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Modern Lovers’ ‘Roadrunner’ could soon be a state song

It begins like no other iconic rock song, with a quirky countdown from the lead singer: “One, two, three, four, five, six!” Next comes the pummel of electric guitar, drums, and bass.

Roadrunner,” first recorded by the Modern Lovers in the early 1970s and best known from the group’s 1976 debut album, is an unabashed musical valentine to Massachusetts, where its songwriter, Jonathan Richman, was raised. In a confessional style, as if he’s telling you a story, the Natick native sings about driving past a Stop & Shop and says he loves Route 128 at night. Perhaps most famously, he declares, “I’m in love with Massachusetts.”

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Now “Roadrunner” could become the official rock song of the Commonwealth. On Thursday, state Representative Martin “Marty” Walsh of Dorchester filed a bill to make that happen.

Walsh was prompted by a petition from Joyce Linehan, a mover and shaker in the local community through her work as an arts publicist and on political campaigns.

“I wish I could tell you that I had to convince Marty, but I really didn’t,” Linehan said from her home in Dorchester. “He sees the value of this song and how well it represents Massachusetts and might allow others who aren’t from here to see the state through a different lens.”

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Richman may not be a household name, but “Roadrunner” has become a beloved and deeply influential part of rock’s pantheon. With its largely two-chord structure and Richman’s spirited delivery, it has been hailed as the first punk song and covered by everyone from the Sex Pistols to Joan Jett and Yo La Tengo. Richman’s band, the Modern Lovers, included then-Harvard student Jerry Harrison, who later became part of Talking Heads, and David Robinson, who went on to fame with the Cars.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Joyce Linehan, an arts publicist, and state Representative Martin Walsh of Dorchester have led the charge to make the iconic Modern Lovers tune “Roadrunner” the official state rock song.

Linehan may be perfectly positioned to help propel the song to state recognition. A publicist for such local groups as First Night and ArtsEmerson, she is well connected in both the rock music and political worlds. The former manager of the Lemonheads, Linehan was an A&R rep for Sub Pop Records (she has a Nirvana gold record on her wall) and runs her own label, Ashmont Records, with musician Joe Pernice. She was also heavily involved with Elizabeth Warren’s senatorial campaign after having volunteered for other local and state campaigns.

Walsh, who says his taste in music leans more toward U2 (“I’m an Irish politician, how could I not [love them]?”) admitted he hadn’t heard “Roadrunner” before Linehan reached out to him but quickly recognized its merits.

“I’m not going to compare a rock song to what the Founding Fathers did, but it is about our state’s history and we have to be proud of the people who have made it that way,” Walsh said. “The issues of substance abuse and public safety are important issues, and we take them very seriously on Beacon Hill. But I also think we have to look at the other side of what makes our state so rich in tradition and history. And this is part of it.”

Walsh’s bill will be assigned to a committee and given a date for a public hearing that could happen as early as April, Walsh said. If it gets a favorable committee vote, it moves to the full House of Representatives and, if passed, to the Senate. Then if both branches approve the bill, it goes to Governor Deval Patrick for signing.

Linehan first got the idea for the campaign after reading a 2007 article in The Guardian, the British newspaper that sent a writer on a journey to places mentioned in “Roadrunner.” In various recorded versions, Richman sings of everything from the Mass. Pike and the Prudential Tower to Deer Island, Mattapan, and Roslindale. More recently, Linehan said, she was “incensed” when RadioBDC, the online radio station launched by Boston.com, polled listeners about which song it should play for its inaugural broadcast. “Roadrunner” came in second to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “I Want My City Back.”

“The song that represents Massachusetts to its core clearly is ‘Roadrunner,’ ” Linehan said, adding she probably first heard it in heavy rotation on WBCN.

In Boston, many musicians consider “Roadrunner” a classic that they could play on the spot. Bill Janovitz, singer and guitarist for local alt-rock band Buffalo Tom, recalls performing “Roadrunner” in jam sessions at places like Toad.

“I just remember what an anthem it was,” Janovitz said. “It’s absolute poetry and cuts right into the essence of what makes suburban Massachusetts so interesting.”

The “Roadrunner” campaign already has its own Facebook page with more than 500 “likes” at press time. And Linehan’s efforts have rippled beyond the state. In England, Nick Hornby, the writer whose music-centric novels include “High Fidelity” and “About a Boy,” commented with a post on his own Facebook page: “I have never urged anyone to vote for anything on FB. But here, finally, is a cause we can all agree on.”

“It’s a song that I’ve always loved,” Hornby told the Globe by phone. “I probably heard it pretty soon after it came out, and I picked up that album on a trip to America. I think anything that celebrates a place, and survives, is special. And that’s what ‘Roadrunner’ does for Massachusetts.”

Jonathan Richman wrote “Roadrunner.”

Massachusetts already has a state folk song (Arlo Guthrie’s “Massachusetts”) and polka (“Say Hello to Someone From Massachusetts”), but nothing that acknowledges a pivotal piece of the Commonwealth’s place in rock history — home to such groups as Aerosmith, the Cars, and the J. Geils Band. Only a few other states have official rock songs, including Oklahoma, which gave the Flaming Lips’ “Do You Realize??” that distinction in 2009.

Robinson was the drummer in the original Modern Lovers lineup and played on what’s considered the definitive recorded version of “Roadrunner.” Reached at his home in Rockport, he seemed genuinely bemused by the renewed interest.

“I was surprised,” Robinson said. “I didn’t know that we needed a state rock song. 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.”

“Even if I hadn’t played on the record, I would pick that song. I can’t even drive down 128 myself without thinking about the song,” Robinson added. “That was one of the songs that was a group favorite. Almost all of the Modern Lovers’ songs were about Massachusetts. Listening to [‘Roadrunner’] now, some of it is kind of funny, but it was real sincere back then. Jonathan Richman could see the beauty in a power plant, the highway, a shopping mall, a parking lot, the back of his high school.”

When Linehan spoke to the Globe, she wasn’t sure Richman would support the campaign.

“Jonathan is not on board, necessarily,” Linehan said. “We’ve put out feelers. I had Joe Pernice send him a message about three months ago. Joe said he left a pretty detailed message, but Jonathan didn’t respond. . . . That’s OK with me, because I feel like in this particular instance, the song transcends the artist.”

Attempts to contact Richman directly did not elicit a response at first. The singer is known to be reclusive and hesitant to talk with journalists. But an assistant to Richman finally e-mailed the following note to the Globe:

“I spoke with Jonathan about your request and this was his comment: ‘Thank you so much, it’s very flattering....but I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind.’”

There’s no state money at stake with an official designation, Walsh noted. So why does it matter?

“I think it codifies the song’s place in our world,” Linehan said. “It’s really about a group of people who love this song and understand what it symbolizes and want to shout to the world that this is the official rock song of Massachusetts.”

James Reed can be reached at jreed@
globe.com
. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.
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