a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on August 31st, 2010

Late last week we ended a wonderful stay in Maine, one where a quiet lake, the company of family, the calls of loons, the cracks of lobster shells, and the splash of kayak paddles were the dominant experiences of lazy days.

We returned, however, by driving straight home — in a minor family legend of a road trip that took sixteen hours to complete. The traffic wasn’t bad, but it took a little longer than anticipated, and it’s just a long, long way.  As time wore on, dusk turned to night, we found ourselves in the seemingly endless urban plain of New Jersey with a blur of highway stops, gas stations, exits, and a slow flux of neighboring cars and trucks to keep us company.  We talked, planned, argued, listened to music, read, drove.  And drove.  And drove.

And while we certainly weren’t on a quiet lake in Maine any more, there was a certain familiar but usually overlooked beauty to this, too: streams of red tail lights ahead, oncoming streams of white headlights, the rush of buildings, bridges, signs and overpasses, a giant civilization all around.

“Just Drive 2: New Mexico – New York,” YouTube video uploaded by ‘heraldstreet’, whose
description is “driving across america in 1995 with a super-8 and the radio. music by
jonathan richman and the modern lovers. pretty well unedited.”

More than 30 years ago, Jonathan Richman captured some of that in the underground rock anthem “Roadrunner” — one of his first recordings.*  While the exact lyrics could vary from performance to performance, the gist was that there is a beauty in the experience of … driving through the suburban sprawl around Boston Richman called home, at high speed and with the radio on:

I’m in love with the modern world
I drive alone when it’s late at night
I wanna hear now, the modern sound
so I won’t feel alone at night
I mean I’m in love with the modern world […]

The song already has the trademark Richman touch: sincere, almost painfully heartfelt emotions about the little things in life, and being willing to say you love them.  In a fine “Guardian” article about the song, (The car, the radio, the night – and rock’s most thrilling song), Laura Barton cites Richman’s friend John Felice, from a biography by Tim Mitchell, ‘There’s Something About Jonathan’:

…Richman’s former next-door neighbour and founder member of the Modern Lovers, John Felice, recalls the excitement of driving that route with his buddy: “We used to get in the car and we would just drive up and down Route 128 and the turnpike. We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed … He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it. We’d drive past an electric plant, a big power plant, with all kinds of electric wire and generators, and he’d get all choked up, he’d almost start crying. He found a lot of beauty in those things, and that was something he taught me. There was a real stark beauty to them and he put it into words in his songs.”

The overriding emotion is exuberant joy, both in the lyrics —  “faster miles an hour,” “the power and sound”, the “Radio on!” refrain — and in the music: a solo by Richman near the midpoint of the song** is sheer Chuck Berry-style guitar glory, and to me, the music often evokes that feeling of easing into the left lane, accelerating, and leaving a tangle of slower cars behind for the open road ahead.  Both in this song and others, three of Richman’s favorite words are “love,” “modern,” and “suburban,” and they sometimes seem to almost serve as synonyms.

But as Felice’s story suggests, there’s also a kind of instant nostalgia, or rather, the awareness that soon you will be nostalgic for unassuming, simple, familiar things, just the way other things already verge on quaint to the 1972 songwriter: “Say hello to the spirit of 1956,  Patient in the bushes next to ’57.” And while some of the lyrics varied from performance to performance, one of the things that doesn’t is the “bye bye” at the end of each one — something also Richman says to an old world of fading Americana in the aptly titled “Old World,” another Richman song from around the same time.

Nothing lasts forever
With its ‘in love with the modern world’ road trip theme and a deceptively simple home-made video style, the “Just Drive” video above is a fitting video to go with “Roadrunner” and vice versa; in fact, I think it deserves the same kind of acclaim.  The video was uploaded to YouTube and produced in 2006 by “heraldstreet” and “tank top productions” of Wellington, New Zealand, respectively.  It consists mainly of Super-8 footage (shot by “dave, rachel and tory”) of a 1995 cross-country trip from California to New York City; it seems likely one or all of these three were involved in the production of the video and its predecessor chronicling the California-New Mexico leg of the trip.

While the description claims the video is “pretty well unedited,” the four and half minutes of film are surely at least selected from more plentiful material, and it seems likely at least some of the selections were planned to be material for a do-it-yourself MTV home video to go with the song.  The footage rarely focuses on famous landmarks, but favors mundane shots of 1995 America: supermarket shelves, water towers, propane tanks, traffic lights, signage, cars in traffic.  Little of it occurs at night, none in Massachusetts, and there are no pat shots of an AM radio.  But the fit of the images to the feel of the music and its words is very good.  It’s a stretch, but sometimes the trip almost has the feel of a pilgrimage, one made so that the video could be made and set to the music and song it was set to.  The 1995 images already seem otherworldly.

As ever, what I get out the video and the music may well be quite different from what their makers intended.  But to me, a viewer in his 50s who has made similar cross country trips by bus and car, and who has also been “in love with the USA” the way Richman is in a different song (Modern World — the music for the preceding video), that same video and music simultaneously brings joy but also a certain wistfulness.  The quick shot of the buried cars at Cadillac Ranch suggests it a little, the procession of “ant” cars in a highway loop viewed from on high (maybe from the Sears Tower?), the sheer quantities of consumer goods in the supermarket — they all pose the hidden question in the song: can it last?

Not always, not forever.  Seeing the World Trade Center twin towers in the video (~3:45-3:50) still brings a lump to my throat nine years later, mainly for the people, but also for themselves.  I know some people thought the two towers were just big boxes, but I always thought they were great — not one but two identical, simple, elegant, monumental  gravity-defying American arms reaching to the sky.  But now they’re gone. “Bye bye.”

The odd, “what’s that?” ending to the video — something exploding in a harbor — may speak to that.  After scanning page after page of comments (this is a fairly popular video on YouTube, with over 185,000 views as of today), I found that it was almost certainly not from the 1995 road trip, but a clip of the scuttling of the New Zealand Navy frigate HMNZS Wellington in 2005.  The sinking ship mirrors the “the end” chords of the music and the “bye bye” of the lyrics, but I wonder if the event also catalyzed the final production of the video a year later — a full 11 years after the trip, and 5 years after the towers fell.

It provided a different way to say the same thing I thought looking at the cars, the supermarket, the WTC: nothing lasts forever — and sometimes old things go out with a bang, not a whimper.  In this modern world, nothing even lasts more than a little while any more — that’s what modernity has come to mean.  We can still treasure the good parts of our lives in what is still basically 20th century America — the freedom, the scope, the occasional grandeur and, for some of us, the pleasures of all those suburban homes — while it’s all still there.  We can also quietly wonder whether all of it — the car culture, the consumer culture, the oil culture — can last, and hope America can re-invent itself for a 21st century.  We need a new modern world for future Jonathan Richmans (and me) to love.

CREDIT: Ramon Rempel maintains an unofficial web site of Richman songs that was extremely helpful for this post.
* For those scoring such matters at home, I’ve learned there’s widespread agreement that musically, at least, ‘Roadrunner’ owes a lot to ur-punk band Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray.” Lyrically, though, it’s so far removed I think it might be a rejection of that drug- and violence-themed song.  At any rate, Wikipedia tells me ‘Roadrunner’ has been re-performed by musicians from Joan Jett to the Sex Pistols to Phish and Yo La Tengo.
** From about 2:16 to 2:45 in the video; the recording used appears to be the “alternative” version of the song on the “Modern Lovers” album.

2 Responses to “Bye bye to all that: Roadrunner, ‘Just Drive,’ and 20th century America”

  1. Dave Ellis Says:

    Hi Thomas
    I was glancing through old unread emails in one of my rarely used and almost-forgotten email accounts when I came across your email alerting me to this post. So it has taken a couple of years but I’ve finally read your excellent and thoughtful piece discussing road trips and Jonathan Richman. You’re pretty well bang on with your speculation about the film but there is probably more chance than design in there. I think I only had three rolls of 3 minute film so fitting a month on the road into 9 minutes was always going to be a challenge, so I basically just squeezed the trigger for a couple of seconds when I saw something interesting. As you can see I like water towers and propane tanks. Once I finally digitised the super-8 editing consisted of cutting out a few overly long or seriously out-of-focus sequences. The Roadrunner version was longer than the useable film I had, so rather than slow it down or repeat any footage I added the F-69 sequence out of convenience as a filler – the “bye bye” fitted nicely in retrospect but like all of the visual/music tie ins, it was mostly coincidental. I knew it would confuse th ehell out of anyone watching it but that’s no bid deal – you certainly found something in it which is great. I only thought of the songs to go with it towards the end of editing, but I’ve been a fan of Jonathan Richaman forever so it was probably inevitable he’d get in there. Coincidentally I saw him at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC about the time you wrote your piece in 2010. Everyone loved him of course, he’s so great. Yes that was shot from the top of the Sears tower. Rachel is my partner and Tory is her sister who was with us for the first couple of weeks on the road and they shot some of the footage. There is no Tank Top productions I just made that up of course. And good luck with America reinventing itself for this century, not a lot of signs of that from down here – like you say, you can still focus on the good parts.
    Thanks for writing. Ka kite an?.
    Dave Ellis

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Tena koe!! (greetings to you) Wow, thank *you* for writing! I put up the video every so often on Facebook because I like it and the music so much. What a pleasure to hear the inside story, and see how it matched up in some ways but not in others with what I speculated. Fascinating how art and music can both transmit the maker’s meanings and acquire all kinds of extra meanings of their own in the minds of viewers and listeners. Maybe that’s trite, but I’ve never been quite as in the middle of it and as aware of it as with this.

    Ka kite an (see you again), I hope, whether online or otherwise. Sounds like you make it to the States now and then. And/or maybe I’ll find myself in New Zealand some day, what a trip that would be.

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