Tuesday, September 15, 2009
THE RAMONES & THE SHAKESPEAREAN TRAGEDY
I was a 15 year old high school student when I first discovered the Ramones. Unlike most of the music I listened to at that point of my life, they were unspoiled by being a direct influence from someone else. I discovered them all on my own. I wasn't drawn to them by their look. Cripes, they may have been the ugliest band to ever exist! It wasn't their popularity. During their 20 year career, they could never be considered a giant success in the United States. They were still playing clubs in the mid 1990's. It was their sound. Fast and hard, funny, no-time-for-guitar-solos wall of sonic blast.
I liked their lyrics a lot. Odd at the most perfect definition of the word. Songs of alienation, pain, and loneliness were in abundance, yet they could throw some fun and hilarity into the mix that made their material that much more enjoyable to listen to. Songs as disparate and heartfelt as the near-suicidal "I Wanna Live", to the hilarious and pogo-inducing "Cretin Hop". They were just an eclectic hoot.
The nice thing about them as well, unlike a lot of the art-rock alternative, post-punk bands of the Ramones later years (the late 80's) they weren't condescending. They really seemed to think of themselves as misfits who were almost surprised you were listening to them. Except they more than gladly kicked your ass in return for your attention. And you liked it.
Recently I re-watched Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields' excellent documentary on the group's history, "End of The Century". The Ramones may be the single saddest story in Rock and Roll History. By the time they were elected, late in my opinion, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Joey Ramone, the 6'6 string bean lead singer was already gone, claimed by cancer in his early 50's. The award was accepted by guitarist Johnny, original drummer Tommy Erdelyi, drummer for much of their existence, Marky, and bassist Dee Dee Ramone. Joey's absence was truly conspicuous, a vacuum of sadness.
When Dee Dee stepped to the mic, to the biggest round of applause of all four members, he simply thanked himself.
Somehow it was appropriate.
Dee Dee was in no certain terms, a damn mess. He had written a book a few years prior to the doc, called "Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones", and he backed up the statement I just made. The book told lurid tales of drug addiction, fights, self-hatred, anti-depressants, and in it, he just plain spilled his guts about living the kind of life a "creep", as he put it, like him had no other choice but to live. It came as no surprise to learn he was beaten and abandoned by his father, and his relationship with his mother was not a whole lot better. Dee Dee had a ton to overcome, he just overcame it in the sloppiest, most out of control way possible.
By the end of the book, Dee Dee was married, drug-free, and about as positive as Dee Dee could have been. The controlled substances were gone, but the man seemed to maintain an addiction to grudge-like thinking. His writing wove between speaking positive of others, including former bandmates, going as far as to refer to them as his "brothers", and swung to sundry ways they had hurt and ignored him in other parts of the book. He still seemed oddly confused, and a bit of a mess. He wasn't very smart, but somehow a survivor. Despite the clean and sober married man that was featured by the end of the book, you somehow did not come out of reading it able to call it a "feel good" experience. It felt negative.
Yet here he was, up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lectern, accepting a spot in it's hallowed walls. Somehow, you just felt good for the grinning fool up there. It was not unlike rooting for the mentally handicapped kid down the street, watching him claiming an award for persistence. It was an oddly warm feeling. You kinda wanted to pump your fist once and say, "Way to go, Dee Dee, you proved the bastards wrong, man. Screw 'em!"
Then Dee Dee died two months later of a heroin overdose.
It seemed wrong, unfair, eternally sad, and yet slid right into the history of the Ramones like a puzzle piece.
It's not a puzzle that makes me smile. Sometimes I don't even like to look at it. It hurts too much.
Johnny two years ago passed away himself from prostate cancer. He and Joey never got over a decades old issue between them involving a woman. The documentary illustrates this, and raises a question on how two people with such a negative and traumatic event between the two of them could continue to exist and do so successfully for such a long period of time. Watch the compendium flick, "Ramones RAW", put together by John Cafiero, which is a mixture of home movies shot by Marky over a significant period of time. The footage covers a long swatch of material, showing the Ramones as a familly, real affection present, and fun to watch. How cloudy was that line between John and Joey?
They were polar opposites. Joey was exceedingly sweet, shy, soft-spoken, and poetic. Side effects of being an awkward, gawky, and frail young man. John was a taskmaster. All business and efficient aggression. Overanalytical to a fault. In one of "End of the Century"'s most awe-striking revelations, John considered his sorrow over Joey's passing before some sort of resolution could be made between the two over their issues, a character weakness. Yet another in the melancholy collection of those pre-mentioned puzzle pieces that make up the Ramones history.
Even their furtive glances at superstardom were tinged with a sad type of misfire feeling that would have been considered by some to be humorous were they not true. The Ramones were the heart-wrench example of the Rock and Roll near miss. Despite the almost comical befallings of their hayday, and the sad and depressing events since their retirement, fans and the musical industry alike have now started to give them at least some of the due they've deserved. It's no secret that the vast majority of hard-rock acts today have some part of their musical foundation partially built by these guys from Queens.
Day to day punk fans hold them on a pedestal. Young people are seen wearing their gear to this day. "Ramones" is a revered word among many. When the self-titled blink-or-you'll-miss-it debut of theirs hit the streets, it changed the face of rock and roll. It set it on it's side and kicked it in the ass. Johnny, Tommy, Marky, Joey, and Dee Dee, whether it was intentional or not, wanted rock and roll to remember where it came from, and in the process launched it into the future.
It's a shame how most of their lives came to an end, because make no mistake, this handful of guys from New York put a shitload more into Rock and Roll than they got out of it.
God Rest the Ramones.