PopMatters Associate Columns and Music Editor
One of New York City’s most beloved music legends, the late Joey Ramone deserves a celebration of his life and art once a year, every year. And he’s gotten just that since 2001’s inaugural Birthday Bash, each successive event attracting an array of friends, fans, and fellow musicians. They come forward each season to honor Ramone and to raise money for lymphoma research. The event has become an annual staple on New York’s glutted club-show circuit, and this year’s festivities boasted an eclectic roster of performers—with decidely mixed results.
For those who lasted from start to finish, the five-hour party provided a parade of abbreviated live sets interspersed with vintage Ramones’ footage, played on a big screen. Emcees Matt Pinfield (of MTV fame) and Little Steven Van Zandt (of everything fame) handled introductions as the Lucky Devil Circus Sideshow entertained the SRO crowd with its unique brand of carnival-freak follies between sets. There’s nothing like a bit of sword swallowing and straitjacket escapism to help a show flow smoothly.
The Devils’ derring-do aside, attendees came to Irving Plaza for music, and it was music they received. Acts ran the gambit: past and present, famous and infamous, good and woefully bad. The wondrous Star Spangles graced the stage, awash in Lower East Side chic, a genuine throwback to the mid-‘70s glory days of former Ramones’ stomping grounds like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Despite major label indifference, the Spangles remain the heir apparent to Gotham’s original punk scene. They’re snotty and melodic, with a touch of sneer, and thus a perfect band to rock on a Joey Ramone tribute bill.
Following up were two blasts from the past, both making strong showings: Mike Peters and his reconstituted Alarm, and Glen Matlock with his band of Philistines. The former displayed a genuine love for the stage (considering his battles with two potentially life-threatening illnesses) and rekindled fond memories of the days when the Alarm was touted as the globe’s next great band. As for Matlock, the original Sex Pistol served up an aggressive 20-minute set, closing with a rollicking rendition of “Pretty Vacant”.
Fortunately, this trio of solid performances came early enough to counterbalance two subsequent doses of musical swill. Logic dictates that a group’s popularity is not necessarily correlated to its artistic talents (see Ashlee Simpson or any other creatively challenged teen diva as evidence). Thus, Mindless Self Indulgence should not rest on its ticket-selling laurels or the deaf, dumb, and blind devotion of its squealing fan base. The band is the bastard child of Devo and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, a bizarre techno-drone abomination that was as painful to watch as it was to hear.
From a band that dreadful, though, expectations remain low, so it was no surprise when they met mine. The same cannot be said for once-significant NYC rockers the Strokes. Some time ago, Julian Casablancas & Co. released a critically acclaimed debut album, but since then, they’ve worn out their welcome (and their 15 minutes) with two tepid follow-up recordings and too many displays of inflated ego. On this special night, New York’s greatest poseur quintet embarrassed themselves with a pair of nearly indecipherable covers, “Life’s a Gas” and “It’s Not My Place (In the 9 to 5 World).” Their renditions more closely resembled drunken Ramones karaoke than faithful homage. Shame on the Strokes for their display of amateurism, and shame on them for dishonoring Joey’s memory with such brazen mediocrity.
Leave it to the wily veterans to mop up the Strokes’ mess and show everyone that yer never to old to rock. The evening’s all-star pick-up band consisted of Ritchie Ramone taking up the kit as if he’d never left, Cheetah Chrome manning his six-string, and (at various times) members of the Plasmatics, Bullys, and Furious George. As with any hastily convened assembly of musicians, a few miscues were expected. Most glaring was the guest vocalist who required a lyric sheet to clumsily navigate the songs. Remaining nameless in this review to protect his reputation, this gentleman’s dearth of requisite knowledge as to the Ramones’ catalogue was unfathomable. What member of a band doesn’t know the words to at least a few Ramones classics?
That said, Bebe Buell impressed as she growled her way through “I Wanna Live” and “I Just Want to Have Something to Do”, and Tommy Ramone drew cheers for his vocal efforts on “Suzy Is a Headbanger” and “We’re a Happy Family”. The show’s closing surprise featured the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, starred and striped Strat in hand, leading a spirited “Kick Out the Jams”. It was unfortunate that Brother Wayne didn’t contribute more. His guitar skills haven’t diminished one whit, nor has his status as a musical folk hero.
From a critical perspective, the night graded slightly above average (in terms of overall performances), with several high points and low points juxtaposed against the predominant middle. But, viewed through the lens of a well-intentioned and loving tribute, the 2006 Joey Ramone Birthday Bash was a rousing success. Forget that the Strokes turned to jokes and the sundry performance missteps, this event benefited the fight against lymphoma while honoring our fallen brudduh from Queens.
At the very least, participants and party goers spent several hours with the memory of Joey Ramone in their heads and hearts, and, at the very most, awareness was raised about a disease that took one of our own far too early. Ultimately, what matters most is acknowledging Joey’s personal and professional impact, and the void that was left when he passed. During the course of the evening, someone on stage exclaimed, “God bless Joey Ramone!” Rest assured, he did.