Solemn anniversary

Saw somewhere that yesterday was the anniversary of the passing of punk-rock icon Dee Dee Ramone, which inspired me to revisit my own obit from way back when. Seems only appropriate to repost a bit of it:

So you wanna disagree with me about the impact of the almighty Ramones? It still stuns me that there are people out there who like bands like Nirvana or Green Day or Pearl Jam or Smashing Pumpkins, and who don’t even realize that none of those bands would even exist if the Ramones hadn’t left some very large footsteps for them to follow in. I don’t know if the same can be said of more modern flashes-in-the-pan like Limp Bizkit or Kid Crock or Puddle of Mudd and the fact is I’m glad of that, because they suck. But whether you like the Ramones or not, anyone who cares at all about real rock and roll knows whose faces would be the first carved into any punk rock Mount Rushmore, and it ain’t Fred Durst’s. Nor would it even be John Lydon’s or Sid Vicious’ or Dave Vanian’s or Stiv Bators’, although they’d all have their place. The Ramones did it first, the Ramones did it better, the Ramones did it longer. The Ramones did it. To paraphrase the Beatles, before the Ramones, there was nothing. Period.

Those of you who are old enough to remember (God help us every one), think back to 1976. Disco was king, as was Elton John and Queen and Styx and a whole slew of other pomp-and-pageantry bands. I won’t belabor a history that has been restated thousands of times since then, but the crucial point is that rock and roll was so far removed from the grasp of the ordinary disgruntled kids in the garage – the people who had kept it living and breathing since the beginning – that they couldn’t even see it from there. Rock and roll wasn’t just dead, it was starting to smell. Now imagine the Ramones strutting onto the scene, all leather and tattered denim and just plain noise. They were like an invasion from Mars, and truth to tell, I still can’t figure out just where in the hell they came from. I have a video that shows the Ramones doing “Loudmouth” from 1976. Joey looks like a freak scarecrow, doing those awkward leg kicks and clinging to the microphone stand as if it were a life raft on a sinking ship. Johnny was cool incarnate, slinging his stick-straight hair around and slashing at the guitar with that untireable right arm. Tommy was, well, Tommy, which means replaceable. Good enough, but replaceable, and he soon was. And then there was Dee Dee. That Fender Precision bass almost scrapes the ground, and Dee Dee hacks at it as if it had just assaulted his girlfriend. And the sound; my God, the sound. The level meters aren’t just in the red – they had to be trying to fly out the right side of the machine, they were pegged so hard. All distortion, all the time – and it’s beautiful. The sound is so pure, so chunky, so hard, so goddamn fucking pissed off that it makes me come up off the couch and yell every time I watch the damn thing. Still. The raw power and energy is so intense it makes me dizzy, and I’ve seen it a million times. I’ll be seeing it a million more this weekend, I’m sure.

And yet somehow, even with all the energy and buzzsaw adolescent aggro, they managed to keep it FUN. They never once lapsed into self-parody or foolish smug irony (the blood and sinew of New York bands these days, seemingly, and the last refuge of a rock-and-roll scoundrel). They never tipped a sly wink at their milieu, mocking their fans for cool points with critics, like so many alterna-dorks do these days. They always played it straight, and it was always just about smiling and moving and enjoying. It was rock and roll, plain and simple. Some critics in Elvis’ early days assumed that he was either the cleverest manipulator they ever saw, milking the dopey teeny-boppers for cash on the barrelhead, or he was just simply dumb as a box of hair. Most inclined towards the latter view, and so it was with the Ramones. I can’t tell you how many reviews I read in the early days, by pompous twits who liked to explain rock and roll in terms usually reserved for Van Gogh and Raphael, whose headline had the word “D-U-M-B” in capital letters over ’em. As usual, the art-wonks didn’t get it.

The Ramones truly changed the rock and roll world, in a way that is attainable for only the truest and deepest innovators. And Dee Dee WAS the Ramones. D-U-M-B? ‘Fraid not, Jocko. God rest his outrageous soul, and Dee Dee, if you can somehow hear my thoughts, I hope you know how much you meant to so many of us.

Back in the Gay 90s I met Joey at a NYC joint owned by a good friend of mine called Coney Island High, on the hallowed St Marks Place. I told him that he and the Ramones had quite literally changed my life, which was nothing but the God’s honest truth, as we say around these environs. He was deeply gracious and humble, not a trace of ego or pretention about him, expressing his sincerest thanks for my saying so. We did the usual music-biz chit-chattery for about twenty minutes or so, and then a brawl broke out that slammed one of the participating pugilists into Joey’s back, causing him to spill his drink. Off he went to the bar for another; the rumble sort of petered out, and I went back to sit with my girlfriend in a dream-like state of shock and awe at who it was I’d just been speaking with.

I met Dee Dee a few times on St Marks also. He could be seen regularly around what we used to call the Trash & Vaudeville block, the holiest of ground for American punk fans; pretty much everybody that hung around the area knew him. He seemed nice enough, but was usually way too focused on scoring dope to spend very much of his time idly conversing with worshipful, gushing strangers like myself. Dee Dee’s story is a truly sad one, albeit a too-familiar one in the rock and roll universe, and I hope he’s at peace.

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