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

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.

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