Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Marking the Identity of an Original Rock and Roll Group of 1975


book cover

I remember the early releases as hand-written, but on the one in my files only the gig dates are, in large, legible script: "Appearing at Performance Studios 23 East 20th Street, Friday April 11 9 P.M. Also C.B.G.B's 315 Bowery + Bleeker Monday + Tuesday April 14 + 15 11 P.M." The text is typed and photocopied. Its first paragraph reads:

The Ramones are not an oldies group, they are not a glitter group, they don't play boogie music and they don't play the blues. The Ramones are an original Rock and Roll group of 1975, and their songs are brief, to the point and every one a potential hit single.

"Contact Tome Erdelyi, Loudmouth Productions," it goes on, with a Forest Hills address and two phone numbers, a "BR 5-" and a "777." The latter was a Manhattan exchange, the former a Queens; no 718--it was that long ago. Appended were lyrics to six songs, starting with "I Don't Care" and "I Don't Want to Go Down to the Basement."

I think it was that Tuesday that my wife and I went to CB's with Voice critic Tom Johnson, laconic explicator of Reich and Glass and the "one-note music" of Rhys Chatham, after Tom had lured us to the Kitchen. The 20 or so patrons included Danny Fields at the bar in back. Soon the Ramones played 13 songs in 24 minutes or whatever it was, and among the converts was Johnson, who had little interest in pop but lots in minimalism. For me, it was a life-changing experience. These four inept-sounding geeks had figured out what the Stooges had done wrong--the expressionistic stuff, the long and the slow and the chaos-for-its-own-sake. Over the next four years I would see the Ramones more than I've ever seen any band (even the Grateful Dead!). But having followed the tragic trajectory of the New York Dolls, who had changed my life in a similar way, I wasn't optimistic about "potential hit singles." The Ramones were obviously aesthetes one way or another, and in rock and roll, aesthetes rarely conquer the world.

Of course, the Ramones never did--as hitmakers. In 1994, two years before they finally broke up, the 1988 Ramones Mania comp went gold, and maybe eventually the remastered and bonused-up Ramones or Rocket to Russia will join it. Because of course, they have now been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Because of course, they did conquer the world, if changing rock and roll utterly counts. And somewhere in between they gained and/or created a following far closer to the idealized rock and roll audience they'd imagined than anyone knew existed.

Starting with their names and costumes--yes, costumes: note that Dee Dee, who was bitching about the prescribed look long before he quit in 1989, did not wear leather to the Hall of Fame induction--the Ramones strove to convince fans they were all alike. Even today it's like they were all alienated and nothing else mattered. But they were far from alike. Johnny was the son of a construction worker, Dee Dee an army brat in Germany until his mom got them out; both probably felt outclassed in a Forest Hills where there were loads of families like Joey's, whose divorced parents owned a trucking company and an art gallery, and who was Jewish, hence higher in the Forest Hills pecking order. And Tommy's background is murky. He escaped Hungary with his otherwise unchronicled family in 1956, started a high school band with Johnny, liked Buñuel, worked in some vague capacity on Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys, ran the performance space where the Ramones took shape, and managed them before stepping in as self-taught drummer. Most bios give his birthdate as 1952, within a year of the others; some say 1949, which makes more sense, and not just because 18 is young for a Hendrix credit. He seemed more mature. He was the businessman, the promoter, the conceptualizer, the guy who declared them "an original Rock and Roll group of 1975."

Tendencies crisscrossed. Joey and Dee Dee were the head cases, and also the songwriters. Dee Dee and Tommy romanticized America from a European perspective; Tommy and Johnny romanticized fuckups and kept their shit together. Around 1981, Johnny stole Joey's girl, a secret bond and disastrous rift. But although all four were formalists, surly prole Johnny and stoned wildman Dee Dee were instinctive if not compulsive about it, while Tommy and Joey maintained some semblance of aesthetic distance from the rock and roll ideal Johnny and Dee Dee represented--a distance they could make something of because they knew the ideal from the inside. Musically, the four groundbreaking neoprimitives split into the same pairs. Dee Dee amplified the Dolls' one-note basslines into a barrage that underpinned Johnny's from-the-wrist downstrum to create the band's sound. But the deepest innovator in this rhythm band with tunes on top was Tommy and his brand new beat: "Tommy basically played eighth-notes across, with the 'one' on the bass and the 'two' on the snare, constant eighth-notes on the high-hat. Playing fast with eighth-notes constantly--a lot of people try it, but they get sloppy and can't keep up." And since, as 10,000 hardcore bands soon proved, the beat would have gone nowhere without the tunes, the weirdo who sang them ended up defining the band's emotional identity as opposed to its sonic signature.

The trained drummer whose analysis I just quoted is Marky Ramone, who joined in 1978 after Tommy had had it with touring and left only for a four-year detox. Tommy geared his acute taste to his limited technique, playing no fills or rolls and hardly any accents--he was a little guy with small sticks and a light touch, and his quick forcebeat propels and permeates Ramones, Ramones Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia. Marky admired and replicated Tommy's groove. But he'd played metal before hooking up with Richard Hell and had a show drummer's chops, and his muscular sound and well-chosen flourishes helped galvanize the community of brainy anti-intellectuals, postpunk losers, and assorted hitters brought together by the Ramones' hard work, word-of-mouth, and faith in what they'd wrought. He was the link between the punk they'd invented and the good old hard rock they believed it to be--as well as a sign that they were the road band God made them rather than the radio band they so much wished they could be.

Which leaves Joey where? Where he was to begin with--as one of the strangest singers ever to mount a stage, only now there are 250,000 fans believing it or not. There's no better way to grasp what a shock the Ramones' sound was than to realize that, in the reams of celebration piled on Ramones, Joey's vocals went almost entirely unremarked. Granted, it didn't help that his singing is indescribable. "Affected" is too mild, "cartoonlike" redundant. Garbled? Gargled? Strangled? Unhinged Jewish beanpole's dream of Mick Jagger? The Small Faces? The Nashville Teens? Had he merely forgotten his Sudafed? Here were fools by the thousand whining about how clichéd the Ramones' chords were when emanating from Joey's tonsils was a sound unlike any ever heard on earth. If the voice came from anywhere, it was from rock and roll itself--that was its only frame of reference. But it was anything but inhuman. In fact, although this wasn't instantly clear, its freak vulnerability was living proof that the Ramones had love for cretins, pinheads, lobotomies, and glue sniffers. And its Daffy Duck mannerisms were why their hippie-baiting patriotism and playful little Nazi references, while sure to be taken the wrong way and not unrepresentative of Johnny's philosophy of life, never actually seemed threatening.

In 1981, I opined that in future centuries 1981's Pleasant Dreams would sound pretty much like Ramones Leave Home. In 2002, however, the first four albums are clearly not just classic but sui generis, which with Marky on board for Road to Ruin I attribute to a remarkably long-lived initial songburst. But there were many good albums and important songs after that, and what holds them together is less Johnny's sound than Joey's sensibility, even though his writing declined after he got his heart broke. Spurred by Marky, the son of a left-leaning longshoreman-turned-lawyer, Joey emerged--the signal was "The KKK Took My Baby Away," which preceded "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" by four years--as a staunchly unelitist, no-BS version of the bohemian liberal his background would suggest. He joined Artists United Against Apartheid. He supported Rock the Vote. He did a Jerry Brown benefit. He got saner. He stopped drinking. He became a patron of the rock and roll arts.

And then he died, and everyone was so sad that Lucinda Williams, for Pete's sake, sent "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" out to him from Roseland, and in no time the Ramones were elected to the Hall of Fame, and only Tommy mentioned him at the induction, and Don't Worry About Me came out. He'd been recording his solo debut forever with Eighth (or Ninth) Ramone Daniel Rey; Marky's on half of it, also a Dictator and a Del-Lord and the keyb honcho from Loser's Lounge. Joey can't outpower the Ramones-qua-Ramones gestaltwise, and Don't Worry About Me probably isn't as good as 1992's Mondo Bizarro, much less 1984's Too Tough to Die. But it sure beats most other late Ramones albums, which it resembles without benefit of Johnny's downstrum for the reason just cited--in their postclassic, touring-icons period, which (I repeat) was far more productive musically than that otherwise accurate characterization suggests, Joey was the identity marker. Despite the persistence of Johnny's scowl-and-chop and Dee Dee's wart hogs and cretin families, and despite the hitters they were finally attracting, a certain softness rose to the surface. It had always been there, but as the songs departed from their strictures and Joey gargled more emotively, it got bigger, undercutting what was already a play toughness--a tuffness, as physically enthralling as any hard rock without the menace--with shows of feeling that at times were almost coy and girly.

Hence, Don't Worry About Me. It isn't a lot softer than the pop experiments of Pleasant Dreams or the '60s memories of Acid Eaters, but it's less punk and more rock, like the Dictators and the Del-Lords. "Venting (It's a Different World Today)" continues the tradition of "Bonzo" and "Censorshit"--a little less sharply worded, a little more warmly expressed. "Mr. Punchy" and "Like a Drug I Never Did Before" assure us that in some essential part of himself Joey is as screwed up as ever. The praise songs "Maria Bartiromo" and "Searching for Something" are direct descendants of "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" except that neither the investment guru nor the recovering crackhead needs the Ramones. And at the end, Joey didn't either.

There's no point pretending that any of this good-to-better material would mean as much if he hadn't died. But give him credit for having the chutzpah and formal smarts to play that hand high-low. Like everything here, the title track, a failed-love plaint framed as a message from the grave, could have stayed on the record if Joey had beaten lymphoma. A bigger winner is the lovably embarrassing Louis Armstrong corndog "It's a Wonderful World," already stiffened by the punkest attack on the record and doubly credible from a mortally ill man. Similarly, the straightforward music and chin-up sentiments of "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)," precisely the content his enfeeblement called for, would have remained so if in fact he had gotten up. But they're doubly poignant because he didn't.

On Too Tough to Die, which nobody is forever but the Ramones remained for much longer than anybody gave them, Joey sings a Dee Dee song called "I'm Not Afraid of Life." The Ramones all earned that boast. Joey's earning it at this moment.

Village Voice, Apr. 9, 2002