Radio On

This morning, as I was driving in to work, I was blaring my car’s CD player almost as loud as it would go. I was doing this for a couple of reasons.

First, because it’s a crappy car. A well-worn, teenaged Pontiac, it’s constantly derided by my wife and me as the “Grand Piece.” It creaks and rattles and the motor makes sounds like a dying sump pump. But it has a stereo, and that makes up for a lot.

The other reason is that I was playing the song “Roadrunner,” by The Modern Lovers, and I love that song so much that, if I could, I would make it our national anthem.

Throughout the song, Jonathan Richman croaks out his stream-of-consciousness love letter to Boston and driving at night while the Modern Lovers, about eighty-four of them by the sound of it, chant the World’s Best Rock Refrain, so jubilantly and recklessly that it almost becomes a mantra: “Radio on! . . Radio on! . .”

“Wow,” I’m thinking, as I’m listening to the stereo in my car on my way to work this morning. “How great is that?”

That’s not what I’m saying, though: I’m saying, of course, the same thing anyone would be saying in my situation.

“Radio on!”


As the song died down, and the next one started to fade up, I calmed down a little and wondered if anyone had noticed me, rocking the Grand Piece, rolling north on Meridian at 8:30 in the morning.

The next song wasn’t nearly as good - bad playlisting on my part when I made the disc - and I had a second to think. The simplicity, and the evocativeness (I wish there was a shorter word for such a simple idea) of the phrase “Radio on” is just so perfect, the revving up of the beginning “r” and the gape-jawed finish lending themselves so perfectly to yelling along . . . and the meaning, so familiar, of what it means and how it feels to be driving with the, with the “Radio on!” that it’s damn near impossible not to feel something - especially if it’s loud. And I did.

The only thing is, my radio wasn’t on. It was a prerecorded disc, I realized, just like everything else I play in my car or my house. In fact, I’m not even sure we have an antenna. And suddenly I felt kind of deprived.

The Modern Lovers, whether they knew it or not, were singing the praises of a specific experience - of hearing a great song suddenly come on the radio. This is always a moment of cosmic good fortune: This song, this few moments of joy, was floating through the air and it found *you,* and when it’s over it’s over and this is all we get, so enjoy it. Sing along.

It’s just not the same when you can skip back to the beginning and start the track over again.

But I’ve always listened to discs; even when they were tapes, they were discs. I’ve just never liked waiting for the DJ to play something good. I bet I have six hundred CDs. Not to mention a full iPod and a bushel basket of minidiscs I made in college - back when I had little to do besides compile 74-minute collages of tracks from the Muncie Public Library’s music collection.

I found a lot of great stuff that way. But it was all stuff I more or less chose, and in doing so I undoubtedly missed other stuff, stuff that was probably great too, some of it maybe even as great as Roadrunner.


I’ve heard it said, though only by me, that money is nothing more than freedom - the freedom to decide what you want to do with your time instead of having that decision made for you. Most of the people in the world don’t have and haven’t had anywhere near the freedom I have, and of course I am grateful and ashamed at the same time.

I have missed some things, though, and I’m not sure what to make of that. Because I could choose to go to college instead of working, and because I could choose to listen to my own music instead of what was broadcast to me, and because I could choose a job that lets me type my little thoughts and work things out in my little head, I have missed many, many new and surprising - and initially unwelcome - feelings and experiences that others have come to enjoy.

I’ve wallowed in self-absorption where others have gotten to - had to - embrace the world outside themselves, beyond themselves.

This seems fair.

What doesn’t seem fair is for me to realize it now. Why should I get to understand, and have the chance to change, the double-edged privilege that appears to be My Lot in Life? I’m just lucky, I guess.

And the only way for me to repay that debt is to use these remaining precious, undeserved moments to discover something that only I can see, and to share my stories with the rest of the world. That’s all I’m good for.

But I’ll do it, gladly. And I will remember, from now on and as often as I can, that despite all the distractions I may have the leisure to construct, the DJ only plays the song once, and we must enjoy it while it lasts.

And sing along.

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