Massachusetts Has a Very Massachusetts Fight Over Its Official State Rock Song

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 5 2013 7:41 AM

Dream On vs. Radio On

Massachusetts has a very Massachusetts fight over its official state rock song.

Left: Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. Right: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.
Left: Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. Right: Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

Left: Photo by Alterna2/Flickr. Right: Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Clear Channel

Anyone who’s watched a Boston Red Sox home victory in recent years will recognize the Standells’ 1966 hit “Dirty Water.” It’s a rude, brutish song whose opening riff sounds like someone heard Keith Richards’ intro to “Satisfaction” and thought it too pretentious. “Dirty Water” was once a charming relic of ’60s trash-rock, but the Fenway faithful have bludgeoned it into a musical symbol for all that’s despised about Boston sports fans: the gloating tribalism, the thin-skinned vanity that mistakes itself for self-awareness. The song’s dumbness lurches from delightful toward despicable with each fist-pump to its refrain, “Boston, you’re my home.” The Standells, of course, were from California.

“Dirty Water” has thankfully not figured in to the new controversy that’s tearing apart the Bay State, namely the fight over the Commonwealth’s official state rock song. In the past three weeks, competing bills have been put before the state legislature, and, at the time of this writing, there’s no resolution in sight. In one corner is the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” beneficiary of a months-long grass-roots effort by Boston music maven and activist Joyce Linehan (who was herself inspired by a 2007 essay about the song in the Guardian) and state representative Marty Walsh. In the other is Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” the hard-charging late-comer backed by representatives Josh Cutler and James Cantwell (in true Massachusetts form, all of these people are Democrats). At first glance it’s an argument over two irreconcilable ideals of rock music and rock fandom, one that’s raised the hackles of everyone from the Boston Globe to Gawker to the BBC. Other states have named state rock songs—Ohio, Oklahoma, Washington—and have done so without drawing international attention. But Massachusetts has never minded attention, and something about this fight is distinctly of the Commonwealth, its every insecurity writ large, or hilariously small.

Aside from the coincidence of both songs being recorded in 1972 (the same year Massachusetts became the only state carried by George McGovern, as its residents will still remind you), on the surface “Roadrunner” and “Dream On” couldn’t be less alike, nor could the people who love them. The Modern Lovers represent music you discover by reading magazines without pictures and bragging about not owning a television; Aerosmith represents music you discover by hanging around Patriots tailgates and the credits of Michael Bay films. In Massachusetts these two caricatures often share the same ZIP codes, tirelessly shadowboxing in each other’s imaginations. As far as the artists themselves, the only thing that the Modern Lovers and Aerosmith have in common is an admirable apathy toward the controversy: Aerosmith has remained silent, while “Roadrunner” writer Jonathan Richman has said that “I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind.”

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That last bit is a funny sound bite that’s also wrong, or at least overly humble. “Roadrunner” is a great song, a bleeding-heart love letter to the radio and a relentless travelogue of local specificity. Richman has recorded the song many times, but the earliest and best version is from the Lovers’ legendary first album: The band careens through its 4-minute running time like kids driving a stolen sports car, throwing shout-outs to Route 128 and Stop & Shop, Richman’s declarations of “I’m in love with Massachusetts” surpassed in delirium only by the amazing neologism “going faster miles an hour.” In its subject matter, the song’s reverence for the state is unsurpassed, but to pay too much attention to the words is to miss the song’s point. “There’s something very Massachusetts about ‘Roadrunner,’ ” Joyce Linehan told me in a recent conversation, “but I also think there’s something very joyful about ‘Roadrunner.’ It’s life-affirming.” Somewhere, Emerson taps his foot.

“Dream On” is about … well, I’m not sure Aerosmith even knows what “Dream On” is about. Its statehouse champions call it “a classic ballad about holding on to your dreams and seizing opportunity,” which is more accurate if you read “dreams” as “Bic lighter” and “opportunity” as “a keg cup of Narragansett.” “Dream On” is a quintessential power ballad, a thicket of lyrical clichés so impenetrable it makes “Stairway to Heaven” sound like a Joan Didion essay. But like “Roadrunner,” “Dream On” isn’t about meaning so much as it’s about a certain experience, and as the cornerstone track of Aerosmith’s 1973 debut album, it’s come to mean something much larger than itself. There’s no band more thoroughly or happily associated with Massachusetts than Aerosmith, local boys made good who sell music to people who are sometimes more invested in “local boys” than they are in “good.”

“Dream On” might be Aerosmith’s most ubiquitous song, but it’s not even the best song on their first album, and after decades of commercials and video games and American Idol episodes, the band itself is synonymous with overexposure. To the outside world, the Masshole-culture industry’s continued obsession with its local boys overlooks the fact that most of those boys have had it pretty good for a while now. The anthemic populism of “Dream On” sounds as shrill as the talk-radio caller complaining that Tom Brady is underrated, and hey, I haven’t seen Argo but Affleck got totally robbed for The Town.

“Dream On” is the sound of Aerosmith becoming one of the biggest bands ever at the precise moment that the Modern Lovers were becoming something like the opposite. “Roadrunner” wasn’t officially released until the Modern Lovers’ first LP finally appeared in 1976, nearly three years after the original lineup had broken up. All great hipster bands break up before getting big; the Modern Lovers broke up before anyone had even heard them. In a rock-snob worldview, the Modern Lovers’ failure at the moment of Aerosmith’s success is evidence of the former’s worth: Part of the reason the Modern Lovers are great is because everyone else loves Aerosmith.

“Roadrunner” also assuages and indulges a hard-core New York envy, that august tradition of a region where the only thing more common than “Yankees Suck!” chants are out-of-town subscribers to the New York Times. “Roadrunner” was produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale and shamelessly jacks the groove from “Sister Ray,” the last track on the Velvets’ White Light/White Heat. In February of 1977 the Modern Lovers’ former keyboardist, Jerry Harrison—whose buzz-saw organ is the unsung star of “Roadrunner”—dropped out of grad school at Harvard, moved to New York, and joined a fledgling band called Talking Heads. “Roadrunner’s” lyrics are suburban Boston, but its music is straight East Village (even though it was recorded in L.A., the one city that Boston and New York hate more than they hate each other).

This whole controversy will resolve itself and never resolve itself, another weird rotary for a state that loves to chase its own tail. I could speculate on whether “Roadrunner” is better than “Dream On” (it is) or whether Aerosmith is as bad as some say it is (it really isn’t), but I’m trying to know better. I grew up less than a mile from Route 128, and the first concert I ever attended was Aerosmith, and it was incredible. I was 13 and the band played for hours, and to my right stood a woman well older than my mother who screamed “fuck me, Joe!” in a South Shore accent every time Joe Perry played a guitar solo. There’s a raw wonder to that evening that’s burned in my mind, born of discoveries we make long before we learn it’s cooler to like the Modern Lovers than Aerosmith. And when I hear Jonathan Richman sing “I’m in love with Massachusetts,” part of me thinks of her, in love with it too, going faster miles an hour.

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.