Thursday, March 29, 2007

Joey Ramone and the Age of Punk Innocence

By Elliott Murphy ©

To quote from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” And although Dickens was referring to the bloody reign of terror brought about by the French Revolution in the early 1790’s I think the same can be said about the Punk Revolution in pop music that began in New York City in the late 1970’s. Like all revolutions it was truly a dangerous and uplifting time, a brief but historical era that permanently changed the look and sound of popular music and generations later continued to set the ground rules for bands such as Nirvana and Oasis. Get out your musical maps: From The Ramones to The Stokes - its one straight subway line. And now one of the icons of that period is gone. Joey Ramone, a gentleman and punk if there ever was one.

Sometimes with sadness and other times with almost resigned relief, I watched over the years while so many of the heroes of the Punk Revolution (a few of which I could even call my friends) left town for good: musical outlaws such as Sid Vicious, Stiv Baters and Johnny Thunders, all victims of the very anarchy they themselves helped to promote. And now, Joey Ramone, the grand survivor of that raucous time, the singer who was to the club CBGBs as Elvis was to Sun Studios is gone as well. Ironically, the surviving elder statesman of Punk was taken from this world not by drugs or violence but by a mundane cancer he could no longer fight and he will be dearly missed.

The story of how rock ‘n roll entrepreneur Malcolm MacLaren came to Gotham and managed The New York Dolls for six months and brought their spirit of anarchy and their devoted unprofessionalism back to London for the Sex Pistols to market to the unsuspecting world at large is well known by now. That the Punk spirit was created some years before in a garage band’s witches brew and than painted black with the Warhol musical naiveté of The Velvet Underground and finally shaken and stirred by the barefoot dance of Rock Evangelist Patti Smith is also well documented. But the real deciding factor of Punk, what made it all possible as a movement, was CBGBs, a, shall we say, basic music hall on New York’s east side bowery, whose toilets overflowed and whose stage played host to a few great bands and countless others now long forgotten. And no other band fit the time and the place so well as the four members of the Ramones. They were the Anti-Beach Boys, The Beatles who never smiled, tougher than the Stones, the middle class blues direct from Forest Hills, Queens. And if you didn’t like them they could care less.

Of course, I was there at the time although to be honest not really a part of Punk I suppose. To be labelled a Singer Songwriter was a dirty name in Punkdom (people didn’t start calling Elvis Costello this until it was safe many years later) and while we both sang about, uh, girls, I was singing about Anastasia a doomed Russian princess while Joey Ramone was singing Sheena is a Punk Rocker. But is not Sheena just Anastasia in disguise? Think about it. Anyway, I loved a lot of the music coming out of clubs like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City and I detested Disco although by now I’ve gotten to grow fond of Donna Summer. The ironic thing is that finally Punk and Disco merged together in the later work of both The Talking Heads and Blondie but no one could have suspected that at the time. If so they would have dragged both David Byrne and Debbie Harry off to the Guillotine, I’m sure. I remember once pulling up to CBGBs in a record company limousine and some guy screaming at me “we don’t want you down here!” He thought I was the enemy, I suppose. But in a few years all the successful punk bands were all travelling in Limos themselves.

I remember in 1976 while playing in Hollywood The LA Free Press called me the “first intellectual of Punk Rock” and I didn’t really know what that was – no one did, really. But a scene was beginning in New York because the death of the New York Dolls had left a vacuum and The Modern Lovers showed that idiosyncrasy could grab a record company’s attention. My own spiritual breakthrough came in 1977 when I was dropped by Columbia Records and I had the time to start hanging out again at trendy spots like The Mudd Club, a downtown club which specialized in bringing over unknown English artists like Joe Jackson. So much went on at the Mudd Club, most of which blanked out, but I’ll never forget the one-night only appearance there of a band featuring Johnny Thunders and Joe Perry of Aerosmith (If they had a name its long gone) and I remember kissing Patty D’Arbanville (the inspiration for Cat Stevens Lady D’Arbanville and future wife of Don Johnson) in an upstairs booth and thinking she was the best damn kisser ever; and talking to Alan Ginsberg at the bar about F. Scott Fitzgerald while he stared at my crotch. The Mudd Club was Punk’s answer to uptown’s Studio 54 where the beautiful people snorted cocaine in luxurious VIP rooms. At the Mudd Club we stood on toilets in the ladies room to keep our feet dry.

I guess I first saw the Ramones at CBGBs in 1977 when their manager Danny Fields invited me down to the club. Or maybe I wasn’t invited and so I just pushed my way through the muscular bouncers at the club entrance, drunk as a skunk, told them I was “…a rock star so get the fuck outta my way!” and stumbled through the crowd and threw up on everybody… just kidding, really. Because I can’t say that I remember why I was at CBGBs that night but I do remember a lot about the Ramones. The way they dressed – tight straight Levis, tennis – not jogging! – sneakers, black Schott Perfecto leather motorcycle jackets and matching (kind of) Beatles Haircuts. They were part Marlon Brando in the Wild One and part Monkees and part Surfer band. I think Johnny Ramone played a Mosrite guitar, famous for being played by the Ventures (a Rock/Surf Instrumental band of the 50’s and 60’s). And the Ramones were really tight, probably spent a lot of time rehearsing than they would admit. Every song was about a minute and a half long and began with Johnny screaming “One, Two, Three, Four” and the Ramones playing as fast as they could. They had nice looking but tough girlfriends who chewed bubble gum and wore very tight Capri pants. They played so fast they were almost like athletes running a marathon. Johnny stood with his legs wide apart and DeeDee’s bass was so low it almost scraped the stage. Joey was tall which was rare for a lead singer and clutched his microphone like it was holding him up and never ever took off his shades and always looked down, with his long hair covering his face. Yeah, that was one thing I really liked about the Ramones – they were punks but they kept their hair long. Everyone else’s hair was so short they looked like they were going into the Army for Gods sake

Danny Fields, the Ramones manager, was himself already a rock ‘n roll legend having managed both the MC5 and The Stooges and along with Linda Stein (whose husband Seymour started Sire Records and later gave the world Madonna) had formed a management company. I don’t know if they had other bands besides The Ramones (I know they managed Steve Forbert as well) but managing the boys from Forest Hills, Queens seemed to be a full time job. What struck me about the band once they started playing was that although they were incredibly loud it didn’t hurt the ears; no screeching guitar leads, no synthesizers, just pounding sixteenth note rhythm played as fast as they could. Sometimes Joey pointed his finger in the air, his leather jacket two sizes too small for him and he reminded me of a sedated statue of Liberty. And in spite of the drugs and the booze and the general seedy atmosphere there was something gloriously innocent about the whole punk scene of the time. It was as if the Punks were trying so hard to not be corrupted by Corporate Rock that they would corrupt themselves first. And that, for the most part, they did with a vengeance.

A few times I met Joey and the Ramones while we were both on tours of Europe in the early eighties and I remember them complaining about the food and saying they couldn’t find McDonalds in France (which was true back then) and how they couldn’t wait to get back home. Once home, Johnny Ramone almost achieved Sid Vicious infamy when he allegedly stabbed some guy who was trying to steal away his girlfriend. I don’t know if that was true but he made the headlines of The New York Post just as Sid Vicious had done a few years before. After that, I heard he moved to California. The Ramones kept going although I think they replaced Dee Dee on bass after a while and also Marky, their drummer. They made an album with Phil Spector who some say pulled a gun on them in the studio and Johnny Ramone pulled one back on him. Not sure if that’s true but I’m not sure if Elvis’ first recording was a birthday present for his mother either.

Around 1988 before I moved to Paris I remember playing a live radio concert in New York that was hosted by Vince Scelsa – the best New York DJ ever – and Joey Ramone was there as well. I sang my song “Diamonds By The Yard” which came out about the year the Ramones got started and after I was finished Joey came up to me and said “You know, I always liked that song.” I was dumbfounded because I could not imagine that he knew that or any of my other song. But he did and he was so cool and nice about it and it was one of the most sincere compliments I ever received from another musician.

I heard that in the Nineties when the Ramones got off the road for a while that Joey started studying the Stock Market and made a lot of money and I was happy for him for two reasons: first because I always like when rock ‘n roll musicians make a lot of money and second because I always knew he was a clever guy and I knew that if he was making a killing in the market it would surprise the shit out of a lot of assholes who put down rock ‘n roll musicians because we don’t get up in the morning and go off to a normal job. Anyway, I hope he spent it well before he left this sweet old world although I doubt if he bought a new leather jacket.

So Joey, all I can say is Rest in Peace Gabba Gabba Hey Hey – we miss you. One two three four…


RagmanDrawcircles said...

Elliott is KING! Keep rockin'!!

Anonymous said...

How could someone call the Ramones the "anti Beach Boys"- that was their main influence!!


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