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September 17, 2004

R.I.P., Ramones

Posted by Phil on September 17, 2004 2:32 PM

Against all the odds, only the drummers, including Tommy and honorary charter-member Marky, are still alive. Joey, Dee Dee, and now Johnny Ramone are dead, and, despite Frank Black's erstwhile wish for them to "pull another Menudo," the Ramones are dead, too.

If the Ramones had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent them. You don't have to love them. You don't even have to like them. If you care about rock and roll, you only have to take them for granted (as nearly everyone does) to acknowledge the towering monolith of their achievement. The Ramones were utterly essential and essentially disposable, two vital qualities of the form, and are undeniably one of rock and roll's five or so prototypes.

The first thing you think is, "The Ramones were funny." This is true, of course, and the fact that nearly every one of their hundreds (thousands?) of songs is basically a novelty song is not to be overlooked. It is, in fact, critical to their construct: a novelty song being one that you forever disparage, yet never forget, which is the ultimate goal of any pop song.

What made the Ramones the archetype of punk rock--what made their schtick a critique--was a simple question: "You think you're better than me?" Posing as a novelty act, a joke in the face of an increasingly ponderous social and musical landscape, they dared the world to not take them seriously.

The Ramones were not rock and roll's Saturday-morning cartoon. Look at any picture: They are not smiling. They had a job to do. They created a brilliant, timeless, complete concept: hair, leather, jeans, sneakers, guitars, drums, scowls. Their brand and iconography never changed.

The music was a rigidly minimalistic yet infinitely variable template, rooted in white AM-radio pop, a sound almost completely without precedent and yet inevitable and ingenious. Intoxicating velocity, exhilerating power, and irresistible melodies. Before the Ramones, no band sounded like that. After, hundreds did. The alchemy they worked was as obvious and inexplicable as what Elvis did to Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog."

And, as Elvis never did, the Ramones brought their own sidewalk poetry: They're ballin' in the back-seat / They generate steam-heat / The bass and the back-beat / Blitzkrieg bop!

There you have it, teeny-boppers: The essentials of the youth experience, overshadowed by the threat of world destruction, in 22 syllables.

But my own favorite is: Chewin' out a rhythm on my bubblegum / The sun is out, and I want some / It's not hard, not far to reach / We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach!

It's really fucked-up that, in my three-plus years in New York City (and given its obvious accessibility), I never went to Rockaway Beach. It's equally fucked-up that America has never acknowledged what is, aside from being the birthplace, perhaps its greatest gift to the rock and roll canon. The Ramones were America's Beatles. They returned the gift, and deserved to be recognized for it and covered in glory.

But Rock And Roll in 1975 was already a calcified fossil, a museum piece; a thing not broken, not needing to be fixed. Grow old, you fucking Baby Boomers--grow old and consume the whole way down. God forbid you should be alienated from the glorious Classic Rock Culture you created and nourished with your parents' money, eh? A pity the icons didn't all die with Jim, Jimi, and Janis, so the restless spirit of the music could be embalmed and interred for e'er more, and the perfect memory of your youth preserved for all time....

I wasn't even part of the Ramones' generation, but now I'm old, too. All I know of such things is the humility of coming of age in a demographic minority. If that grants me any moral superiority--and tonight, as on many nights, I'm damn certain it does--then let me just say this:

The Ramones were a cranky, hilarious affirmation of life. That they were underappreciated is, in its own way, perfect, but no less bitter. America is weird, and does not understand itself, and that is a crime we'll be a long time paying for.

The Ramones' first four albums (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin) are essential, and End of the Century, Subterranean Jungle, and Too Tough to Die are pretty good, too, but if you own nothing else from their catalog, the live album It's Alive--the original four, in London on New Year's Eve, 1977-'78--is sufficient testament to the speed, joy, and power that will forever be their monument:

Joey--the hippie romantic, crooning the glories of love and teenage fun.

Johnny--the stoic, blue-collar Republican with the blistering downstroke, eight to the bar, enforcing his work ethic so they could eventually retire.

Dee Dee--the most Ramone of them all; the beat junkie street-poet whose greatest verse was a shouted "1-2-3-4!"

R.I.P., Ramones.