I am often at my happiest when I am at my most ridiculous. I don’t act on that self-knowledge often enough, but I did today when I spoke before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight in favor of “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers becoming the official state rock song. An official rock song? Isn’t the whole purpose of rock’n’roll to upend that sort of thing? Maybe, but politics is the art of the possible and not the perfect. So is rock’n’roll, if you think about it. Regardless of the rock’n’rollness of the setting, “Roadrunner” is as close to a perfect rock’n’roll song as you’ll find. If we’re going to have an official rock song in this weird state, this is surely it. And I got to deliver my testimony as part of a hilarious lineup of a hearing that including two bills regarding clam chowder (one as official state appetizer, another as official state dish) and acts designating, among other events, Sleep Deprivation Awareness Week, Aviation Awareness Week, and Narcolepsy Awareness Day.
Here’s my testimony:
I am here as a longtime citizen of the Commonwealth to register my support for “Roadrunner” as our official rock song. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers said all that needs to be said on the matter in four minutes and six seconds, so I promise I’ll come in way under that.
“Roadrunner” is profound and it’s profound in the way it celebrates the mundane. It makes art out of driving to a Stop and Shop, out of driving around your state late at night, listening to the radio, trying to make yourself feel better. Is there anything more American than that?
Or, to consider it another way, is there anything more American than wasting gas? “Roadrunner” was recorded in 1972, a year before the OPEC oil embargo, back when the stuff was cheap, $3 a barrel, and seemed to go on forever. Is Richman wasting gas? Or is he investing in gas? You can’t put a price on the feeling you can only get driving late at night listening to the radio.
That’s only one of an infinite number of mysteries in “Roadrunner.” I’ve got plenty more of ‘em, including one involving the Natick Mall, but I’ll just share a few reasons why “Roadrunner” is the only possible choice for official rock song.
It’s educational. Most songs only count off to 4, this counts off to 6. That’s 50% more math than most rock songs. At a time when communities are convulsing over math test scores, we should accept “Roadrunner” as a gift to the children of the Commonwealth. And, in lines like “going faster miles an hour,” it creates a whole new brand of English syntax — born in Massachusetts.
It’s for everyone. With only two chords and the occasional hint of a third, it’s a song almost anyone can learn to play. It’s been celebrated as one of about 1,000 songs that invented punk rock, but its influence goes way beyond that. It’s the only song that the jam band Phish, the electronic artist M.I.A., and punk stalwarts The Sex Pistols have all covered. If you’ve come up with something that Phish fans, M.I.A. fans, and Sex Pistols fans can agree on, you have truly captured the universal.
And it’s about triumph. You try shouting “radio on!” over and over out an open car window and not feel victorious. A little embarrassed, maybe, but victorious. Not that I would know from personal experience.
I admit it: There may be better bands from Massachusetts. There may have been better songs written and recorded in Massachusetts. But there’s no other song that so simply captures the complex delights of living in this beautiful, strange Commonwealth. It comes out and screams what no other song in the history of rock’n’roll ever has: “I’m in love with Massachusetts.”
Thank you very much.
Thank you to Joyce Linehan for making all this happen and to my friends for pointing out ways I could improve my testimony.