Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner": The Only Song Johnny Rotten Likes
Countless American streets have been memorialized in song (Route 66, Highway 61, Tenth Avenue) but few are as passionately remembered as Jonathan Richman's beloved Route 128.
Tonight, Massachusetts-born Richman will make a stop at Santa Ana's Galaxy Theatre as part of his West Coast tour. Although his performances have drifted far from those youthful rocking days, he will always be known for "Roadrunner" - his ode to the joys of driving under the watchful eyes of teenage lust and AM radio.
Richman got his start in the early 1970s fronting his band the Modern Lovers. Alongside future Talking Head Jerry Harrison and future Car David Robinson, Richman was a proto-punk singing simply-constructed songs about girlfriends and Picasso with a blasé tone and an awkward stance. Of the dozen songs on their 1976 debut, opening track "Roadrunner" immediately defined the band's sound: loose, goofy and in love with "modern girls and modern rock and roll."
Route 128 stretches through 60 miles of suburban Boston landscape, from Paul Revere's old stomping grounds in Canton to the lobster trap-strewn beaches of Gloucester. Bouncing between two simple chords Richman sings a lyrical homage to the sights along that two-lane stretch: trees, factories and the ubiquitous supermarket Stop & Shop.
Richman has said the song was largely influenced by the Velvet Underground's 15 minute-long primitive stomping squeal "Sister Ray." So it is only appropriate that former Velvet John Cale produced the recording in 1972. Once it was finally released four years later, it didn't take long to catch on. Across the pond, and without even knowing the lyrics, the Sex Pistols attempted their own take on the song. As simple as it is to play, it unsurprisingly proved a little difficult for the gob-soaked quartet.
Starting in the 1980s, Richman drifted off into more acoustic forays (including a couple of appearances in Farrelly Brothers movies in the late 1990s) but "Roadrunner" has lived on in countless garages and the occasional Letterman appearance.
Johnny Rotten once told Spin magazine that he "hates all music." "Not one song?" asked the interviewer. "Oh yeah," he responded. "'Roadrunner' by the Modern Lovers." How's that for an endorsement?
Jonathan Richman plays tonight at the Galaxy Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, CA. 18+, doors at 7 p.m.