One time many years ago, Joshua Clover was wandering aimlessly around the U.C. Berkeley campus. From across Sproul Plaza he heard the sound of a musician.
As he approached, he saw a small cluster of students, maybe 10. Inside the circle, a man was crawling on the ground. “I’m a little dinosaur,” he sang.
Almost 40 years later, Clover is here to make the case that another song by this man might hold the key to all of rock ‘n’ roll, and, by extension, to the concept of freedom itself. The man, of course, is Jonathan Richman, the rare-bird Natick native who founded the band called Modern Lovers, members of which later joined the Cars and Talking Heads.
The song is “Roadrunner.” First recorded in 1972, unreleased until 1976, it’s a simple, joyous song, mostly just two chords, about the simple joys of driving up and down Route 128 late at night. Some readers may recall that the beloved song has been proposed in the Massachusetts state legislature as the state’s official rock song.
Clover, who teaches critical and political theory at U.C. Davis, is a poet and a scholar. He chose “Roadrunner” as the first subject for “Singles,” a new series of book-length essays, each covering one song, from Duke University Press.
“I’ve always been a fan of the single rather than the album,” says Clover, co-editor of the series with Emily Lordi. Upcoming books will focus on “Hound Dog,” “Old Town Road,” and “Last Christmas” by Wham!, to name a few.
Clover, who will read from his new book in a virtual event on Sept. 16, part of Joyce Linehan’s ongoing book series, was born in Oakland but moved to Massachusetts as a boy. His family moved often — Dorchester, Cambridge, Brookline, Newton. Later, he studied at Boston University. During his senior year, one of his roommates was the future comedian-actor-podcaster Marc Maron.
The idea behind the “Roadrunner” book and the “Singles” series grew out of “Critical Karaoke,” a concept Clover organized several years ago at Seattle’s Experience Music Project. While a song plays, a critic takes the microphone and discusses its significance.
For the first book in the series, he considered some of his other favorite songs, among them Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good.”
“That song will never not give me shivers,” he says.
Ultimately, however, he knew it had to be “Roadrunner.” In a brisk 100-plus pages, he pulls off a kind of critical jiujitsu, linking a song about driving past the Stop & Shop “with the radio on” back to Chuck Berry’s classic songs about riding along in an automobile, and forward to Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha” and M.I.A.’s album “Kala,” both of which reference “Roadrunner.”
Along the way, Clover equates the 45 RPM of a 7-inch record rotating on a turntable to the “ring road” concept of a beltway encircling a metropolitan area (like Route 128). Those circles spin out to encompass the idea of revolution itself, as he proposes a theory of rock ‘n’ roll as an illusion of freedom. For such a modest song, it’s a big responsibility.
“It’s obviously ludicrous to write about a single song for 130 pages,” he explains, “so it has to lead somewhere.”
Like the song, Clover’s lengthy essay steps on the gas from the on-ramp and keeps pushing.
“You can’t really move forward until you know your sound,” he says of the writing. “It is like the motion of the car — it keeps going, it passes things, but the car doesn’t stop.”
In the end, the young man listening to music in the car effectively disappears into the radio. It is, as Clover writes, one definition of the meaning of ecstasy: “literally out of place, beside yourself.” That’s the business of a great pop single, he continues, “how it lifts you out of yourself, how you feel in touch with something larger.”
Or, as Richman so memorably put it, just going “faster miles an hour.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.