a "car band," their art-rock take on Berry's beat informed "Roadrunner" in the person of John Cale, who produced the original and most widely-heard version of the song. (Over years of recording and performance, "Roadrunner" has gone through Dylaneseque permutations without losing its basic essence.)

Clover eventually gets to M.I.A. and argues that a song about perpetual motion is particularly well-suited for an artist whose work is heavily informed by her family's refugee experience. He also cites Cornershop's "Brimful of Asha," a sort of spiritual cousin to "Roadrunner" with its sincere goofiness: another unabashed tribute to the healing powers of motion and music.

But back to Massachusetts, where Richman loves driving down Route 128 — past the Stop 'n' Shop, listening to the "rocking modern neon sound," as apt a description of the era Richman helped inaugurate as Dylan's description of the "wild mercury sound" on Blonde On Blonde.

Clover quotes Richman's friend John Felice on how truly unironic "Roadrunner" is. "We used to get in the car and we would just drive up and down Route 128 and the turnpike," Felice remembered. "We'd come up over a hill and he'd see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed." The man just loved Massachusetts, alright?

It's as simple as that, which is why even a compact 132-page book feels stretched a bit thin, particularly when Clover gets into Baudrillard and Baudelaire. At times, Roadrunner reads like a school paper written by a student trying desperately to meet a word count:

We are talking about a single. Not just a lone track as opposed to an album but singular, singular in its multiplicity, which is to say, when a million copies circulate, there is no unique original but there is a shared experience of hearing a single, you have the radio on and I have the radio on...

Clover gets into similarly dicey territory when he moves on to Chuck Berry, thinking a little too hard about how engineers could possibly hear the title character playing his guitar when they were riding a passing train. (In fact, Berry never says the engineers heard Johnny: they just saw him.)

There are insights to be found in Roadrunner, but ultimately we're left appreciating the the limits of language when it comes to appreciating the power of music. Sometimes you've just got to get motorvating, driving faster miles an hour with the radio — of course — on.

(FYI: Jonathan Richman will be at the Fitzgerald Theater on March 4.)

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September 23: Bessie Smith: A Poet's Biography of a Blues Legend by Jackie Kay

September 30: Tori Amos Bootleg Webring by Megan Milks

October 7: The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

October 14: Who Got the Camera? A History of Rap and Reality by Eric Harvey


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