Faster Miles an Hour Who Knows Where

Joshua Clover, "Roadrunner" (119 pp., 2021)

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I was reading a book as usual while awaiting my turn with my physical therapist, who is not only what my life coach has called “a genius with the strongest hands in the business” but a staunch progressive and knowledgeable music lover, although not necessarily a big reader. Yet before we got down to calisthenics I begged his leave to read him the long paragraph I’d just then encountered as I waited. Nor can I resist reprinting it here, regrettable singular “they” notwithstanding. Its subject is the Jonathan Richman-penned Modern Lovers song the book is about, “Roadrunner.”

“There is a music lover but not a professional musician. They are adjacent to the radio. One day they encounter an ordinary object, a popular object, but they see its beauty, they encounter it with a sort of religious fervor, and they see that the world is filled with these things, that the world is thus itself beautiful. It is a sort of revelation. And they have a need to deliver this message about their love for the world, about the extraordinariness of the ordinary, and they see that a pop song is the way to do this because a pop song is, like a highway, both a perfect conveyance and a perfect example of this sort of ordinary, popular, beautiful thing. So they put this all into a song, a song that is their message to you that they are prepared to drive around the world or at least around the ring road to deliver, and though they are not much of a singer they begin to sing. Now I will make the obvious additions. ‘Roadrunner’ is the incomparable and illimitable version of this story. It has never been told this purely, this relentlessly, lifting out of itself to communicate this one thing. In this regard, lacking a verse-chorus structure, lacking a chord progression, lacking a melody, lacking, it would seem, a working knowledge of what a song is, it is for all that the most conventional song ever recorded.”

Joshua Clover, who wrote this paragraph, is an award-winning poet who teaches English at UC Davis. He is also a brave political activist who’s joined if not led many IMF and World Bank protests, published a book called Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings, survived a rightwing attempt to rob him of his tenure, survived a near-fatal Davis bicycle accident, and way back in 2001 was a serious candidate for Village Voice music editor. After the 2008 crash I deemed it my duty to assign my NYU music students his grim, financially savvy M.I.A.-focused essay “Terrorflu,” which impressed the smarter ones mightily, maybe even taught them something. By alerting me to the Black-Scholes equation for derivatives speculation, which I’d never heard of, it did me, with the result that I downed 10 books about banking for a Barnes & Noble Review piece called “Dark Night of the Quants.” “Terrorflu” was a first pass at Roadrunner. I disagree with Clover about many matters both musical and political. But despite our disagreements, I’m totally down with it.

Duke’s Singles series, which Clover helped develop and this title kicks off, limits each book to 30,000 words and one song, although comparisons to other songs would seem inevitable. True, Clover’s chosen song was released in three YouTube-available versions designated “Roadrunner (Once),” “Roadrunner (Twice),” and “Roadrunner (Thrice),” each of which he goes into. But I’ll leave such not-so-micro distinctions to him while summing up a basic argument that dovetails better with Black-Scholes than you might have figured. “Roadrunner” was written by 21-year-old Boston suburbanite, Velvet Underground superfan, and amateurish bandleader Richman in 1972, the year before the oil crisis befouled the world economy, and thus also the year Black-Scholes began helping oil-deprived speculators transmogrify it from a production economy that exploited workers on principle to a circulation economy that didn’t care if they lived or died. But early on the song compares its historical moment to a still-booming highway, the pioneering U.S. ring road Bostoners know as Route 128. As he drives around in his automobile, Richman identifies the newfound infatuation with the ordinary referenced above as “the spirit of 1956”: the year, Clover calculates, that gave us “the commanding heights of the postwar boom” signaled by Eisenhower’s interstate highway initiative, a moment of planet-wide material plenty never before matched and never again to be equalled. Never ever.

In other words, Richman’s infatuation with ordinary things proves a farewell to their holy plenitude, only he doesn't know that yet and may never truly figure it out, because one stroke of holy genius by no means guarantees more. What Richman almost certainly does know, at some level and probably many, involves the most striking of the three song comparisons Roadrunner unlooses: to Chuck Berry’s late-1955 “Maybellene,” which as Clover notes is a high-ranking candidate for the silly, proud title of first rock and roll record. As someone who’s read more than you or Clover about Chuck Berry, believe me when I say this stuff is high quality. I don’t buy the oft-told tale that “Maybellene” lifts its melody in any meaningful way from Bob Wills’s “Ida Red”—the inflection, timing, and sheer force of the Berry song are so distinct they render note values all but irrelevant. Nor do I believe that the “highway sound” “Maybellene”’s Berry hears as rain cools his engine down is much more than the tires-plus-engine whirr of a car cruising on a silent highway. But Clover’s hypothesis that the “highway sound” Richman hears in “Roadrunner” is “Maybellene” pealing from the radio might just as well be true. So might the more fanciful notion that it was “Maybellene” Johnny B. Goode would later play to the rhythm of a passing train, though Clover misreads exactly who merely sees him (the train’s “drivers”) and who hears him (“people passing by”).

So there you have the foundation. As “the most conventional song ever recorded”—or as Greil Marcus put it decades earlier, “the most obvious song in the world, and the strangest”—Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” encapsulates, emanates, and emulates a lost and indeed illusory moment of incomparable-feigning-illimitable faux-utopian exhilaration. But of course, that doesn’t nearly end the story, the completion of which in Clover’s telling evokes two other songs: “Brimful of Asha,” the only major hit by the long-running U.K.-Sikh-plus-Canadian-Anglo cult band/duo Cornershop and an even more definitive hit by the U.K.-born, East Asia-raised, L.A.-based Sri Lankan Tamil rapper Mathanga “Maya” Arulpragasam, M.I.A. to you. Both, of course, are of East Asian “extraction,” a term I’m glad to note you don’t hear much anymore, which for Clover signifies big, because as he wrote his 30,000 words mid-pandemic he was surely more aware than he preferred that his “Terrorflu” essay found in the circulation economy an all too real-life, all too lethal metaphor in the 2005 “bird flu” epidemic, even if ended up killing millions of birds but not many humans (so far). But what also resonates for me is that both artists are musical touchstones where I live: my Duke Is It Still Good to Ya? collection gathers six pieces about M.I.A. including two little ones, and my wife Carola Dibbell’s 2002 Village Voice Cornershop reflections pack some surprisingly streetwise cultural authority.

Having maxed out at 1500 words in “Terrorflu,” Cornershop gets its own 5000-word chapter in Roadrunner, an oft abstruse one at that: “It’s a little hard at first to hear that ‘Brimful of Asha’ is Tjinder Singh’s version of ‘Roadrunner’ come back around as a global idea,” Clover allows, and no kidding. Nonetheless, he gets the job done, explaining why Cornershop—whose mastermind Tjinder Singh began as a brainy fan of 19th-century agrarian socialist William Morris (and whose father, Carola deduced, might well have been one of the Sikh busmen who won a culturally crucial 1969 strike in Enoch Powell’s Wolverhampton)—deserve to be thought of as “the Postmodern Lovers,” especially once Norman Cook a/k/a Fatboy Slim speeds their signature song up in a chart-topping BPM equivalent of what Jonathan Richman dubbed “faster miles an hour,” pushing “the jangle forward so that the elaborate dance mix nonetheless says I am the simplest of rock songs, all I want is everything.” He also provides a coherent outline of post-1973 economic history nowhere more useful than when it names insurance and real estate as finance’s equals among “the speculative arts.”

Which brings us both back to our innocent beginning and forward into a perilous future with the greatest album of the 21st century, M.I.A.’s 2007 Kala. Its breakthrough megahit is the Clash-sampling “Paper Planes,” its playlist sleeper the kiddie-spiked “Mango Pickle Down River,” its Clover exhibit the Donald Rumsfeld slatewiper “Bird Flu,” and its neatly thematic opener the equally confrontational “Bamboo Banger,” which announces itself with tricky tabla-and-traps over which M.I.A. intones “Road runner road runner/Going hundred mile per hour/Road runner road runner/Going hundred mile per hour/With your radio on/With your radio on.” Clover says much worth pondering about this album before he returns just as fruitfully in his final chapter to “Roadrunner” itself.

But first I’m proud to report that I was the rare New Yorker who caught the Modern Lovers early: August 15, 1972, at Nassau County’s My Father’s Place, preceding, I swear, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins of “I Put a Spell on You” fame, who got one bemused graf of a Newsday review otherwise devoted to the openers and 22-year-old “Jonathan Richmond.” I knew they were big in Boston and noted how much Jonathan recalled the Velvet Underground: “a hard, spasmodic style with flash guitar to match.” I’m pretty sure “Roadrunner” got my attention, but I didn’t mention that one. Instead I admired how unhippie the Modern Lovers were, singling out a finale where Jonathan implored a skeptical crowd to “scream along” on “I’m Straight.” “Straight”—in late-hippie 1972 that was a kick. Because where Clover celebrates how percipiently Richman straddled two economic epochs, I’m ­often although far from always impressed by how stalwartly Jonathan maintains his innocence. As I wrote once, he splits the difference between a cute kid and a kid who knows adults think kids are cute.

In what is now a long adult work life, which these days he seems to split between music and selling pizza ovens, Richman has been deeply charming sometimes and icky others, and is strikingly smart in Todd Haynes’s new Velvet Underground documentary. As recently as 2014 he put across the fey, half-Spanish No Me Quejo De Mi Estrella, and the small joys that populate 1983’s willfully minor Jonathan Sings!, with “That Summer Feeling” merely the standout, aspire to a quiet spiritual sustenance with few parallels in pop music or anywhere else. So I was gratified to find Clover’s final chapter praising a close relative of this strategy: Richman as he got older, he says, was “the most amateur of amateurs,” doing “whatever he could to stay adjacent to the radio without disappearing into it. Maybe someday his name would be in lights, nah, maybe not.” Yet rather than distracting Clover from his political purpose, this concession, if that's even what it is, may well be one reason he quotes Marx to begin his final paragraph: “Now, when everything is at an end, give me your hand, so that we may begin again from the beginning.”

I should add that when my PT session was over, my physical therapist grabbed his phone and took a picture of Roadrunner’s cover. By the time my life coach had her next appointment, he’d bought the book.