Ramones (illustration by Andy Friedman)
By 1975, New York City had bottomed out and President Gerald Ford wasn't going to save it from bankruptcy. A Daily News headline roared, "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
But a year earlier, in Forest Hills, Queens, "Beat On the Brat" was blasting from a garage. John William Cummings, who would soon be known to the world as Johnny Ramone, was pursuing a life of delinquency with some enthusiasm. He was a Yankees fan living in the borough of the Mets. It’s safe to assume that the attraction was pissing people off. The man who would be Johnny Ramone was smart and he played guitar. A vision for a band was beginning to coalesce in his mind and it involved a sound, a look, and an attitude. His machine gun downstrokes and power chords on the guitar suggested a profound disgust with the prog rock of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer.
Joey Ramone came into the world as Jeffrey Ross Hyman. He had a serious case of OCD. That issue, combined with being painfully shy and uncomfortably tall, made him the object of some derision, not unlike the cartoon character he'd eventually inspired. However—here come two understatements—Joey Ramone could sing. When he stepped onto a stage, he was transformed. He became the voice of American punk. He raged. He crooned. He owned every word: bored, giddy, angry or brokenhearted. He wrote "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." He sang great in the studio but was better live, as were all of the Ramones. In the East Village, Joey Ramone Place is the most stolen street sign in the city according to the NYPD.
Douglas Glenn Colvin was a military kid and moved to Forest Hills from Berlin at the age of 15. Eight years later, he would adopt the moniker Dee Dee Ramone. He sang and played the bass, but struggled to do both at the same time. It was Dee Dee, the high school dropout, who would be their most essential songwriter. Think of "Pinhead" with its rallying cry, “D-U-M-B, everyone’s accusin’ me!” The Ramones without Dee Dee is unthinkable. His energy raised the stakes in any room and doubled onstage. He sought recreational drugs perhaps to quell some exquisite inner pain, to combat mental illness, or maybe he just liked them. He wrote "53rd & 3rd" about a closet case turning a trick as a male prostitute at the titular intersection in Manhattan. He also hitched a ride to Rockaway Beach. He came up with the name Ramones and was the one counting off: "1, 2, 3, 4!"
Thomas Erdelyi was savvy enough as a teenager to get himself a job as an assistant engineer at the Record Plant on 44th Street in Manhattan. He got the idea of the Ramones and he was initially was the band's manager. He showed potential drummers what they were looking for, but no one could do it like him. He became Tommy Ramone. He wrote "Blitzkrieg Bop." He produced. While the Ramones were Johnny’s band everywhere else, in the studio they were Tommy’s band. He produced Tim for The Replacements who, like so many others, couldn’t have existed without the former Forest Hills high schoolers.
In the '70s, the Bowery was skid row and The Ramones could get gigs at a joint named CBGB where bikers hung out. Art director Arturo Vega heard what the Ramones' future manager Danny Fields, music writer Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, Sire's Seymour Stein heard. Vega became a benefactor and his loft on East Second Street became a home base for the band. He became a logo designer, a lighting director and he was likely the only individual that kept the Ramones together for 22 years. Vega's T-shirt turned on more people to the band, more than any media ever did. He attended every show but two in over 2200 Ramones performances.
Life on the road was not for Tommy, so after playing drums on the first three records, he left the group in 1978. This was the end of the most significant era when the Ramones invented punk. It goes without saying it wasn’t in a vacuum. The Stooges united them and their five borough forebears—The New York Dolls, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and The Heartbreakers—were essential.
At the beginning of the Ramones' long story, it seemed (for a minute) that the band would break through on the radio, but then the Sex Pistols came along and gave punk a bad name. "Beating on the brat with a baseball bat" wasn’t necessarily something a sheepish program director wanted to be associated with anyway.
The Ramones never got a moment like the Grateful Dead got with "Touch of Grey" in their later years either. Over the course of eleven albums, ending with Adios Amigos in 1995, the Ramones added quantity to their body of work, but the blueprint didn’t change. The time signature wasn’t about to shift from 4/4. The pop side that was always present was intermittently pushed to the front in an always futile attempt to sell more records. Phil Spector even produced an album for them, 1980’s End of the Century, and they still didn’t make significant progress commercially.
Johnny and Joey were not natural allies. If conflict is the engine of creativity and innovation—and drama—it was their relationship that defined the group and supplied the angst crucial to voicing their rock 'n' roll angst.
Johnny was the group’s disciplinarian, a general in what more than a few insiders recalled as the Ramones' military-like organization. His allies characterized him as controlling while Joey was universally described as sweet. Johnny leaned in a Republican direction while Joey appeared at a campaign event for Jerry Brown in 1992. Most infamously, Johnny broke Joey's heart by stealing his girlfriend, Linda Daniele, and then marrying her. That kind of betrayal would have killed 99 bands out of 100.
The Ramones were the 100th and survived.
They shared a surname. Through Marky (drums from 1978-83 and then 1987-1996), Richie (drums 1983-87), Elvis (aka a moonlighting Clem Burke who sat in for a handful of shows) and C.J., their bassist from 1989-96 after Dee Dee departed ’89 to ’96, the Ramones endured. Through every bus ride, club and motel room squabble, the professional "marriage" of Joey and Johnny endured, long after they stopped talking to each other.
Inevitably it was Johnny who decided when to end the band. Joey, already diagnosed with lymphoma but not about to reveal it, had made gestures towards slowing down due to health concerns. The band's final concert was August 6, 1996 at the Hollywood Palace. As Mikal Gilmore wrote for Rolling Stone, Eddie Vedder even showed up to join the Ramones on their final song: the Dave Clark Five's "Anyway You Want It."
The Ramones' music endures today, even though the Ramones are all gone. Tommy was the last of the original quartet to die, two years ago in 2014. Joey had passed away in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, and Johnny in 2004. (A four foot statue of Johnny's likeness now sits upon a two foot base at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.)
As the Ramones departed, so did the New York of the band's heyday.
But it is now possible to recall a little bit of that heyday with a Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk, a dynamite exhibit at the Queens Museum which runs through July 31, 2016 (the exhibit moves to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles from September 2016-March 2017). Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Ramones' debut album, this career retrospective has the band's gig posters, album covers, comic books, clothing, instruments and other memorabilia. It will remind you of Dee Dee’s (horrifying) career as a hip hop artist as well. He had a great sense of humor, that one.
Just the Ramones' music became the DNA of bands like the Clash, the Ramones' music became part of the DNA of New York and American music too. Their music is obviously part of the DNA of FUV and the Ramones are absolutely FUV Essentials.
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