December 5, 2010

Crummy Stuff


Thinking about it, I realized recently that almost everyone I know has a Ramones story to tell. George Tabb tells a great one about how he was their roadie and guitarist for one day. Someone else tells a story about walking around the East Village with the always unpredictable Dee Dee Ramone one afternoon. Things were fine until Dee Dee spotted Henry Rollins through a restaurant window. The sight of Rollins threw him into a murderous rage, smashing a beer bottle and charging into the restaurant, screaming “He stole everything from us!”. Mike my bartender had a small role in Rock n’ Roll High School. Gary sat next to Joey’s mom at the Ramones' final show. Morgan ran into Johnny a few times, and she and I used to see Joey on the street almost daily. (That last one isn’t really a story—just a thing.)

            The Ramones were one of those weird bands that everyone seemed to like (except for that rotten Ms. Togar). It’s true across the board—when was the last time you heard anyone badmouth The Ramones? In the week after Joey died, I started hearing Ramones songs playing in places that never played anything even close to that sort of music in the past. The universal mourning that accompanied his death (and Johnny’s, and, well . . . I guess everyone kind of expected it with Dee Dee) might’ve been a New York thing, but when I was growing up, The Ramones were the only punk band apart from The Clash my mom would tolerate in the house.

Boneheaded music writers have wasted far too much ink trying to explain why this is, but that’s not my concern here. Myself, I’ve always had kind of a strange relationship with The Ramones phenomenon. For one thing, I wasn’t introduced to their music by hip friends or because I was looking for something different. When I was twelve I was listening to almost nothing but classical music. That was different enough for me, which the kids at school made quite clear. But then the six year-old neighbor kid I babysat regularly brought over a cassette his drug-addled but wise uncle had made for him. One side featured some early Zappa, with the first two Ramones albums on the other. We went to my room and plunked it into my clunky portable Panasonic tape recorder. While “Beat on the Brat” caught my ear, I wasn’t all that interested in the rest. It was kind of funny, I suppose, but nothing life-changing the way it was for so many others, and certainly nothing I would go out and pick up for myself. I liked Tchaikovsky.

            A few months earlier, mind you, I’d found myself at the Winterland in San Francisco, having an absolutely miserable time at the Sex Pistols last show. Man I hated the noise and the people. So in short, I crept into punk rock slowly. It wasn’t until I was sixteen or seventeen that I was fully immersed, and by then The Ramones were old hat. I recognized how important and seminal they were, but they were like The Beach Boys. There were so many bands around by the early eighties who were so much harsher and nastier than they were—and at that age and to my mindset, the harsher the better. I still had all their albums, and even bought my nieces Ramones tour t-shirts for Christmas one year, but my nieces didn’t care for the t-shirts, and the records were rarely at the top of my playlist.

            The problem was, I was a little suspicious of them. It was my natural contrariness kicking in. If everyone loved them, if they were that universally adored, then something was wrong. Hell, if my mom didn’t mind them, then something was definitely wrong. In later years, my ex-wife didn’t even mind them, and that was the certain kiss of death.

            In spite of my suspicion I went to see them play live—but because of my suspicion this didn’t happen until 1987, when I was living in Philly. I went to the show partly out of respect for their stature, but mostly because I had just started writing for a newspaper and needed a story. Now, I had a very poor attitude toward everything at the time, and thinking back on it I wonder how determined I was to hate the show before getting my hand stamped at the Chestnut Cabaret that night.

            Henry Rollins once described a Ramones show as “like running through a gauntlet of fists,” and that was more true than he realized. It was, without question, the most violent show I’d ever attended. I’d seen Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and G.G. Allin live, but none of them came close to the scope or level of crowd violence that night. Bodies were flying through the air, fists and elbows and feet were swinging out of nowhere. I took it as nothing more than sheep doing what was expected of them. I left with two black eyes, a chipped tooth, a sore jaw, and assorted bruises, scrapes, and minor cuts. A few cigarette burns, too, which were mostly my own fault. But that wasn’t the problem.

Up on stage, the Ramones were doing exactly what was expected of them, charging through roughly fifty songs in an hour, separated only by shouts of “one-two-three-four!”. Slower, more complex songs from their later albums had been crushed into the three-chord, supersonic formula, making them indistinguishable from any of the others. That wasn’t the problem, either—this had always been the standard format for their live shows, and it’s what the audience had come to expect and demand. If The Ramones had broken that agreement, who knows? All those hopped-up animals in the pit might’ve charged the stage instead of pounding on me.

            The problem I had was that in the midst of all this, as I was being punched and kicked and knocked about, I was watching the band carefully throughout the show, and they all seemed so bored. They weren’t having any fun. They were just factory workers up there, going through the same repetitive motions they’d been going through almost daily since 1974. At the close of the show, Joey threw the mic stand to the ground and stomped off the stage like he was sick of the whole fucking deal. In later years I would learn about the ugly personal politics at work within the band, so maybe his behavior made sense, but in my ignorance at the time it just seemed sad. Plus I’d seen plenty of hardcore shows in my time, and instead of being the revelation this might have been ten years earlier, it was . . . just another hardcore show, but in a bigger venue.

            Back when we were in school, Grinch once commented that if The Ramones had died in a plane crash after their third album, they would’ve immediately been considered gods, on a par with Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Buddy Holly. As it stood, though, they continued living, they put out their annual record, and they were fast becoming an oldies act. They were cartoon teenage dinosaurs in leather jackets and pageboy wigs. At the same time, however, Ramones lyrics had indelibly infiltrated the language Grinch and I used. We couldn’t talk about grad school, for instance, without dropping “gonna get my Ph.D.—I’m a teenage lobotomy” in there someplace. And that’s still true.

I went back to my apartment after the show, aching and limping, and wrote a snide little review that generated lots of hate mail from True Believers. That made me feel better.

            Over two decades after that night, and with three of the four original Ramones in the ground, my attitude has changed considerably. I don’t care if my mom does like them—The Ramones now make perfect, wonderful, brilliant sense to me (and I think they always have).

Late last week something tripped that old obsessive trigger in my brain, and I’ve been listening to nothing but Ramones records since. It’s hardly the first time this has happened. And in listening to them—and in considering all these stories from all these people—it occurs to me just how far The Ramones have surpassed the likes of Jimi Hendrix and that pretentious fat loser Jim Morrison in terms of cultural importance. (Buddy Holly’s another story—though I see him as their immediate, geeky precursor.) And even though it might have saved and cemented their reputation and their eternal teenagery, the fact that they’re dead now makes me profoundly sad. Without The Ramones, who’s gonna write songs for our assorted mental defectives and freaks of nature?


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