Devising a structural reality from the harsh poetics of rock is an arduous, remarkable task that the Ramones have accomplished. That’s not bad for a solid thesis sentence or just a plain old opening remark, and it’s as unnecessary as rock criticism is unnecessary. Los Ramones have locked themselves within a black leather embryo that neither sticks nor stones nor intricate musical pretensions may transcend. Thank god.
In the studio.
Not that it has been all smooth sailing. There have been shaky moments--place: CBGB, time: Friday January 30 [That would be 1976, folks. –Ed.] The joint is too fucking crowded. Every high school in Long Island must have sent 50 delegates. There is the longest, most tedious equipment set-up in the history of a New York rock club. The Ramones finally begin the beguine but are halfway through the first song, "Loudmouth,” when a speaker blows. Another interminable waiting period. The audience, remarkably docile, waits for the boys to get back into the action. Tommy Ramone snarls and fumes that his drum amplification must be as loud as the vocal. Dee-Dee seems most anxious to get the music rolling. Johnny sits on an amplifier and looks apprehensive while Joey stands ceneter stage, shy and confused, his weight shifted onto one hip or the other.
There is a joke going around that a Ramones set is like a small Oklahoma town. Blink and you’ll miss it. A performance from these four Forest Hills lads is not a series of short songs—it is more like one prolonged popper. The set continued Friday night without significant hiatus, but the wretched technical difficulties had managed to impede the powerhouse spontaneity that the boys have never failed to unleash. Joey’s knee-kicks were milder, Johnny did not purse his lips quite so tightly. The desperation was lacking and I missed it.
What was afoot? Had the boys gone uptown on us? Or were they merely quivering in an unsteady transition from the smoky, piss-ridden lairs of the underground to the lustrous portals of commercial success?
Nothing so dire, nothing so dreadful. Sunday evening found them back to their guileless, unabashed selves, ready to rip into a skull-rending tunebefore you could say “1-2-3-4.” Rain had kept the overflow crowd away, that and the fact that there would be school the next day. There was a pleasant audience, however, and the usual quota of predictable Ramones regulars. My favorite has always been Claudia, a blonde specimen of high-fashion pulchritude and ofttime companion of Tommy Ramone. Her face is part Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch, part Temple Drake of Sanctuary, both personae finding a tenuous compromise in the dusky netherworld of a lovely, tormented Jean Rhys heroine. She stands near the amplifiers, impassive, anesthetized, unblinking as the Ramones go into a song with all the subtlety of the Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia.
After the first set (a very admirable performance), I happened to overhear a conversation behind me. The speaker looked as if he should have been back at his NYU dorm mulling over his political science textbooks. He was talking to a black man who was looking very pensive wearing the inevitable denim poorboy hat. Our scholar was berating the group, complaining about the simple chords, the vocals, the drums, saying that anybody could play that and ending with the usual “it’s just a lot of noise.”
My second impulse (the first is to kick him and call him an asshole) is to run to my English Literature anthology and quote lines from Eliot that might be pertinent to the Ramones. Or maybe the cinematic philosophy of Godard. Or Artaud’s theater of cruelty. But none of this makes any difference.
I love the Ramones because they’re the Ramones: the ineluctable modality of the visible. If you do not like them, you do not like them. But that does not make you a better person. And it does not mean I will respect you. Sure it’s a lot of noise, but it’s glorious noise founded upon an irrevocable sagacity that it is utter presumption to translate rock ’n’ roll into a manifesto of meaningful precepts.
Obviously and thankfully, Ramones will appeal to no simpleton hungry for the saccharine mush of a Crosby, Stills, and Mashed Potatoes combo or to the sybaritic, twinkle-toed enthusiasts of the numbing mechanics manufactured by asensual disco-robots.
The Ramones hit hard, but when all the smoke and fury have subsided, one may recognize that despite the overwhelming amplification, the group is operating through the most basic devices of irony and understatement. What could be less threatening than a red plastic belt buckled (a la Peter Tork) at Joey's right hip? Or Johnny's white slip-on sneakers, slightly dingy from a stroll down the Bowery?
The song themes are not always lyrical--glue sniffing, shock treatment; Texas chainsaw massacres--but our protagonist always maintains a healthy adolescent quality in the humanistic approach to his grim universe. He encourages a beating of the brat, but he becomes the Brat Incarnate who does not want to go down to the basement. He tells some girl he wants to be her boyfriend, but he can rebuke this with the snotty disclaimer: “I Don't Care (About That Girl)". No dark irony can dispel the vitality of the Blitzkrieg Bop; the greyest Long Island sky will not conceal the desire for a California sun. The final cathartic pronouncement, "I’m a Nazi,” is made with such wholesome touch-football enthusiasm that one might almost be willing to forgive Hitler his every atrocity. Even Anne Frank. Even Millie Perkins.
Away from the breathless fervor of performance, the boys are reserved and polite. There is no boasting about their method and their magic. Each Ramone seems too genuine, too boy-next-door to adopt the pompous image of a neurasthenic rock star. Tommy once said, “eople either like us or they hate us,” but he did not expound. Dee-Dee does not say a great deal. Outside CBGB, Johnny, between sets one evening, said how much he enjoyed staying up all night with his wife watching late movies on TV. One of his favorites is “Now Voyager”. Joey, over a beer at the Locale, once expressed an admiration for Peter Noone.
However, little of Herman’s Hermit’s influence is reflected in Joey’s stage presence. He clings desperately to the microphone stand, as if it were his Siamese twin. He is a leather-handled stiletto anthropomorphized into l’enfant terrible of the suburbs. Under a mound of glossy black hair, you can see the jaw working furiously. His movement is a study in minimalism. Most of the time he stands in his jeans, his body curved as gently as a swan’s throat. Then there is that sudden paroxysm in response to a violent chord change… Tommy grimaces behind his sunglasses as he pounds out a rapacious beat on the drums... Johnny’s lips are tense as he plucks the strings roughly and steps across the waves of music like an agile water-skier. Dee Dee thumps the bass and peers intently into the mike when he sings.
Somewhere inside, there’s an obsessive fantast to be brutally raped, without shame, without mercy. The Ramones are able to accommodate this daydream with a relentless army of decibels. The orifice of entry is different, but the effect is the same.
And when the show is over, when the equipment is unplugged and the guitars are packed away and you walk home in the early morning along curiously serene streets, you are haunted by one endurable Ramone epitaph: Judy is a Punk; Jackie is a Runt—that is all ye know on earth,
and all ye need to know. –Stephen Anderson
Saturday, October 29, 2005
More from the PPDA: An article from the tabloid-style New York Rocker from march of 1976. Pics in text claim to be from the Ramones first formal recording session (I'm grain-of-salting that one, but your mileage may vary):