Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It's Alive! The Ramones Prove Too Tough to Die at the Queens Museum

"Hey! Ho! Let's Go: The Ramones and the Birth of Punk" is at the Queens Museum for a reason--all four of the original Ramones grew up in the same eight-or-ten-block patch of that borough. So to get in the mood maybe you should go out by subway. True, the walk down Corona's 111th Street to 49th Avenue is longer, scruffier, and a lot less white than anything these Forest Hills High School goof-offs encountered in the early '70s. And the 7 train is an el, less swift and discreet than the F that sped Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee beneath Queens Boulevard to Manhattan whenever they felt the heed to hey-ho-let's-go. But no Manhattan enclave below 110th Street feels as unclassy and lived in as either of these differently unpretentious Queens nabes. Right, the Ramones couldn't wait to get outta there. But they shared with their Queens-spawned predecessors the New York Dolls the mentality of bridge-and-tunnel interlopers with a chip on their shoulder. In a word, they were punks.

A Queens boy myelf, I admit I was hoping for more about how my home turf birthed this surprisingly eternal three-chord style. But beyond a few snapshots and some of the most underachieving report cards you ever want to see--OCD Joey "does not function as a member of the class/no homework no books no effort"--there's not much, with two exceptions. One is a four-part 1975 sequence by the ubiquitous punk photographer Bob Gruen that begins with the four Ramones headed for the subway on 66th Road and ends on a lower Manhattan sidewalk that's seedy-looking even for the time. The second is a folded, poster-style catalogue with an NYC map designed by Punk magazine's John Holmstrom occupying all of one side. This free bonus pinpoints just where in Forest Hills they were raised--not the tree-lined part, although Joey and Tommy were more middle-class than Johnny and Dee Dee--and reminds us that their manager-angel Danny Fields was a product of nearby Richmond Hill. Graphically, Holmstrom's map is pure Ramones--his cartooning style paralleled their bold visual presence, plus it has jokes (surfing punks, "Lawn Guyland") and marks the Manhattan locations where four linked misfits changed the world.

Manhattan always beckoned the Ramones, and although as most saw it their Bowery bailiwick was far scuzzier than Queens, not even construction worker's son Johnny cared: "People wouldn't go to the Bowery because it was a slummy neighborhood with bums--but it wasn't that dangerous." As hippie high times gave way to fiscal crisis, the Ramones' slummy East Village was a low-rent artists' haven, and as such imparted a kind of status Forest Hills could not. For Joey, whose mother owned a heimisch Queens Boulevard gallery called the Art Garden, and Tommy, a Hungarian refugee whose dad was a photographer, the attraction was bred in. But for Johnny, a lifelong Republican who'd done time in military school, bohemia was just the New York way to become the rock star he wanted to be. And for Army brat Dee Dee, arguably the most creative of them all, it was terra incognita. Early in his friendship with Mexican-born artist Arturo Vega, who put up Dee Dee and Joey in his East 2nd Street loft for a protracted early stay, Dee Dee peered at one of Vega's Pop paintings of supermarket produce signs and opined: "Art is OK. But it's not that important."

But as soon became clear, art was very important for the Ramones. Harvard Law dropout Fields was a regular at Warhol's Factory. Fields has many shrewd, handsome photos in the show--shift your glance from the 1976 portrait of these four great Americans dwarfed by the Supreme Court Building down to Joey and Dee Dee's skinny asses as they thread their way through a parking lot, and his visual guidance is one reason the Ramones, in a formula so familiar we'll assume it's the truth, sold more T-shirts than records. This was an income stream that Vega, their designated "art director" for all of their 22-year career, set in motion by making travel money hawking hand-screened T's featuring the presidential-seal logo he designed, with the arrows replaced by a baseball bat and the olive branch by an apple branch. Variations on this design recur in at least a dozen of the show's images.

Memorabilia of course abounds, including a platform and backing wall bearing instruments, amps, gear, and clothing that was really costumery, starring three black leather jackets and holey black jeans repaired with duct tape. But since "Hey! Ho! Let's Go!" is a pop music as opposed to Pop Art show, in its visual aspect it's a multiples show, a graphics show. Here are all 14 tempting album covers arrayed in two vertical rows. The first unveils the iconic Roberta Bayley photo of four leather-jacketed geeks glowering against a wall, their belligerence irrevocably undercut by Tommy's exposed navel; the sole dud goes with the 1980 Phil Spector misfire End of the Century by trading in their leather for monochrome T's in a fruitless attempt to prove they're normal. I counted 30 Ramones T-shirts, most on a single wall, all rarer than the three I own. There's a swarming caricature by Mad's Sergio AragonÚs and a staggering one by a small horde of comix artists who contributed to a box set booklet. There's a lovely wall of fan art. And everywhere there are photos, handbills, ads, and above all posters. Mostly from Europe (yes, they played the Bataclan), few of these were overseen by the band. But almost every one honors their antic, hard-edged graphic identity.

Concomitantly, however, three image-stuffed rooms with the band providing comforting background music in two accommodate only a dozen or so hand-crafted unique objects of any size, among them three cartoon-neoprimtivist acrylics by none other than Dee Dee, who late in life took up painting on the theory that there might be some money in it. For my money the only stunner is the strange Curt Hoppe oil "Bettie and the Ramones," a rendering of one of the many snapshots the Dutch-born, Bowery-dwelling art therapist, bohemian hustler, and selfie pioneer Bettie Ringma got the CBGB greats to join her in. Small-breasted and shag-haired although wearing a partly unbuttoned magenta blouse, Ringma looks so at home standing between Joey and Dee Dee I found myself wondering for a second whether I'd missed this brief quintet phase of their career.

Less satisfying but more fascinating is another large work: a 1977 word-art piece avec cartoons and a few collaged photos that Joey entitled "Let's Go Playmates" and gave to his buddy Holmstrom. Like everything about Joey, whose singing style was based on his aversion to consonants, it's not terribly well-articulated, although the images are cute-enough doodles in the funny-animals tradition by an OCD kid you can imagine being handed a drawing pad and some colored pencils in the basement of his mom's gallery. Ultimately, it feels more like a puzzle than a work of art--a glimpse at this world-changing underachiever's subconscious. "Disco Sucks/Buy Punk Magazine" we get--hating disco was one of punk's lamest tropes. But is Joey sparring with David Byrne, Cheap Trick, the Rutles, ("I slept with") David Bowie, and ("Who's) Bruce Springsteen, to name just a few, or claiming parity, superiority, even fellowship? And what's with the twice-repeated legend "ART SELLS DON'T BELIEVE IT"? In 1977, when the Ramones were still making a pittance on the road, was it his musical art that wasn't selling, and was he resenting it?

Without benefit of the hit singles they believed they wrote every time, the Ramones' musical art did sell eventually, and in the first 15 years of this century all four original members died, three of cancer and Dee Dee of the traditional OD. In many accounts, although I was too lit up by the several dozen Ramones shows I witnessed ever to notice, the four childhood friends never got along, sniping and worse at every show, and there's no doubt that after Johnny stole and then married Joey's girlfriend Linda, the band's two principals--there were three drummers all told, and Dee Dee quit in 1989--pretty much never spoke again. At "Hey! Ho! Let's Go," this split is cursorily acknowledged on a single exhibit card hidden away in road manager Monte Melnick's snapshot gallery. Clearly the goal is immediate pleasure and justified nostalgia, not historical explication.

Given the band's aesthetic, I'm down with that, although I wonder why one of the two photos the Johnny and Linda Ramone Foundation provided of the Ramones Ranch where Johnny spent his L.A. retirement is set in its Nixon-Reagan room. But given the band's aesthetic, I could have done with better audiovisuals. No fan of the promotional video as a form, I couldn't get through those provided, and in what may have been a temporary malfunction found the sound on the 21-minute Richard Robinson video in the front room unlistenably crummy. Nick Abson's 26-minute 1978 It's Alive! is better. But the great treasure I took away from the show--I watched it half a dozen times--was a seven-minute loop home-videoed by John "Black Randy" Morris at their 13th public performance: CBGB, September 15, 1974. They haven't gotten their uniform straight yet--Johnny is bare-chested--and they're spatting over song order as Joey spazzes through "Loudmouth," "Judy Is a Punk," and "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement." Given the band's aesthetic, which was always rigorously formalist, maybe I shouldn't prize this juvenilia. But it's so smart, so nutty, so alive, so careless of the world conquest it was set on that it reminds me poignantly of how much better my world was because the Ramones were in it. It's tucked away in a corner of the first room. Don't miss it.

Art News, April, 2016