As a longtime admirer of the critic, literature professor and decorated poet Joshua Clover, I was delighted to recently be a part of a panel discussion regarding his new book-length treatise on Jonathan Richman’s world historic classic “Roadrunner.” Clover’s book is the first in a series of Duke University Press-sponsored publications about single tracks that alter the trajectory of the culture — a fascinating concept. As a test case you could scarcely do better than Clover’s take on “Roadrunner,” a panoramic consideration of everything from the American Highway Act to the global consequences of the revved-up American capitalist model so pervasive that it threatens to subsume the known world in a miasma of greed and violence. After the panel, I wanted to reconnect with Clover for a follow-up interview and so we did. So much to discuss. Chuck Berry, irony, wage subsistence and what Ian Dury might have referred to as reasons to be cheerful. I highly recommend grabbing his book, and recommend checking out Robert Christgau’s review as well. Our recent discussion follows. Radio on!
EN: You and I have now had a couple of conversations about Jonathan Richman and irony, but I wanted to ask you again about this because I’m still trying to figure it out. I’ve been a fan of his forever, but I’ve always struggled to understand his stance with respect to the overarching sincerity of his enterprise. Clearly he is genuinely a deeply nostalgic and humane individual, but is he also sort of commenting in some sense about the act of being deeply nostalgic and humane in this age of falsity and avarice? You call “Roadrunner” an “anti-irony campaign.” Can you expand on this?
JC: I think when I tried to answer that the first time, I was trying to give an answer that was as smart as the question, and I kind of outsmarted myself. So, now I’m going to give a dumb answer. I think he’s completely non-ironic. There’re multiple definitions of ironic. And, as I’ve mentioned, I’m a literature professor. So, as you can imagine, I’ve had to tangle with a lot of those definitions. I want to keep things as simple as I can with a specific, technical-sounding, but actually not technical at all, definition of irony which is about a form that’s aware of its own content.
So, when you say something a certain way to transform the content of what you’re saying, like, if I say, “Have a nice day,” but I say it in a way so that it means obviously I don’t want you to have a nice day? That’s irony. Because the form changes the meaning, and indicates that I’m aware of the content of what I’m saying, and that transforms it.
In that sense, I do not think Jonathan Richman’s ironic at all. I do not think the form is looking back at the content knowingly, and being like, “heh heh.” It’s obviously trying to capture something pure about what rock and roll is, its wants, its desires, and what it could be. But it’s not commenting on that purity from a sense of remove.
Jonathan Richman spends his whole career running away from rock and roll stardom and resisting the snarky, hard edges of having seen it all, having figured it all out and being totally over it. I think he spends his whole career refusing to be that guy. He gets insistently more and more naive and silly. And he’s committed to the immediate, and not to the mediated. So he’s totally not ironic. That’s my stance and I’m sticking to it.
EN: Another way in which Richman is a paradox is that for all of his affability and openness, he is probably America’s great bard of loneliness after Frank Sinatra. As you point out in the book, the song “Roadrunner” is in some ways all about solitude and finding friendship in the inanimate: the car, the car radio, the highway itself. And the suburbs, in my experience, can be a profoundly lonely place relative to the sturm and drang of urban life. One reading of “Roadrunner” is that the highway is like outer space to Major Tom. It’s thrilling and beautiful but on some level profoundly isolating. Can you talk a little about loneliness in “Roadrunner” and Richman’s music in general?
JC: I agree, that’s one of the great themes of the song. As a baseline, it’s a song that’s fundamentally about the modern world. And that says everything and nothing because anyone would appropriately ask, “What is it about the modern world that’s so interesting?” And you could say, “Well, it’s the Stop and Shop, and all the things he names.” But it’s also the loneliness of the modern world: the modern world that produced the American highway system, which exists to make the suburbs possible, and people live in the suburbs, and still work and shop in the cities, and so on.
But yeah, it’s deeply about loneliness. Some versions of the song are more explicit about this than others. The miraculous long version called “Roadrunner Thrice,” really has that vibe. What makes it interesting is, for me, is it’s not about the loneliness of, “I wish I had a girlfriend, or boyfriend, or romantic partner of some kind.” And we’re so used to seeing rock and roll as being about boy meets girl, in some sense.
But that’s excluded from the song so it’s necessarily lonely. Which is also why it’s so shocking when you hear the song for the first time, and it’s just that familiar format of a guy playing his guitar, singing a song, and suddenly it turns out the entire band is in the car with him. Richman goes, “Now you say it, Modern Lovers!” and they say, “Radio on!” and you’re like, “Holy shit, the whole band is in the car, and I didn’t know!” That’s the other way out of loneliness in rock and roll. It’s not a romantic partner. It’s the band.
That’s one of the reveals of “Roadrunner.” It’s that the human solution for loneliness is the band, and they all think it’s great to be together. I loved that when I was 17 and I love that now.
EN: In the book there is much fascinating conversation about Chuck Berry, still the greatest chronicler of the American motorways and of course a crucial influence on “Roadrunner.” I was very intrigued by the discussion surrounding the relationship between Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys earlier recording of “Ida Red,” which clearly exerted some influence on Berry. The two songs taken together assert a different kind of connection between country and western and rhythm and blues then I feel like is commonly acknowledged. I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about the connection between Chuck Berry and Bob Wills and the ways in which the tissue that connects their music seems to have at some point been deliberately severed by the arbitrary genre distinctions imposed by radio playlists, industry brokers or other cultural gatekeepers. Do you have a sense of when or why this began occurring and what the ramifications were?
JC: This is a huge question, Professor Nelson. I’m not sure I can answer this question in good faith, which is to say, there are very serious Chuck Berry scholars out there — RJ Smith, for example, is writing a megabook that he’s in the middle of right now — and I don’t count myself in that class. And I don’t want to call myself a Bob Wills scholar, either.
The racialization of the charts you allude to has a long history. So, there’s at least three narratives here that intersect: One is the racialization of the Billboard charts, one is racism in the United States, which underpins that racialization of the charts, and one is the claims that people make for genres later on. But there’s been attempts to rectify some historical wrongs going back to, most dramatically, the Elvis Presley story and Big Mama Thornton. There’s been an effort to reconstitute the extent to which rock and rollers took the blues and really foreground that. That’s important work, and great scholars have contributed mightily to that effort. And it may be that this scholarship has obscured, maybe necessarily, the debt rock and rollers owe to country music, and in particular the kinds of upbeat country and country swing that Bob Wills was engaged in.
So it’s very hard to calculate rock and roll’s influences and their internal kinship because that involves making contemporary racialized claims about what rock-and-roll is and who deserves credit, and that is really difficult and something we want to be very thoughtful about. I think that the great drama of pop music is the tension between what I’m going to call white subsistence and Black subsistence. By subsistence, I mean staying alive outside of the wage economy. So, you can think of two different kinds of subsistence: One, you grow your own food and, and do your own plowing, and country music’s all about this, right? Country music is endlessly about what I’ll call white subsistence, which is agricultural living. That’s not to say there weren’t Black farmers and agriculture. Of course, there were. I just think the ideology of country music is white subsistence, white proletarian subsistence. And the ideology often held about Black music is about Black subsistence of the underclass.
But if you look at gangster rap, or you look at images of it in country music, it’s also a being outside of the wage because you’re a gangster of some kind, right? Or you’ve been pushed out of the wage economy and you’re unemployed. That’s the narrative: The unemployed, the excluded, the people who have to have a hustle and figure out a way to survive outside the wage. That’s the story of Black subsistence and that tension between white subsistence and Black subsistence, that’s what it’s all about, man.
And over and over again, that turns out to be the theme that people, knowingly or not, are working through in pop music. The racialization of the pop charts divided up genres, and country and hip-hop are really striking because of how intensely they were segmented off and not allowed to contribute to the pop charts.
Essentially the Hot 100 didn’t really include country music and they didn’t include hip-hop for a long time. So the Hot 100 would have pop and certainly rock, but hip-hop had to be on its own chart. Country had to be on its own chart, and neither genre would show up no matter how massive they were. That all changed with SoundScan, when all of a sudden we had the numbers and everyone discovered literally overnight that Garth Brooks is by far the most popular artist in the world. And no one had any idea. And so that racializing of the charts and that segmenting off was a way of keeping separate, and preserving the tension between, white subsistence and Black subsistence. It’s two different models of the underclass and this was a political project to keep those two categories apart.
But I will try to speak to Chuck Berry and Bob Wills. I think if you listen to Chuck Berry thoughtfully you really hear how explicitly he’s drawing on country as well as blues in a way that you don’t with, say, Bo Diddley. And there are other early figures in rock and roll where you can sort of see they’re leaning this way or that way — towards blues or country. But Chuck Berry says, “I’m going to grab the heart of both of these and I’m going to have both those beating hearts.” And I just think that’s part of what makes Chuck Berry astonishing.
EN: You talk at length in the book about the almost limitless tragedy of transnational colonial exploitation in the contemporary world, and yet I am curious to know what you perceive as a historical difference from earlier centuries. How are our current manifestations of Western hegemony different in moral and practical terms from Joseph Conrad and Lord Jim? Is it mostly a question of going faster miles an hour?
JC: Yeah, it mostly is. I don’t think anyone’s gotten ethically worse or better.
I do think that the particular forms it takes now are brutal and getting brutal-er. We’re in a kind of desperate race right now. Where on the one hand, capitalism seems to have hit its limits: it’s not growing, it’s not absorbing, as I like to say. To get back to this question of people who have access to the wage, capitalism is not providing access to the wage at the same rate that it’s producing people. And so huge swaths of the population are not able to be absorbed by capitalism, and so capitalism has to manage those people by some other means, right? So the wage is one way we manage people — “wage discipline,” it’s famously called. Which means in order to keep access to the wage, people behave very well and they show up more or less on time and they’re decent citizens. The wage is the way we manage people.
But if you are no longer absorbing people, you have to manage them otherwise. And the other way of management is the colonial, right? The police station, the barracks, the direct violence of the state, that’s the other way to manage people. And we see that not just in cases of explicit colonialism. In American cities, where there’s massive incarceration, that’s just domestic colonialism, right? But then you have the same phenomenon globally, of direct violence as a mode of managing people and managing society.
The limits to capitalism at a global level produce an intensification of colonial violence. And as capitalism reaches its limit, you still have to figure out how to make a profit, and it’s hard to do that, especially if you’re not exploiting more and more workers. So one of the things you can do is cheapen your input. You can figure out how to extract fossil fuels and bauxite and aluminum and all kinds of things more and more cheaply so you can still somehow make a profit out of it.
And that’s another mode of colonialism, where the global extraction corporations express and maintain power over territory so they can do their extraction. That really sucks for the people who live there, it sucks for the people who have terrible, fatal jobs in the mines, and it sucks for the people who were pushed off their land and have nothing to do at all. So that’s really bad and moreover, as we know, that is simply accelerating the end of the world by a climate collapse. So this whole complex is really, really bad. It’s the end of the world, Elizabeth.
So, yeah, that’s a little theme of the book.
EN: So in the spirit of the world ending and things ending in general, I guess let’s end the interview here: In the book, your critique of the spirit of 1972 and the rise of what we think of as the Modern Age connects American imperial power to the eventual rise of global poverty, the dwindling of the union movement and workers rights, widespread disease and ecological catastrophe. When you reflect on this do you think there were off-ramps that we missed on this highway? Did we miss opportunities to forestall the realities of our current moment?
JC: I don’t think there is such a thing as an off-ramp. That said, I don’t want to say I’m claiming some sort of rigid determinism or developmentalism, whatever the term is where you’re just on one track and you have no choice.
I absolutely believe that we struggle to make our own history. Although we do not do it in the circumstances we have chosen. And I think the metaphor of the off-ramp is the one you are very reasonable to choose because we’re talking about highways, we’re talking about driving, but it’s probably not the metaphor I would reach for. I think it’s more the idea of driving around and around.
So the book itself makes a circle because it starts with “Roadrunner” and comes back to “Roadrunner.” It goes from the Ring Road, all the way out to global circulation, planetary circuits, and then it comes back to the very smallest circle of the book, which is the circle of the record on the turntable, and thinks about the form of the spiral. But the spiral is going the other direction because vinyl records spiral inward, and history spirals out.
So it’s like shapes recur over and over again, you know, Dutch East India Company, British East India Company, British Empire, US Empire. The shapes happened but they’re bigger each time, and that’s the spiraling outward. And I think I would stick with that spatial metaphor. So there’s no off-ramp but you come to the edge of that spiral and it can’t get any bigger.
And at that point, something dramatic happens. We don’t know what that thing is, right? We don’t know if that thing is really bad, which is just like, collapse into volatility and turbulence and a thousand years of darkness and the end of the possibility of human flourishing. Or maybe it’s pretty good. Maybe it’s a communist revolution, and people figure out a way to produce what they need to stay alive without having to do industrial capitalism, or any kind of capitalism, and that proves somewhat stable, and doesn’t destroy the planet, and doesn’t enslave and dispossess people.
And so, when we reach the edge of the spiral, I don’t know if something good or something bad happens, but we’re getting close to it. And so, yeah, I don’t think we can go back to 1972 and choose again. I do think we have the power to sort of figure out when to start that big struggle or transition, or whatever it is, and the direction that it goes, when it goes. I think we have that power.