Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Dead Ramones

The Dead Ramones would be a great name for a punk rock tribute band. Irreverent and simultaneously paying tribute to two of the greatest.

Tommy Ramone is dead now, the last survivor of the original four members, the level head and steady beat of those first three timeless albums, Ramones, Leave Home, and Rocket To Russia. The reunion is complete and rock and roll heaven just got a lot louder.

It's usually big brothers who pass musical tastes down to their younger siblings, but in my case I first heard of the Ramones from a friend of my youngest brother, an aspiring drummer who noted that I'd already discovered the Clash and Costello on my own and started quoting lyrics at me. The lines I most specifically remember: "beat on the brat with a baseball bat" and "sittin' here in Queens / eating refried beans."

I got the joke right away. These were smart guys, smart enough to be dumb.

Tom Erdelyi never really WANTED to be Tommy Ramone. He just wanted to produce and help write - he claimed the band's signature song "Blitzkrieg Bop" was mostly his. Joey was supposed to be the drummer and Dee Dee was supposed to be the singer. But that didn't work. The vision was in large part Tommy's, no one else could play the drums quite right, and the other three insisted.

I'm not sure when I got them all but I remember squeezing three whole albums onto a 90 minute cassette, 20 songs to a side, and getting Pleasant Dreams, the sixth album, when it was new at Christmas 1981. So by then I was hooked.

And by then Tommy was gone, moving from the drum kit to the producer's board because he hated touring, then kicked out of that role when Phil Spector took to an obsession with the band, replaced by Marky just before the band was captured on film in the brilliantly ridiculous "Rock and Roll High School," stupid enough to be worth staying up till 3 AM to see on cable. Other bands were considered, but it would have been nowhere as funny without the absurdity of the leather jacketed punks as teen idols, with blonde cutie PJ Soles crushing on gangly, snaggle-toothed Joey. Dee Dee was so high that they cut all his lines except one: "Hey, pizza! Let's dig in."

That one line could probably have been a whole song; they had lyrics almost as minimal.

Non-mainstream records, even on major labels, were sometimes hard to find out in the provinces and hard to buy back before infinite playlists, when each album was an investment in and commitment to that band. So being a Ramones fan was a real statement back then, long before the t-shirts became ubiquitous, worn by kids to young to have seen even the last shows in 1996 let alone the CBGB's heyday of 1975, and before "Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" was a stadium chant. For sports teams, rather than for the Ramones filling the stadium with fans and getting credit where it was due while they were still with us.

When I finally got my hands on the airwaves - which the Ramones desperately wanted - for a college radio show, I eagerly played the Tommy-produced album "Too Tough To Die" - the irony in that, with all of them gone relatively young - and the import single of "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg," knowing nothing of the political stress that song caused between lefty Joey and conservative Johnny, though some militarism was clear in a few lyrics and some artwork.

I also knew nothing of Joey's obsessive compulsive disorder, but in retrospect I see that my love of familiar repetition, of endlessly repeated memes, makes me a natural Ramones fan. The same BANG bang-a bang-a bang-a BANG bang-a bang-a bang-a riff in every song, the absurdist lyrics ("be nice to Mommy, don't talk to Commies, eat kosher salamis"?!?), the reduction of rock music to its absolute minimum struck a chord in me. Or struck one of three chords in me.

I go through kicks once in a while, where I returned to one particular beloved band for days and weeks at a time and don't want to play anything else, when nothing else sounds right. And as chance would have it, I was on a Ramones kick last week, so Tommy's death landing just when it did was a little more immediate than it might have been had I still been on, say my Harry Nilsson kick or my Church kick.

They weren't a family, of course, they were just four guys who adopted the same stage name as part of the act. And It's an odd coincidence, but none of the original four Ramones had any children, so the DNA is a dead end.

But the legacy of the music is an inheritance for all of us. THAT's immortality. Gabba gabba hey, guys.

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