Q&A: Rock 'N' Roll High School Director Allan Arkush Looks Back (Plus Exclusive Photos)
Joey Ramone would have been 60 years old on May 19. This week, in celebration of the birthday of the Queens-born gone-too-soon punk legend, Sound of the City will run a series of features on his life and his legacy.
Bruce Frankel/courtesy Allan Arkush
Allan Arkush has executive produced a bunch of TV shows--Crossing Jordan, Heroes, Hellcats. He made the Temptations miniseries that VH1 shows every other day. He's directed episodes of Melrose Place, Dawson's Creek, Ally McBeal, and Moonlighting. But when he shakes this mortal coil, expect the title of a $300,000 B-flick he barely spent four weeks on in 1978 to headline his obit.
Rock 'N' Roll High School, staring the Ramones, is one of the five greatest American films of all time. Well, five best movie musicals? At the very least, the scene of the band rolling down the high school halls and blaring "Do Ya Wanna Dance" with the teen archetypes (cheerleaders, jocks, geeks, etc.) following, clapping and dancing while brewing up the eventual explosion of the school, could be the most transcendent two minutes of any rock movie. Arkush, who was 30 at the time, was behind the camera. At the time, he worked in the Roger Corman camp, and Rock'n'Roll High School evolved from a simple chance to add to his directing chops into a place in rock-flick history and a lifelong friendship with Joey Ramone.
Arkush--a huge music fanatic--was in the midst of transferring his old mixtapes to digital storage when we reached him by phone. "This is kind of cool because I've been reading the Village Voice since I was in high school--so like 1965, '66," he said. "I first encountered it in my world history class. We were going to do a debate for and against Vietnam, and I hadn't really thought about it much. There was an ad in The New York Times around then that was against the war, and it was signed by every singer or folk singer I respected, and it really gave me pause. So I took the 'against' side, and the source for my argument was a Village Voice article. And I killed in the debate! Though then my teacher wrote a really bad college recommendation for me."
So, how did you first hear about the Ramones?
I always followed music in the Voice too, and that's the first place I ever heard about the Ramones, because I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Some article about CBGB. I was a huge fan of music, but I wasn't personally experiencing that scene. And I remember Robert Christgau's review of the first Ramones album, and he gave it an A. So I went out and bought it.
And what did you think?
Um, I didn't get it. I played it and played it, and I didn't get it. So I had some friends over one night. I was working for Roger Corman, so he, and Joe Dante, and some friends were over. I said you guys, you gotta here this. These guys are the hottest group in New York, and every song sounds exactly the same! So I put the album on, and I played only a couple seconds of each song, and then I loved it. It made me laugh, and it all kind of came together. But it was Rocket to Russia that really got me. First time I heard that I thought, "This is a genius record, this is one of the great rock records of all time." And my opinion has not changed.
When Rock 'N' Roll High School came out, it was not treated very well by the Village Voice. We didn't get to open the movie in New York, which was really painful. It opened in Texas!
Because Corman was an independent distributor, it was truly an indie film. But indie films in those days weren't the arty ones, like now. They were the exploitation ones, for drive-ins, right? So as far as Roger was concerned, there was no point in opening it in New York City. And you opened where you had available theaters or drive-ins. Me and Seymour Stein and his Sire Records argued against that, because Sire was releasing the soundtrack album ahead of the movie, which was kind of new at the time. They were really pissed off. So it opened in April 1979, in Texas and New Mexico, and didn't get to New York until August. And Johnny Ramone was furious. I remember he said, "I think we've sold 243 albums total in New Mexico!" So by that time, the movie had died on the normal trail of drive-ins, etc. Roger wanted to cut the movie and change the name, but we convinced him to stick with it. Then it did okay in San Francisco. But it had played in Chicago in July as a midnight movie. And Ebert and Siskel gave it a great review. And that's where it took off.
Though it was made in 1978, out in '79, I didn't see it until a cable showing in like 1984, and some of it seemed to me to be a precursor to the raunchy zany teen comedies that were huge hits in the early '80s. Kind of like Animal House was...
Yes, I was influenced by Animal House a lot, and that success gave me the freedom to be outrageous. But a lot of the outrageous stuff in Rock 'N' Roll High School was stuff that happened to me personally in high school. Like the freshman being shoved in the locker. That happened to me all the time at Fort Lee High School, in New Jersey. I used to daydream that the Yardbirds or the Rolling Stones would come to my school and play a concert. I also daydreamed about motorcycle races up and down the halls. The boys' room was also always full of smoke, but it was also full of danger.
Riff Randell was based on three women I knew at the Fillmore East, when I was an usher and backstage hand there, while I went to New York Film School. Diane, Gayle, and, uh, I can't remember the third one. Just three girls from Brooklyn and Queens who used to hang out, and we'd talk about music. And they had different taste than I did. They were much more into the flash English bands than I was, like Bowie and T. Rex. And whenever there was an open seat, I'd get them good ones. And they were such avid rock fans--they were Riff Randell. And in 1969, they got on line for tickets for a Rolling Stones show in town, and got their picture in the paper. And that's where I got that stuff in the movie, with Riff sleeping on line for the tickets to the Ramones show.
Please tell me anything about that amazing hallway scene with the Ramones doing "Do Ya Wanna Dance."
Of all the music numbers in the movie, it's my favorite. It's an homage to the classic MGM musicals, Vincent Minnelli, a little Busby Berkeley... The band was on a riser we pushed--that's how we used to push the equipment on stage at the Fillmore. It was planned to have that kind of energy, with primitive choreography; whereas the stuff at the concert was to be more like a real Ramones concert. But that day was 22 hours of shooting. I think it was that day, watching the band, and seeing how hard they worked, just the intensity of it! As a result of the movie, I became friends with them.
Did you ever think of compiling some of that extra concert footage for a live DVD?
Roger Corman threw out all the negatives in the late '80s. Gone. The fact there's live sound from that day on the DVD was because of tracks saved by one of the sound editors.
I guess it's well-known by now that the original idea for the movie was something called Disco High, and that you convinced Corman that disco was kind of fading. And that Cheap Trick was the first choice for the band, and maybe Van Halen...
Well, that was just one of a number of ideas. But once the name of the Ramones came up at a meeting with a Warner A&R guy... Well, my knowledge of music really helped that meeting. It was a two-hour meeting, presenting music, bands, possibilities. The Ramones' name came up, and I smiled, and I remember thinking, "Now, that fits in with my theme of certain kinds of people who define their lifestyle by the bands that you love." I was coming out of the '60s, and music as a definition of who I am as a generation was still very strong. And when the Ramones came up I thought, that's interesting because a girl like Riff Randell was probably a cheerleader the year before she heard new wave music. Her identity with the Ramones is so exotic, and so different from her own, that this makes sense.
Then I had a meeting with [Ramones manager] Danny Fields at a hotel. My memory is that I think this all happened on the same day, one of those things that happens very very quickly. So I met Danny and Linda Stein [Seymour Stein's wife[ in the garden of this hotel, and getting halfway through the pitch, and them starting to smile and think, that's funny. Then I told them, at the end, while the Ramones are playing, the high school blows up. And Danny just jumped up and yelled, "We're in! We're in!"
So they suggested I meet the band and talk to them. then they arranged a show at Hurrah's in New York, August of '78. So I flew in--ha! When I say that it sounds like I'm Mister Hollywood. I flew steerage, y'know. I paid out of my pocket, and took the redeye and stayed on the couch at my father's apartment. They were playing with Lance Loud's band and Klaus Nomi, who opened. Even I wasn't ready for him! This was the first time I ever saw the Ramones live. For some reason I didn't see their shows in L.A., maybe cuz I had no money! So before the show, Danny brought me backstage to meet them. Joey was drinking this hemo-tonic, something from Kiehl's pharmacy or something, to give him energy. And they were rehearsing...
Yeah, the Ramones always ran through the whole set unplugged backstage before they went on--insane!
Yeah! And Johnny just said, "So, we gonna make this movie or what?" John always ended every sentence with "or what?"
What was your first impression of Joey?
AA: He was extremely quiet. I don't think he said a word. Really, a withdrawn person. That was only reinforced as I got to know him better over that period. So anyway, then the door flew open, and in walked Lester Bangs. And he proceeds to just bust their balls for awhile, really funny. To me this was almost more exciting than meeting the Ramones, cuz I used to read him in Creem. Then in walks Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads, and I'm in fuckin' heaven at this point. And Lester is telling her that her band better get their shit together. Hilarious! So the guys went out and played a great show! And after the show, the guys brought me down to CBGB, and that was a huge thrill--hanging out front, listening to everyone, and seeing the people. Then Joey and I went around the corner to the loft where he and Arturo [Vega] lived. Then the next night we had dinner at Seymour's apartment. They ordered amazing Italian food, but Dee Dee was like, "If this is Italian food, where's the fuckin' pizza?!" So we had to order out for pizza. Then the guys liked me, we hung out some more. So it was after all this that I went back and talked to the script writers, and so much of just those couple of days ended up in the movie.
The concept of "pre-production" sounds funny for the Ramones. But was there some going over the script, character motivations, stuff like that?
When they came to L.A. they came over to my place, and that's when John saw my record collection. He was looking through it, and saw some Grateful Dead records. I believe his response was, "What the fuck is this?! You like these guys or what?" And they all turned to me. I said, "Well, I think you guys and the Grateful Dead are similar. I think you're both auteurs." And John was a smart guy, he knew what that was. Whatever music you play, you make it sound like yours. Even a cover song, it becomes a Ramones song. Like when the Grateful Dead do "In the Midnight Hour," "Darkstar," whatever, it becomes a Grateful Dead song. That's why I love both these bands, they're so pure at what they do. That satisfied Johnny. Then later, Joey admitted to me he'd actually been to a Grateful Dead concert, at Roosevelt Stadium. But he said he left after a half hour because they never played a fast song.
So, there are rumors about the scene where the band plays "I Want You Around," and Joey is crawling onto Riff's bed, that he was really nervous about doing that.
That was the second day of shooting. Joey was very withdrawn as a person at that period. One night we were hanging out at my house, and he actually said, "Thanks, I had a good time." And Monte (Melnick, road manager) said, "Wow, he's really accepting you!" So, anyway I told Joey that scene was an homage to a scene in The Girl Can't Help It. It was the first music number we shot. Trying to fit the giant camera in that room was hard! But with them, it was a matter of psyching them up, because they were always afraid of looking and feeling foolish or corny. Like the scene where they're coming down in the street in the convertible, lip-synching to "I Just Wanna Have Something to Do," and Marky's got nothing but two drumsticks... They hadn't really done videos yet, so this was all new for them. So we watched A Hard Day's Night, and watched the lip-synching, and just tried to make them understand that we're just trying to capture a performance. And so when Johnny had to do the solo in front of the theater in that scene, I just said, "Go with the whole guitar hero thing, I'll put the camera low, and I'll make you a guitar god. And Joey, I want you to make eye contact with the kids, make it personal, reach out to them." We shot that tracking shot only two or three times. The feedback from the kids was great! And that went a long way to make them feeling comfortable.
"These photos turned up in a box, in the basement of the photographer's mother's when he was moving her out of her suburban home. The photographer, Bruce Frankel, is the cousin of one of my oldest friends. He was probably 19 years old when he took these shots. These were taken outside the Mayan Theatre in December 1978, on the day we shot 'I Just Want To Have Something To Do.' It looks like we were having fun, which we were. In the shot of us in the back of the Cadillac, notice the take-out container of chicken vindaloo! 'Eating chicken vindaloo,' go the lyrics. Joey and I look like such happy geeks."
Bruce Frankel/ courtesy Allan Arkush
How was the real-life chemistry between Joey and PJ Soles (Riff Randell)?
PJ had to keep reminding Joey that he was important. He was very, very shy. It was like, "Joey, you're allowed to take the soda. It's free." So she was very encouraging to him. She's a good cook, and she made a big Thanksgiving dinner for the guys at her house, and that was really fun. No pizza that night! In all fairness, those guys love tacos. We used to go to this place on Santa Monica Blvd. called Los Tacos--it's still there. It was near the Tropicana where they were staying after the film shoot, and during the recording of Road to Ruin with Phil Spector. And we must've gone to Los Tacos 50 times. And when I hear that song, "Danny Says," I always tear up, because it's such a pure expression of what Joey was. He was a young guy in love, talking about watching Get Smart on TV, that's truly how he was. He was a friend, someone you hung out with.
What about Mary Waronov, who played the nazi principal, Miss Togar? Did you try any method tricks to get the Ramones to hate her?
Ha... You know, many of Miss Togar's dialogue lines were taken verbatim from things said by my high school principal. It was John's idea to put the "Kick Me" sign on her back. The Ramones had a lot of respect for her because of the Warhol connection, and the Velvet Underground, the Factory scene, all that.
It would seem that once they were done with their scenes, the Ramones probably wanted to high-tail it out of there.
Well, the filming itself was fast and furious. But they did come to the dailies once, to see what they look like on screen. And it was a great daily, it was the scene where the Ramones show up at the high school. And Dee Dee said, "We look like we're from another planet." Ha! And that was true, that's what I wanted. At some point in that period, that movie Alien was about to come out. John loved any kind of horror movie, and had heard about it. We somehow got them passes to a screening of it at Fox. It was a big deal screening, a lot of big deal studio people there. So I was waiting for the band to show up--they're always late for everything. I walked in with the Ramones, and talk about being from another planet! It was one of those things that makes you think, in the world we live in, there are all kinds of pecking orders. And if you're walking down Second Avenue with the Ramones, you're the highest you could be on the pecking order. But you walk in with them at a screening at Fox, and it's like, who dragged these guys in?!
We tried to have a real rehearsal and read the script, but that was a disaster. We got through about five pages. Just laughing too much, or, well, I realized that Dee Dee was really funny, but he could only be funny as Dee Dee. Then we talked about what songs would go where, and they had a lot of say in that.
That backstage scene with the band getting pizza was shot at the Whisky; the concert stuff was shot at the Roxy; and the outside of the theater was at the Mayan. The pizza scene took a while. Joey was a real good sport about getting all those bean sprouts in his mouth, or whatever the hell it was...
"Wheat germ, Joey, wheat germ!"
Ha, oh yeah, wheat germ! The only thing Joey ever complained about was that I used a really wide-angle lens on him. And he'd say, "Now everyone's gonna shoot me with that fuckin' wide-angle lens cuz they think it's funny. It makes me look bad!"
I notice that most of the stuff we talk about with the Ramones from back then, you end up talking about funny stuff and laughing. But back then, 1978, '79, the mainstream press and the music biz were dumping on punk rock as being too violent, angry, a fad that was already fading--mainly because it didn't sell right away.
Yeah, it was a big deal, big discussions with Danny about not calling them "punk," and not portraying it as "punk," and calling it "new wave." And that's what they wanted, so that was fine with me. I don't know if the band was thrilled with it, but they went with it. Back then, people just didn't get it, I guess. And now, the pop elements in their music come through so clearly. Little kids like the Ramones' music! I would always say they sound like the Beach Boys backed up by chainsaws. But back then, I remember them opening for Black Sabbath and just getting pelted with shit. Any show that wasn't with their fans at a club was usually a disaster.
Did you ever notice Joey's OCD problems?
Definitely. Walking anywhere with him took awhile, because he'd walk up and down on curbs several times. And over the years, going to New York and visiting his apartment on 11th Street, and his apartment was OK, but he had all this stuff placed throughout the apartment. And if he ordered takeout coffee, which he did obsessively, he never cleaned it up. The empty cups were always perched on all these places, and you had to wind your way through the place. Everything was piled up on the floor--cassettes, CDs, records.
But, you never left that place without a gift. He was such a gentleman. He always made sure that he gave you something. He'd look around for something he could give you. A CD, whatever. He gave me a Ramones hoodie that my kids still wear now. He often made it his goal to turn me onto bands that I didn't like. So he'd play me a Kiss song until I admitted that, OK, that was a good Kiss song. Then he'd ask me a lot of musical things. Like when he was recording "What a Wonderful World," [which ended up on Joey Ramones' posthumous 2002 solo record, Don't Worry About Me], he said he didn't know much about Louis Armstrong. So I sent him a Louis Armstrong mix. One birthday, I gave him this bootleg I found of the Who at the Fillmore East, a show he'd been to years ago. And he was really excited. I spent a lot of time on the phone with Joey too over the years. I just spent a lot of time with Joey--we had a lot of good Indian food. He loved chicken vindaloo.
So back to '78, and they were recording with Phil Spector in L.A...
Yeah, so once the movie wrapped, they stayed in L.A., living at the Tropicana, working on the Phil Spector record, and I spent a lot of time with them then. And it became a good friendship. Phil had liked the movie, and he had mentioned many times that he would like to meet me. And whenever Joey would say that, he would follow with, "But don't! Don't come down, because he's gonna freak out. He hates it whenever anyone comes down." So I was like, okay, I don't want him to freak out, I won't go--even though I wanted to. His songs were the songs I grew up on, the girl groups and all that. I adore that music. So finally, Phil insisted that he really wanted to meet me. So Joey said, "Fine, but I know what's going to happen. He's going to go sulk in the corner and not talk to anyone, and shut the place down, be mad all night, and we're not gonna get anything done. But he's insisting." So okay, on this one Friday night, I go down to, I think it was Goldstar Studio, and I walk in, they introduce me--and Phil turned around, went into the corner, and sulked. Then he cranked loud music until I left. Joey looked at me like, "I'm sorry." Joey was the most excited about working with him, but Johnny didn't like that record at all. But there's a lot of great stuff on that record.
Did you ever get to see Rock 'N' Roll High School in New York City?
Yes! So, I flew to New York for the opening in August, 1979. They gave me a ridiculously small promo budget, like $8,000. There was like one ad in the New York Post, maybe one small ad in the Village Voice, and I think Joey and I did an interview on WFMU and a couple other places. But then they were on the road when it actually opened, so they weren't able to be there opening night. But I know I did everything I personally could to help promote it. And I went to see it, on Eighth Street, either at The Art or the Eighth Street Theater, I don't remember. But the audience reaction was sensational, unbelievable. When Miss Togar burned the Ramones record, people got up and screamed! I mean, it was one of the greatest nights of my life. This was the audience it was meant for, it was the audience that I really wanted to like the movie.
Afterward, there was an afterparty at the Mudd Club, and that was great too. And I went down the next night to watch it again. That was the weekend that the Yankees catcher Thurmond Munson was killed in a plane crash. The movie played for a week or two; it costs money to keep a movie playing in New York, so that was enough for them. But it was a great experience. And I've always thought that if it had opened in New York first, the reviews would've been a little kinder. I remember the Voice review was kind of saying we'd co-opted their band and made them something else. It was a very territorial review. But I was trying to show how something so purely of New York can go somewhere and mutate. That someone as cutesy as Riff Randell can interpret it her way.
It's still wonderful that people really love the movie. I swear there isn't like two weeks in my life that go by where I don't have to talk about it, or someone sends me a screening announcement. Or I'll be working with a crew member on one of my shows, and they'll say, "So you made Rock 'N' Roll High School?" And I'll say, yeah. "Oh, that is soooo cool."
When was the last time you saw Joey?
I remember when he told me about the lymphoma, that was about two years before he passed, and he'd known for a year. And I can see right now in my backyard, where I was walking and talking on the phone with him, and trying to hold it in. I was very very upset. I made sure I spoke to him a lot after that. I spoke to him around Christmas and after a bit, and then I spoke a lot to Mickey [Leigh, Joey's brother], because Joey didn't want to take calls anymore. Mickey would regularly call me. I was working on the Crossing Jordan pilot in Boston, Mickey called me and told me that Joey had fallen and taken a bad turn. And I told Mickey I wanted to grab a plane and come see him. But he said don't, because Joey doesn't want anyone to see him. And then later they called and told me...
You know, the two musicians in my life who I've had the closest friendships with are Joey Ramone and Jerry Garcia. Spending time with them, and talking with them, and hearing the things in their musical life that bother them the most, or the perceptions they didn't like, were kind of polar opposites.
I did this movie in 1997 for Showtime, Elvis Meets Nixon. And there are these two key scenes where Elvis is in the back of a limo. And he's talking to his best friends about his life. And in the first one, he talks about "That's Alright Mama," and how that song made him a big star, and he never expected that to happen, he wanted to be a gospel singer. And suddenly his life changed, and he became this certain thing. And that is what Garcia would say about Acid Test. He said, "We were just living in the moment and trying to do this chaotic thing. It was all about freedom. But then, as we got big, as much as we'd like to be chaotic when we play, we were kind of codified by this thing we're 'supposed' to be."
Now the other limo scene was about how Elvis felt he doesn't get any respect, and that he's not remembered, and that what he did started everything else. That was kind of the flipside of it--and that was like Joey. Joey would get angry, and talk about how they'd never been invited to be on Saturday Night Live. And that really made him mad. He'd say, "We represent New York."
Anyway, I think about Joey a lot. I miss him a lot.
On July 9, Rock 'N' Roll High School will be shown at Coney Island.
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