Since Joey Ramone’s death, countless journalists have commented, with varying mixtures of pessimism and solace, that punk is dead, literally.
It’s been 25 years since the Ramones made their first mark, and nearly as long since the Sex Pistols broke up. Since those red-hot years of 1976-77, punk has lived on, yes, but never again in such a concentrated form. So, beyond fatalistic proclamations and nostalgic brouhaha, what is there really left to say?
Maybe nothing, but I’ll offer this as an illustrative example.
I’ll never forget the last scene in Rock and Roll High School, when, to the tune of the movie’s anthem, Riff Randell blows up the school. There, captured in celluloid kitsch, is an emblem to punk’s effect on the rock establishment. A question remains, though in real life as well as its allegory. How much, exactly, did the Ramones have to do with it?
In the movie, the Ramones are Riff’s muse her reason for existence, her patron saints. With them as the driving force, Riff is the catalyst for a school wide revolution to the tune of “Gabba Gabba Hey!” But again, it’s Riff herself who actually pushed the plunger on the TNT. It’s Riff’s will who takes their do-nothing mantra to heart, who invokes her hero-worship to make a devastating impact on her world.
Joey Ramone may have died on Easter Sunday, 2001, but to many, he was already a sort of Jesus Christ. The litany of punk and its legendary pulpits are deeply woven with a Ramone-esque gospel, as rightly they should be. As Jeffrey Hyman took the moniker Joey Ramone and branded a band, he also popularized and solidified the blueprint of a musical form which broke rock and roll irreparably. He and his band forever repealed the notion that you had to look like Mick Jagger, play like Pete Townshend, or sing like Van Morrison to be famous. As a reward or a debt, The Ramones are an indelible part of the checklist of ‘70s punk scene staples, like CBGBs, Patti Smith and Richard Hell, Max Kansas City, the two minute song.
But punk, like any other truly revolutionary musical form, is neither a straight line nor an absolute dictum. There are your Lou Reed/Velvet Underground purists, who marry punk more to the poet and art scene that had threads reaching toward art rock, Andy Warhol, even disco. There are Sex Pistols purists, who only count punk when it embodied anger beyond nihilism, when a working class ethic flavored the music with a politic, when dialogism between Great Britain and New York socialized a style, an edgy peril, and a moral panic. There were so many bands and such a high level of organic influence that pinpointing a root is a near fruitless activity. Like any scene, and like the music itself, the sound was cacophonous and the experience of it, subjective.
Joey has died, taking a history with him, but certainly not an art form. He and his band played over 2,000 shows, recorded dozens of songs, and influenced innumerable bands. The loss of him is a true loss, but he and the Ramones have also always been about beginnings. Without him, the punk movement may not have happened when it did, and after him, bands will take the energy he created and resurrect it in the world. They will recreate what he’s done, bastardize it, improve it. To paraphrase Griel Marcus, punk takes on many forms, and exists in a multitude of moments. In the days After Joey, let us let this be.