I was surprised by how hard I took the news that Joey Ramone had died at the age of 49 on Easter Sunday. That he died of cancer so young was a shock, but I was relieved that his death wasn’t due to a drug or alcohol relapse. I love the Ramones I have for half my life. But what moved me most on hearing the news was my long-overdue realization that Joey Ramone was a hero to me. I generally avoid using autobiography as a way to comment upon culture, but I can’t resist the impulse in this case. Joey’s death made me realize how he, the Ramones, and punk rock, saved my life, not once but twice. I can’t help but believe that he did the same for many others.
The first time was when a college dorm-mate locked me in my room with the first two Sex Pistols singles and wouldn’t let me come out until I assumed a new identity as a punk. It took only a few minutes. I’m sure that I first saw the Ramones shortly after that. I went to a large state university on the East Coast, and the Ramones seemed to play there once or twice a month. The shows were aural and visual spectacles, juxtaposing a wall of ear-splitting sound with the gangly, knock-kneed singer, clutching his microphone, his words barely discernible in the din. Not that I cared. The noise, the beat, and especially the energy, hit me on a deeply affective level. I didn’t need to hear the words to get their meaning.
The standard line on the Ramones and on punk rock bands in general, repeated often in tributes to Joey over the last few days, is that their music was primitive, almost artless, a wonderfully redemptive reclamation of rock and roll from rich and jaded ‘60s has-beens and pretentious prog-rockers. But to think that punk rock was all “Here’s three chords, go start a band” is an over-simplification. Seventies punk was music fan’s music. I don’t mean this in an elitist sense. Punk rock, the music and the ethos, was for all of the “misfit toys” of the 1970s. We were too young to be true baby boomers, too scared to be greasers, and too strange to be popular. We were the school weirdos, who only felt real in the privacy of our bedrooms with “our” music playing in our headphones. Music lifted us out of our junior high, high school, and family hells. And no punk group tapped into these feelings better than the Ramones.
I’ve listened to a lot of Joey’s music again over the last few days and I’m struck by how artful and totally honest it is. It’s the work of not-terribly-talented kids who lived and breathed music and then decided to make some. To me, that’s the crux of the Ramones, and punk’s, DIY spirit. It’s rock and roll music stripped of all the baggage it acquired after the British Invasion, the dawn of the counterculture, and the invention of rock criticism. It combines the lovely-tough melodies and attitude of the girl groups and the sonic splendor of Phil Spector (albeit without the strings), without “rawk’s” macho or high-culture posturing. There’s a lot of rage in it, sure, but it’s more matter-of-fact than ugly. When Joey sings, “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat,” he’s not advocating a policy, but expressing the extreme edge of a reality. In the 1960s and 1970s, when we punks were growing up, parents didn’t try to reason with their misbehaving three-year-olds like we’re supposed to now. A good whack or three on the butt did the trick. Most of our parents didn’t go after us with baseball bats, but we knew they would if they could.
The standard take on 1970s punk these days is that British punk had the political edge while American punk was either more amateur (Ramones, Dead Boys) or arty (Television, Talking Heads, Patti Smith). I disagree. I doubt that Joey made conscious efforts to be political (besides “Bonzo Goes to Bitzburg,” but how could he, or anyone, not?), but he made political statements nonetheless. Early Ramones songs stripped away the crap social crap, cultural crap, musical crap, high school crap, family crap, and most other types of crap that you can think of to celebrate what was left.
Another “given” of late 1970s punk was that it was nihilistic and negative. To the contrary, I see it as a very affirmative and positive musical and social phenomenon. Sure, we punks took a lot of drugs, drank a lot, and did all sorts of other self-destructive and/or just plain stupid things in the pre-AIDS days. But who didn’t back then? For every Sid Vicious, there were probably three self-identified punks, musicians or fans, who cleaned up and embarked on interesting and fulfilling lives. Joey was one, and I’m another. Which brings me to the second way that the Ramones and punk saved my life.
I never went whole-hog punk. I never moved to New York but instead stayed in provincial Boston, where I grew up. I didn’t spike or dye my hair; I never shot heroin (more because I didn’t know how to go about finding it than any great sense of self-preservation), but I practiced more than my share of self-destruction. By the end of the 1980s, I was burned out and an emotional wreck. I was making good money in the corporate world that I hated. I was drinking too much, my marriage was shaky, and I was losing friends left and right. The gulf between my self-perception as a punk rocker and the life I found myself leading was becoming an ocean, and I was about to drown. My emotional nadir began the last time I saw the Ramones. I decked myself out in my old black leather, long relegated to the back of the closet, and an equally aged pair of black jeans. I agonized over the outfit, because it just didn’t feel like me anymore. The problem was, the outfit that I put on next after going out the door, walking down the block to the subway, then annoying my husband and friends as I ran back to the house to change didn’t feel like me either. I don’t remember much of the show, just the feeling that I didn’t belong, anywhere.
I didn’t really know it then, but that was the first sign that I had to make a choice, that I had to choose to be the punk rocker that I felt like, or to live out my life as a “normal” person in quietly alcoholic desperation. And that was the second time Joey Ramone saved my life. I chose to be the punk rocker, or more accurately, to embrace the spirit of punk rock. I didn’t leave my husband, move to New York City, and start a band. But I adopted the DIY ethos again, interpreting it to mean that I would follow the path I wanted to, and damn what I was “supposed” to do. I went back to grad school where I study and write about popular music. Yes, I have the accouterments of middle-age a mortgage, cars, marriage, even a kid, and if I’m lucky, my Ph.D. by the end of this year but I revel in my difference. Until I had to retire it because it was falling apart, I wore my old leather jacket proudly, disregarding the strange looks I got while pushing my baby in her stroller around my Midwestern college town.
Now I understand why hearing the news of Joey’s death shook me so hard. I have Joey Ramone to thank for taking me off the straight and narrow path. I’m pretty sure that my story isn’t unique. Maybe it’s just my anecdotal and narrow experience, but it seems that every forty-something person I’ve met who’s doing something that’s not quite the norm was also hanging out in punk clubs in the late 1970s. I’ll bet that today’s ravers, who are the types of kids who would’ve been punks 23 years ago, are the slightly-off early-middle-aged of 20 years from now. So Joey, we past, present, and future misfit toys salute you with the words you gave us (the same ones I now use to get my toddler out the door): Hey, ho, let’s go! on whatever twisted path the music and the spirit take us.
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