Dee Dee Ramone is dead. You guys would maybe rather hear some more bitching from me about Bush or Daschle or Arafat or the war or gun control or civil liberties vanishing in a puff of Capitol Hill hot air – or maybe you wouldn’t. Doesn’t matter, because right now there’s something more important to think about. Dee Dee Ramone is dead. Most likely OD’d, but I haven’t seen any definitive statements made yet. That can’t be a surprise to anybody, and it changes how I feel about it not a whit. I’m saddened beyond words by this, not only for his family and friends, not only for all of us who grew up loving the Ramones, but also for myself, in what I suppose is a fairly selfish way. Yet another one of my youthful (hell, current) heroes bites the dust; yet another reminder that I ain’t getting any younger either.
Joey died a couple of months back and that depressed the hell out of me too, but this is Dee Dee, man. Dee Dee was the Ramones. He wrote all the songs, or at least all the best ones; his spirit was the spirit that guided and shaped what the Ramones were and always will be, the spirit that launched a musical revolution that literally changed the world. Maybe some of you don’t much care about rock and roll; maybe your tastes lean in a different direction. That’s okay, I have fairly broad musical tastes myself, or so I’d like to think anyway. As a matter of fact, I was thinking earlier today that I might write something about Beethoven (whom I love) later. But then I get home and look at Emily’s site and there it is. Dee Dee Ramone is dead. All bets off, all plans canceled. Gotta think about this one.
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 first time I saw the Ramones I was – hell, I don’t even remember what year it was, but it was around like 1979 or so. Me and the rest of my bandmates and a couple of our girlfriends drove to Atlanta to see ’em at the old Agora Ballroom on Peachtree Street. Being college (and high school) kids at the time, we couldn’t afford a hotel room, so we just planned to go get hammered, see the show, and drive the four hours back home, which is exactly what we did. By the time we got back to Kings Mountain, NC, about 30 or 40 minutes from home, the drummer was nodding off so hard our guitar player had to slap on the dash – harrrrrd – to wake him back up and get him back between the ditches. Foolish, irresponsible, exhausting – and worth any price I would ever have to pay later. I saw the Ramones a bazillion times since then, and they always rocked, but nothing ever came close to that incredible moment in the Agora when the lights went down and you saw the shadows walk onto the stage. In those days they were coming on to some kind of taped drum cadence (“The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” came years later). Darkness, smoke, screams, and Joey ambles up to the mic as Johnny strokes that Mosrite and Dee Dee gives the bass the most tentative whacks it’ll see all night. Then, brilliant white light and “one-two-th’ee-fo'” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” and the sweetest, most exhilirating oblivion this side of multiple orgasm.
The thing is, the Ramones never broke my heart like so many good bands do. It’s one of the reasons I’ll always love AC/DC – because somehow, they always kept cranking out the good shit. They manage somehow to stay true to what they always wanted to be, which is just a good basic rock and roll band. No muss, no fuss, no frills – just three chords going back and forth, as a clueless music professor of mine once said. No experimental forays into jazz fusion or trip hop or -ART-, followed immediately by complaints about the obtuseness of the general public when the record doesn’t sell. Granted, some of the later records had some fairly flat stuff on ’em, but the Ramones on a bad day still kick the crap out of any modern band you can name at their best. There ain’t a bad song on the first record, and it still stands up to anything you can throw at it.
My band is doing a show tomorrow night. It’s a homecoming of sorts – we’re playing our home base for the first time in about eight months. I was looking forward to it – it’s going to be a packed-house blowout for sure. Local radio has been jazzed about it all week; the local alternative newsweekly gave us a really nice write-up, the gist of which is this line: “This is gonna be one helluva party that’s long overdue, so don’t expect to just sit on your ass all night or you’re liable to get knocked on it.” I was looking forward to it before, eager to jump up onstage again and say my piece to a waiting world, but now I’m really on tenterhooks. I can’t wait. Know why? Because the show is now going to be a tribute to Dee Dee, and I’m going to get to play some Ramones stuff at the end. We do a Ramones tune now and then as an encore and it’s always just the purest joy to whack that guitar the way Johnny does and stand there with my legs spread waaay apart and the guitar down around my knees. It feels better than anything I can think of in this sad sorry world, and without Dee Dee I would probably never have even known what it feels like – what it feels like to come, really to COME HARD. Actual sex is way, way in second place. Thanks, Dee Dee.
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.