Ron Vandenberg is partially deaf in one ear, and that’s okay by him. The deterioration began on August 8, 1980, at his first Ramones concert, which he followed up with about 120 more ear-bleeding shows. The last one was in 1996, when the band retired from touring. Ron considers his loss a badge of honor, like the vintage punk pins littered on his leather motorcycle jacket. Giving up a little hearing — not to mention a small fortune, for merchandise, tickets, and beer — is a small sacrifice to join the cult of Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy. “They were different; they were cool,” says Ron of what drew him to the band. “I got my first leather jacket at sixteen, because I wanted to be a Ramone.”
Forty years ago this month, The Ramones released their self-titled album, a thirty-minute rampage of fourteen fast-paced, simplistic songs doused in comedic irony. To mark the anniversary, the Queens Museum is hosting Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk, a retrospective told through memorabilia and artifacts from over fifty private collections. Walking through its doors, Ron has been transported back to the wild, trash-infested streets of New York City where he first began his lifelong obsession with the band. “Just leave me here. There’s no point in me leaving!” he exclaims, walking past walls plastered with photographs, fan art, and memorabilia.
From the moment Ron heard the Ramones’ fourth studio album, Road to Ruin, on an 8-track, in 1978, he felt an immediate connection. The Ramones’ attitude spoke to the down-and-out generation of the 1970s, of which Ron was a part. They helped him avoid feeling disaffected. “The Ramones gave me more of a sense of humor,” he says. “Most songs are fun.” They wrote tunes for the misfits and weirdos, the kids who felt out of place at home and at school. Those were the nostalgic days when the ubiquitous Arturo Vega Ramones logo on a T-shirt was seen as a symbol of camaraderie among punks, and was well before the anthemic chant of “Hey! Ho! Let’s go” rumbled through baseball stadiums across the country and you could pick that shirt up at Hot Topic.
Ron explains this as he points out items in the exhibition that have also passed through his hands, sighing at coveted posters on display that are missing from his own collection. He sees one for a Ramones and UK Subs show at the Ancienne Belgique Club, in Brussels. But Ron, having tallied concerts mostly in New York and New Jersey, and never left the States, was disappointed that the Ramones’ hometown wasn’t better represented among all the exotic international memorabilia. He says he expected more emphasis on the local scenes and venues that made the band so popular abroad, particularly since this exhibition is in New York City. He would have gladly loaned a treasured concert poster from May 30th, 1984, at the Ritz. But he was still a kid in the punk candy store of his dreams, photographing and filming every inch of the exhibition. “As a huge fan, to have a collection together like this is just phenomenal,” he says, choking up. “The Ramones were a band, not a T-shirt. After all these years, they’re finally getting their [due].”
With precision and subtlety, the curators have captured the Ramones’ realness with moments of intimacy throughout the exhibit. There are Dee Dee’s handwritten lyrics scrawled on thin, stained sheets of paper, passport photos and visa documents, and even a report card from Joey’s elementary years (“Does not function as a member of class,” — apparently a rebel from the start). Here, the Ramones aren’t placed on a pedestal. They are not gods, just boys from down the street.
And then you turn a corner to see footage from It’s Alive, the recording of a 1977 concert in London, projected on the wall. You’re reminded that, no, the Ramones weren’t just any kids. There is an undeniable pure energy that emanates from their bodies and their fingers as they perform “Cretin Hop.” It sounds timeless and raw, powerful and authentic. They were just so very, very cool. Watching this performance, it’s easy to understand why Ron demands to be buried in a Ramones T-shirt and his leather jacket. Why wouldn’t you pledge allegiance to this band?