“Roadrunner,” The Modern Lovers’ 1972 proto-punk ode to driving around Massachusetts late at night listening to rock ‘n’ roll, could—and should!—become the “Official Rock Song of the Commonwealth” after a state representative has submitted a bill proposing it—for the third time.
A hearing on bill H.1683 is scheduled for a hearing on the afternoon of Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Massachusetts State House in Boston. I submit this as my official endorsement of the bill.
“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,” Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman sings in “Roadrunner.” It’s a song by a Massachusetts native about that exhilarating, ineffable, bittersweet feeling of driving around Route 128 late at night. “Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on.”
Richman has always been a sweet, funny, perceptive troubadour, penning whimsical songs suffused with witty adventures and starry-eyed doo-wop romance. With The Modern Lovers, he gave all that an electric charge by implanting it at the heart of a Velvet Underground-inspired band. Which broke up before the album was even released.
“Roadrunner captures the essence of growing up in suburban Boston in the 1960s and ‘70s,” says State Rep. David Linsky, a Democrat from Natick, where Richman also grew up, who has submitted the bill to the state Legislature for the third time. “…For those of us who understand the importance and significance of Jonathan Richman, they should immediately call, email or write their own Massachusetts state representative and state senator, as well as the chairman and chairwoman of the Joint Committee on State Administration, Rep. Jennifer Benson and Sen. Walter Timilty.”
“It’s LONG past time we got this one done,” Joyce Linehan—a prominent arts publicist, political operator and now chief of policy and planning for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh—wrote last week on Facebook encouraging people to testify in favor of the bill at Tuesday’s hearing.
The whole thing began in February 2013, when, at Linehan’s urging, a Democratic state representative from Boston by the name of Marty Walsh filed a bill to designate “‘Roadrunner’ as the official rock song of the Commonwealth.”
The proposal went viral with reports everywhere from Pitchfork and The New York Times to the CBC and The Guardian. Novelist Nick Hornby took to Facebook to proclaim: “I have never urged anyone to vote for anything on FB. But here, finally, is a cause we can all agree on.”
“It is woven as deeply into the cultural landscape of Massachusetts as the Turnpike itself,” wrote commentator, comedian and Brookline native John Hodgman on his blog when he threw his “strong support” behind the plan in 2013. “It is the pulsing sound of the night and the future. It connects the midnight ride of Paul Revere with the dream of every Massachusetts teenager who has just gotten their license and is discovering the Freedom Trail that is Route 128 after the last movie lets out.”
But Walsh won the mayoral election in 2013, left the Legislature and got distracted. The bill foundered. “’Roadrunner’ might not be the official rock song of the Commonwealth, but it’s certainly the unofficial,” Linehan told me in 2014. “Think of how much play it got in this past year and a half. It’s played at Fenway every game now. I think we brought a lot of attention to the song. I think we brought a lot of attention to this kind of unbridled optimism that Jonathan Richman espouses.”
State Sen. Robert Hedlund (who co-sponsored the original bill in the state Senate) and State Rep. David Linsky refilled the bill in 2015, again without success.
Richman himself at first came out against the bill—“I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind” he said in 2013—though later he seemed to maybe warm to the idea.
Linsky says Richman is “a bit difficult to get in touch with. But I know the spirit of Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers is with us.”
“It is a song about the transcendental nature of pop music and an example of pop as pure transcendence,” local music critic Sean Maloney wrote last year in his book-length examination of the 1976 “Modern Lovers” album for the “33 1/3” series. “‘Roadrunner’ is a prayer for whoever wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll but didn’t see the need for a third cord. ‘Radio on!’ is the mantra for anyone what ever believed in the power of pop music to open up worlds of possibility. …. ‘Roadrunner’ is the clarion call for outsiders everywhere.”
Help us keep producing our great coverage of local arts, cultures and activism by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.