Thursday, September 16, 2004

It's the End of the Ramones

It's so sad but we all know it's the end of the Ramones.

Here's how they died:

Joey was a vegetable, resulting in lymphatic cancer.
Dee Dee went bald, causing him to OD on heroin.
Johnny got kicked in the head, which gave him prostate cancer.
But, it's true, the kids still love them all.

Tho, think on this: here's how they will be remembered by the masses:

The Blitzkrieg Bop being played in ten-second snippets at ballparks ("Hi Ho Let's Go").

Maybe by the use of the song in commercials.

They were big enough to have the deaths of Johnny and Joey make national news (Dee Dee's demise was oddly buried), although I have my suspicions that, "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" notwithstanding, it was due in part to their celebrated conservatism. (Still, it's hard to imagine that the neocons like to hang out and put "Road to Ruin' on the turntable and pogo after a busy day of reconstructing Iraq.) Maybe it was that web of "influence" the obits talk about, but I honestly don't hear any real influence of the Ramones in anybody this side of the MTX. How can such purity devolve? No, the Ramones, at this particular juncture in history, are remembered by their fans -- and my remembrance follows below -- and noted in passing by pop culture, which at best had a tiny ripple in one still corner of the pond from the Ramones' tenure.

And Johnny died at his home in Los Angeles, visited by some of his Hollywood actor friends. It sounded very peaceful, not quite the punk rock death. For that, I am happy for him. The high mortality rate at a young middle-age among the Ramones cannot be a coincidence. I've been in CBGB's, and it smelt of corruption of the flesh, in the 19th century sense. (Parenthetically, I think it's possible Roger Daltrey just might bury us all. He looks great.)

Were the Ramones something to believe in?

I went to five Ramones concerts over the years. The first time was in 1982, when they were supporting "Pleasant Dreams". It was a great show at the Cleveland Agora, and it was very much in format and tenor what all the other concerts I went to were like. Insofar as there was anything ever to believe in about the Ramones, that was it. There were rumours when their first few records came out that they sounded that way because they just couldn't play -- such was the aesthetic of 1976 -- but this was disproved by the fact that they continued to make records in basically the same style forever. The Ramones found their Ramoneness early on, stuck with it, were consistent, and like the nine innings of a baseball game, you could expect the same format with a few cool variations every time you went to see them.

Here's the kicker: by the first time I saw them, most of my hipster friends considered the Ramones passe, sell-outs who recorded with Phil Spector on big labels, stuck in a rut. The Ramones had been in a movie. They were the least obscure of the right-left-wing fringe of punk. The emerging hardcore scene loved the Ramones, but as the old school. They weren't, really, cool compared to an Ian MacKaye or even a Jello Biafra. (I do not make this up out of whole cloth: I remember having that conversation with a DC punk at a hole known as The Dale in 1983, in the middle of a debate about whether "Straight Edge" was a political movement or not. It's hard to remember the days when I actually cared about such distinctions.) The Ramones, regardless of any intended aesthetic, really didn't mean anything, because you just couldn't make any sense out of the string of imagery linking lobotomies to Nazis to the California Sun. And ultimately that may have been why I and my scary-ass hardcore colleagues and college dink buddies and so forth kept going back to the Ramones. It was just fun, and you could scream out the lyrics like a sort of aural rorschach blot that could mean pretty much anything and nothing. The stakes were as high or low as you wanted to make them. But: they were an oldies act five years after their debut album.

When "Too Tough to Die" came out in 1985, I was in college, and on the review I wrote for the record sleeve at good old WSRN, I scrawled in capital letters "PUNK ROCK NOT DEAD!" This was, as I recall, specifically in reaction to 'Wart Hog', the song where Dee Dee was allowed to show he could be just as bad-ass-fast-bass as any hardcore band. And in general in reaction to the hardcore of the hardcore school that rejected the popism of punk.

Boy, was I wrong. Dr. Frank had it right. I enjoyed the album, but it's not one I feel compelled to go take out of the old vinyl archive a lot. It was nostalgia, at least personally. That's not a slam on the Ramones: it's just the way the record wore.

The last time I saw the Ramones was in Pittsburgh at the IC Light Ampitheatre in the 90s, a temporary outdoor venue named after the absolute worst beer ever. The capacity was, oh, four or five thousand, and the venue faced downtown. It was cloudy and humid and languid like being drunk on bad beer and needing to take a leak. The crowd, while in Pittsburgh, was what I'd call a mixture of Queens (the burough) and Qollege. The only black leather in evidence other than on Johnny was worn by actual bikers. The crowd skewed much older than previous shows I'd been to, and as part of the several "farewell" tours, I suppose it was indeed a nostalgia trip, or at least a swan song. They were pretty good. If I could play back the concert in my head, I'm sure it would've been just as good as all the others; but it didn't feel like it. It felt like eating expired potato chips.

The second time I saw the Ramones was in New York in the mid-80s. I can't remember the club, but it was the "club" experience at a time when the Ramones were playing middle-sized venues. Two guys tried to sell me heroin (like a dummy, I only realized it after the fact). The only dancing was done by males under the influence: you had to be anaesthetized to take the kind of abuse the mosh pit gave out. There was no joy of the crowd-surfing like there was at hardcore concerts of the day. Most of the crowd just stood around and looked at the stage and danced with their heads or occasionally their shoulders. I enjoyed the music, but it wasn't a great concert. The zeitgeist was artificial to the point of being absent.

I saw the Moaners play twice more, both at the TLA in Philadelphia, in the mid-80s. One of these shows as after Johnny was getting over his fractured skull, and he had anachronistically short and spiky hair. I got into the front, and spent the whole show dodging Johnny's guitar neck. I still have one of the guitar picks I got at that show. Johnny threw them freely to the crowd in those days, but I got mine by swiping it off the lower part of his strings in the middle of some typically-long medley. Johnny was such a professional he didn't miss a beat, but he did take an especially vicious swing of the guitar neck at me a few minutes later. They were great shows, it was a great mix of a crowd, and everybody, EVERYBODY, danced.

So that's all there is. Rock and roll is about performance. A good band can make a thrashing great time out of Mary Had a Little Lamb (particularly if they have a good drummer and don't play too many guitar solos). The records don't matter, in the end, as much as the moment, and the moment comes and goes on its own. For that reason, I find myself today not putting on a bunch of old records in maudlin nostalgia -- as I did when Joe Strummer died -- but sitting here quietly, resurrecting that great feeling inside me of jumping up and down for no good reason, yelling out the lyrics to songs that had no particular meaning, and ducking when Johnny tried to smack my head with the neck of his guitar.

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