Punks in the Hall
Gary Kurfirst, the longtime manager of Talking Heads, illustrates just how irreverent the band was when they started touring in the mid '70s. "They were in Boston," recalls Kurfirst. "It must've been around '77, and we were in a nasty fight with the headlining bandthey didn't want to let us use their stage lights. Finally David [Byrne] walks up and says, 'Screw it!' They played the whole show with the house lights on!"
Ask Kurfirst the name of the bullies, though, and he gets suspiciously quiet. Turns out he so impressed the headliners with his tenacity that he wound up managing them, too.
That band was The Ramones.
Come Monday, Talking heads and The Ramonesalong with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Isaac Hayes, Brenda Lee, and Gene Pitneywill have gilded rocking chairs reserved in the giant, industry-approved Cleveland pantheon that is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But for New Yorkers who consider the heyday of CBGB as much a part of the city's fabric as Central Park or the Yankees, it's all about a motley crew of solvent huffers from Forest Hills and a few preppy RISD transplants.
The Ramones and Heads were written off as weirdos by a music industry dominated by singer-songwriters and prog rock in the mid '70s; now the ultimate industry establishment is offering validation. The induction ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria, with its $2500-a-seat prices and tables full of record executives, is anything but punk. But as Heads drummer Chris Frantz says, "If they're handing out honors, I guess we'll take them."
So Talking Heads are reuniting. The key syllable here is "nite," as in only one. Don't hold your breath for the follow-up tour. "We're talking about playing a couple of songs for the thing," says David Byrne, fidgeting with a CD in the downtown office of his Luaka Bop record label. "It'll be fun." He doesn't sound convincing.
The reunion was not a foregone conclusion. When Salon.com asked Byrne in '99 about the specific possibility of playing at the Hall of Fame ceremony, his response was a terse "I don't think so." As late as February, matters were undecided. Even as husband-wife team Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth excitedly ticked off songs they might play at a reunion (" 'Psycho Killer' was always a hit to me," says Frantz. "It would be great to play something unexpected, like 'I Zimbra' "), Byrne was touring the Eastern Hemisphere, solo, and in no rush to decide.
It's been 14 years since the band performed together. Byrne, Frantz, Weymouth, and keyboardist Jerry Harrison have all remained busy since the band broke up in '91. Weymouth and Frantz are constantly on tour as the Tom Tom Club, and contributed a track on the Gorillaz' breakthrough album. Harrison established a platinum production career with Live's Throwing Copper, and worked on No Doubt's latest. Byrne just finished 12 months on tour supporting the dadaist-ages-gracefully classic Look Into the Eyeball; he's been singing some Heads classics regularly, so, as he says with a maniacal laugh, he "knows the words." Still, the four haven't been in the same room since '99, when they were promoting the reissue of their concert film Stop Making Sense. In '96, Byrne went to court to stop Weymouth, Frantz, and Harrison from releasing the ill-conceived No Talking Just Head project (they eventually settled out of court and the album was released). Just weeks ago, Byrne characterized the Heads' relationship as "better than Israel and Palestine."
Talking Heads' first gig had them opening for the Ramones at CBGB, and in '77 the two would take their first proper tour of Europe together. To hear Johnny Ramone talk, you might think the notorious hardass has gone all soft. "We always knew the Talking Heads were good," he says. "But we looked at them as this college, intellectual band. To me rock and roll was always supposed to be rebellious punks." Danny Fields, the Ramones' first manager, from '75 to '80, remembers it another way: "Johnny said, 'They really suck, they can open.' "
"We were going for the preppy look," says Byrne. "We just wanted to turn the rock iconography on its head. We wanted to see if we could get away with establishing that as an alternative. I don't think it really worked." Weezer probably begs to differ, but certainly there were manyparticularly those outside the major metropolitan areaswho didn't care to have their iconographies flipped. "Isn't it strange," asks Weymouth, "to think that the first song that happened for us was 'Take Me to the River'? That's when people finally understood the band. 'Cause, oh, when you mix up your sex and your gospel, they say 'Oh, now I know where you're coming from. You're as fucked up as I am!' "
The Heads' imprint on modern groups is so obvious (Radiohead even took their name from a track on True Stories) that it's worth remembering that before there was an alternative rock circuit, Byrne and co. had to blaze trails through folk clubs in Nashville and pizza parlors in Pittsburgh. ("Our opening act was a fire-breathing clown," recalls Byrne. "He was drunk by our second set.")
"My first impression of the Ramones," says Byrne, "and the impression probably never changed, was that this was real art rock. The concept was so strong and so focused that it became invisible. People almost didn't notice that it was tongue in cheek." Loser kids who'd barely made it through high school in the early '70s really weren't walking around with leather jackets and extended bowl cuts. That was an "iconography" the Ramones gave the world.
The band blazed a few trails of their own. Monte Melnickthe Ramones' tour manager for the whole wild rideremembers an early fuel stop in rural Texas. After pumping the gas, Monte walked into the small shop where Tommy, Dee Dee, Joey, and Johnny were stretching their legs. On the way out, the beehived clerk pulled him aside and said in a low voice, "Mister, it sure is nice of you to take care of those retarded people."
As the cliché goes, wherever the Ramones went, 10 new bands sprung up. That takes on more weight when you note bands that made it past the garage. Pearl Jam, Rob Zombie, the Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Rancid are all cutting tracks for a Ramones tribute that Johnny is putting together. Bono has long said that his band would not have existed without the Ramones; this past April, U2's "In a Little While" played at the Weill Cornell Medical Center as Joey slipped away. And since he passed on, U2 has taken to playing "I Remember You."
The Ramones obviously, sadly, will not be reuniting Monday night, but that precludes no drama on their part. First on Johnny Ramone's list of gripes is the exclusion of bassist CJ Ramone from the induction; the Hall of Fame Foundation wouldn't even grant him a ticket. When the band played their last gig, in L.A. in August of '96, CJ had been a member for eight years and three studio albums; he was such a longtime, die-hard fan before he joined that he still refers to the Ramones as "them." Today he works 12-hour shifts cleaning polluted air ducts at the World Trade Center site, and is among the first to explain why he shouldn't be inducted. "Only the original members should be going in," says CJ. "That's when they put out Ramones to Rocket to Russia, the stuff that made them legendary."
Johnny, the guitarist with the iconic downstroke, sees things differently. "The '80s were a lonely time for us," he says. "We were out there by ourselves. When the '90s came, you had this movement of punk bands again. We would just sit in the dressing rooms and not talk to anyone because we didn't think anyone cared about us. But CJ was our ambassador. And all of a sudden Soundgarden wanted us to tour with them. And White Zombie. And Pearl Jam. I felt [CJ] was more important than Mark. Mark is a great drummer, but CJ is a frontman." Johnny has arranged for CJ to attend, and plans to bring him on stage.
Meanwhile, Marky (who replaced Tommy after Rocket to Russia) bristles at Johnny's assessment. After launching into a tirade about everything from Johnny's pre-Ramones gold lamé pants to his guitar playing ("We would tour each city and a guy who knew the leads would be behind the curtain and play guitar. John could only play the rhythm." Johnny denies this), Marky called back twice in a couple of days. "Johnny is the greatest living punk guitarist," he said finally, calm and contrite. "He has his opinion and obviously the Hall of Fame voters didn't agree. I don't want there to be any negativity."
The sparring, though, is as much a part of the Ramones' history as their baseball-bat-clutching American eagle logo. "They'd play for 40 minutes," recalls CBGB proprietor Hilly Kristal. "And 20 of them would just be the band yelling at each other." Danny Fields says that early on, they'd also come to blows after their sets. "Johnny would be strangling Dee Dee, and there'd be press or fans waiting to see them," he says. "I'd tell folks they were just toweling off, give them a couple of minutes, and by the time people saw them, they'd be sipping a beer."
Beyond the ungainly frictions of youth lay deeply harbored grudges. Johnny and Joey were the only beginning-to-end Ramones, but Johnny stole Joey's girlfriend in the early '80s and the pair weren't friendly again. Johnny never called Joey before he passed. Instead, the guitarist checked in every couple of days with Arturo Vega, the Ramones' lifelong art director and lighting supervisor. Vega had remained friends with both, and ultimately recommended that Johnny not phone Joey. "On Easter Sunday, I was about to go to a friend's house and I got the word," Johnny says. "It didn't really sink in until I got home and there was like 20 messages. After a week of that every day, I felt very depressed."
But Johnny's not sorry. "I wouldn't want him to call me," he reasons. "I would not want to be hearing from someone I didn't get along with. A lot of people don't understand that."
Marky says he buried the hatchet with Joey about two years ago, though friends say Joey never really forgave Marky for telling Howard Stern's listeners that Joey was fighting cancer. When Joey was in the hospital, Marky visited with tapes of their appearances on Stern, and they laughed until they turned red. Joey's favorite was a segment with the full band. "Howard asked Johnny to look at Joey on the show and he wouldn't, and he was sitting right next to him," says Marky. "So Howard asked Joey to look at Johnny, and he wouldn't. It was just so funny, the pent-up emotion that was involved, that was released in the music."
Johnny was the colonel who kept the Ramones (relatively) in line and on time, and he seems ill-prepared to take marching orders from the Hall of Fame Foundation or anyone else. When Joey died, his mother, Charlotte Lesher, and brother Mickey Leigh proceeded with plans for his May 19 50th birthday bash. The planning committee decided to invite the surviving Ramones to play, so Vega contacted the band members. What happened next could only charitably be called gross miscommunication.
Vega, in an apparent attempt to get Johnny to agree to perform, neglected to immediately explain precisely what Lesher wanted: Behind an empty mic stand, the surviving Ramones would play instrumental versions of a couple of songs and the audience would sing along. Johnny, who hadn't played for keeps in years and had retired because he thought he was slipping, started practicing and contacted pals Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, and Joe Strummer with the idea they could front the band. "I wanted to make this an event where people would have a good time," says Johnny. But weeks after Joey's funeral, Lesher was not ready to see Joey's shoes filled. Depending on who you talk to, the Ramones were either uninvited or declined to come. Regardless, the ensuing months saw Marky and CJ lashing viciously at Mickey Leigh, making unsupported claims in fanzine interviews that he wanted to front the band. The fiasco was an inauspicious beginning to an unlikely partnership; Joey left his half of Ramones Productions Inc. to his mother, so Lesher and Johnny are now business partners.
Johnny is asking to be seated away from Lesher and Leigh at the induction ceremony. "Decisions were always made by the band," says Johnny. "I find it ridiculous that anyone has to be consulted. It should always be just the bandIf I die, I don't expect anyone to call up my wife to make a Ramones decision. Why do I have to discuss a Ramones performance with his brother and his mother?"
For her part, Lesher says she hopes to sit next to Tommy. And as for the birthday party, she says the Ramones were out of line. "Who do you invite to a birthday party?" she asks. "You invite the people that love you."
Thankfully, Joey left more behind than a dysfunctional musical family. His first solo project, Don't Worry About Me, was recorded over the space of about four years and released late last month. It's a really good Ramones album, but for the not-so-minor detail that it isn't a Ramones album at all. Only the opener, a cover of Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World," offers up the band's signature eighth-note wall of sound. Still, the hard-charging riffs and sense of humor that always combined for an aggressive sort of sweetness on the finest Ramones records are present, whether Joey's rhyming stock-market lingo in "Maria Bartiromo" or covering unwritten Who songs in the theatrical "Mr. Punchy."
The vocals, mostly recorded at longtime Ramones producer Daniel Rey's Fourth Avenue home studio, sound superb. From his back window, Rey can see Joey's old 9th Street apartment; Joey would often call if he saw Rey's light on. Rey produced Don't Worry About Me, and he and Joey had an unspoken agreement that Joey wouldn't sing unless he felt good.
Joey didn't write about his illness, except on the album's weakest track, "I Got Knocked Down." (The lyrics aren't clever and the progressions are lame, but gabba gabba hey, if your heartstrings are pulled by Joey singing about beating his lymphoma, we understand.) Elsewhere, though, lines haunt: "Nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. . . . When you finally make your mind up, I'll be buried in my grave," sings Joey in "Stop Thinking About It."
The Dictators' Andy Shernoff played bass on the record, and says Joey wanted to add a few more songs. "He was a little worried that the album was too down," says Shernoff. "He had some more upbeat tracks in his mind. I wish to God we'd have been able to hear them." But Rey says that Don't Worry About Me is a completed project. "Joey was never done," he says. "He always wanted to change one little thing. He had a fear of completion like a lot of artists do." He even refused a feeding tube, fearing it would damage his vocal cords. "When he went in the hospital," says Rey, "we were always thinking positive: 'When you get out, we'll do this or that, cut another song.' But then he was in for a while, and we kind of spoke about it and it was 'Hey, we got 11 finished songs here. It's cool.' Not stating the obvious, because we never really talked about it. But the recording was done."
The Ramones' bickering and the Heads' cynicism only underscore the greatest irony of Monday night: The guy who would have been most pleased to be inducted can't be there. "Joey really appreciated the history of rock and roll," says his mother. "He knew he was being nominated, and he was really excited about it."
Joey also spoke about the Hall with Rey. "Joey always felt that rock and roll was a valid art form and should be recognized," says Rey. "He would say"and here, Rey squints a bit and takes on the famous Queens-cum-British-cum-teenage-lobotomy accent" 'Yeh, it would be cool if we got inducted the first year. Yeh, that would be reeeally cool.' "
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