Too tough to die
We could do a detailed lineage of how the Ramones emerged out of the Bowery in NYC in the mid-’70s with the Stooges, the Patti Smith Group and the New York Dolls and changed the world. We could talk about how guitarist Johnny Ramone told a reporter that, “We’re just a bunch of punks” and thus coined the term “punk rock.” We could discuss the Ramones’ 1976 trip to England with the Dolls that created a subcultural punk revolution that included the Sex Pistols and the Clash. We could build a case that the Ramones were the greatest American rock n’ roll band ever.
But, when someone dies, whether of a gunshot, like Kurt, or from cancer, like Joey, it’s always much more personal. If you were on Earth in 1977 and human, you new that music was in a sad state. On one station the Bee Gees serenaded coked-up disco queens. On another the Eagles lulled America to sleep. Stoned long-hairs listened to the endless solos (aka “masturbation”) of Led Zeppelin and jocks partied to Jimmy Buffet. Music sucked.
I was 13 in 1977, wishing it was 1964 when Motown and the Beatles made things fun. Rush was not fun. Emerson Lake and Palmer was not fun. I had Kiss, but there are only so many times you can blow up the stage. Then I read about this band, the Ramones, playing in this club, CBGBs, in this rock magazine, Cream. It said they played as close to the edge of the stage as possible and as loud and as fast as possible.
In 2001 that may be no big deal, but in the era of arena rock where bands were acres from their fans, this was something special. The picture was of four guys in ripped jeans, leather jackets and sneakers. The bassist and guitarist wore their instruments really low and stood with legs spread apart. And the singer was no pretty boy Rod Stewart. He looked like a freak! That day I blew $5 on the Rocket To Russia album and my life changed.
In any high school there’s a whole class of kids that don’t fit in. Not only do they not fit in with the popular kids, they don’t even fit in with the drug crowd or the rednecks. They are the freaks and geeks and they never had a band to speak for them until the Ramones. I very well would have brought a gun to school and blown away every jock and prep I could, but the Ramones gave me an option. “There’s no stoppin’ the cretins from hoppin’.” I could get those blasts from my stereo. Air guitar swung down low, and I was fine.
The Ramones cannibalized the bubblegum of surf music with the energy of the alienated and the idiocy of pop culture (did anyone worry about the line, “beat on the brat with a baseball bat?” No). Their music was moronic to the elitist Genesis fan and ugly to the trendy disco tramp. It was perfect rock ‘n’ roll. It gave us a way to fight against the bullies and popular kids, the volume and humor. “I don’t wanna be a pinhead no more, I just met a nurse that I could go for.”
In 1979, when the Ramones released the greatest teen film ever, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” we could see our heroes every week. We’d go to the Friday night midnight movie (Saturday was the Rocky Horror Picture Show) to see Riff Randall take over Vince Lombardi High School. We’d go to see Dee Dee Ramone shout out, “1, 2, 3, 4!” before every song. We’d go to see Joey eat pizza and wheat germ. We’d go to see Principle Togar have a coniption when Riff and The Ramones, in a pre-Colombine fantasy, blow the school to Kingdom Come. Sometimes we would tell our parents we were going to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” and really sneak off to the punk clubs for our own local Ramones in action.
Touring behind the brilliantly political and rockin’ Too Tough To Die in 1984 I managed to become Riff Randall. I helped get the Ramones to play at my university’s Halloween Ball. But the gig was only for students at the school. Knowing how it would feel to be locked out of a Ramones show I used to my college ID to get over a hundred local punks in. When the dean saw the chaos caused by crazed punks slamming into drunk frat boys he nearly stopped the show. Upon further investigation he found that every kid reported to be there as my guest. I was almost expelled from Emory University. It was my proudest collegiate moment.
The Ramones musical themes changed over the years. In the ’70s it was goofy Nazis and glue sniffers. In the ’80s the band railed against the KKK and the Nazi pinhead in the White House (“Bonzo goes to Bitburg”). In the ’90s they focused on the past, mining rock’s Golden Era. Finally, in 1996 they said Adios Amigos. But the music itself never changed, it was always, loud, fun and right on the edge of the stage.
Joey Ramone’s real name was Jeffrey Hyman. I never knew that until he died Sunday. He will always be Joey Ramone. He will always be the most beautiful ugly man in rock ‘n’ roll. Joey and his “brothers” continually saved rock from the pretentious wankers who tried to turn it into art, or worse, commerce. As kid I heard him sing, “gonna get my PhD., I’m a teenage lobotomy!” I did because the Ramones gave me the power to sneak in from the outside. I could act dumb, but be smarter than the lot and get the last laugh.
The straights and trendies have the mainstream culture. The Ramones was the folk music for those of us that just don’t quite fit into that plastic world. Gabba gabba we accept you as one.