Jonathan Richman used to describe “Roadrunner,” the best-known song by his band the Modern Lovers, as a “geographical love song.” Now his affection for his home state is on the verge of being institutionalized: there is a movement underway to make the classic song – an ode to the singer’s native Massachusetts as it appeared through his windshield (“Gonna drive past the Stop and Shop with the radio on”) – the state’s official rock song.
Last week, Massachusetts State Representative Marty Walsh filed a bill proposing as much. Jerry Harrison, who joined Talking Heads after the first recorded lineup of the Modern Lovers split, tells Rolling Stone he’s pleased. “I can’t tell you how many congratulatory emails I’ve gotten,” he says.
Harrison, who was born in Milwaukee, was rooming with bassist Ernie Brooks at Harvard when they met Richman. “He wandered into our apartment with some other musicians and some actors who had been in Andy Warhol movies,” he recalls. Harrison was making a documentary for a film class, and he wanted Richman to do the soundtrack. So he accompanied the singer to his hometown, Natick, where they drove around together.
Harrison already knew New England well, he says; his mother’s family was from the old fishing hub of Gloucester, and he’d spent summers as a kid on Cape Cod. Yet it was immediately apparent that Richman saw the landscape differently, with the eye of a pop-art painter. In the car, “I filmed him talking about his love of older American branding and signs. He hated Exxon, but he loved Esso. He loved the Mobil flying horse,” Harrison recalls.
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“His songwriting was very informed by his visual imagery,” adds the musician, who is currently in the studio producing the String Cheese Incident. “It was very much a part of the mythology he was trying to create.”
Massachusetts already has an official state folk song (Arlo Guthrie’s “Massachusetts”) and an official polka (“Say Hello to Someone From Massachusetts”). A few other states have official rock songs – Ohio’s is the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy,” and in 2009, Oklahoma tapped the Flaming Lips‘ “Do You Realize??” Ray Charles‘ version of “Georgia on My Mind” is that state’s official song.
The push to designate “Roadrunner” as the official rock song of Massachusetts began with Joyce Linehan, a Boston publicist who did A&R for Sub Pop Records and now has a record label with Joe Pernice. She has political connections, too: she worked closely with Elizabeth Warren on her successful campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Richman was characteristically blunt when he responded to a Boston Globe request for comment: “It’s very flattering,” he said, “but I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind.”
Drummer David Robinson, who joined the Cars after leaving the Modern Lovers, told the paper, “Now that I see there’s a state muffin, I’m not so sure it’s such an honor. I think they picked the right song, though, that’s for sure.”
When Harrison threw himself a 60th birthday party at his home north of San Francisco a couple of years ago, he reunited with Richman and Brooks to play a few Modern Lovers songs. He knows they played “She Cracked,” though he can’t recall whether or not they played “Roadrunner.”
Despite faulty memories and the band’s brief lifespan, the Modern Lovers hold a distinct place in rock history, and proved important in linking the Velvet Underground to punk.
“I think it’s time for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to induct us,” says Harrison. Asked if he thinks the stubbornly contrarian Richman would approve, he laughs and says, “I think he’d like it.”