Me and the Ramones

by Tony Shea on October 11, 2012

in ESSAYS, ME AND..., MUSIC

ramonesAnybody who knows me has probably heard me talk about the Ramones fifty times. In honor of Johnny Ramone’s recent birthday on October 8, I decided to finally catalog it and put it to rest. Me and The Ramones.

On the list of my heroes, which otherwise includes Evel Knievel, Charles Bukowski, Malcom X, Rodney Dangerfield, P.K. Dick, Lemme Kilmister from Motorhead, John Fante, Chuck Berry, Humphrey Bogart, and Kurt Vonnegut, the Ramones are top of the list. Like all of my heroes they are actually some component piece of me, some part of the switch gear of my mind and spirit.

All my heroes were junkies and addicts and people of less than top moral standing. I suppose I admired them because the world they lived in seemed so much more exciting than my own: the country clubs, the khaki slacks, the blue button down shirts, the crested blazers, the saddle shoes; the parents who worked in law and government.

The Ramones were my first heroes. Their live album from the New Years Eve show at the Palladium in London, 1977, and fittingly titled “It’s Alive,” is one of the great artifacts of human history – a band holding the live wire of the moment, at the top of their form, crackling with life. Check them out doing my favorite song Havana Affair.

Never has a band, or perhaps any artist in history, done smart/stupid as well. They were the buzzing short attention span pathfinders, raw speed, odd, hilarious. The Ramones were not an angry political band as many of the punk bands, like the Sex Pistols and the plethora of increasingly hardcore bands, would become. Though there was an implicit anger in the speed and ferocity of their attack, their message was not one of rage but one of having a good time, maybe spending the day at the beach with a girl. They were tough but they had a sense of humor. They were danceable and they were fast, hundred miles an hour fast, and practically never stopping. Song ended. 1-2-3-4. Song began. They would play twenty songs in forty minutes, including an encore, and walk off the stage.

As a kid, looking at these four guys in black leather jackets, with matching bowl cuts, brothers, or so I reasonably concluded at the time, considering the familial surname Ramones, I thought–what a family of weirdos. My imagination just soared.  I was an only child and the thought of having a team of brothers on your side to fight the world with seemed wonderful. Of course, they were not really brothers. That was a little show biz touch.

I remember the fist time I heard them, as if it were a moment ago. I was on a bus on my way to Keywaydin, Vermont for my prep school’s annual trip. I was in sixth grade. I was twelve. My prep school was called Mater Dei, meaning Mother of God, and it was dedicated to making future Catholic leaders of tomorrow. Everybody’s parents were lawyers, doctors, politicians, people of prominence and wealth. One time in the seventh grade a mystery speaker, who did not reveal his name, stood in front of our class and gave us a speech about how most of us would someday work in the highest echelons of government, and that three people sitting in the classroom would become Presidents of the United States. Was the guy nuts? Who was he kidding? But looking around the room, many of my classmates seemed to nod their heads and accept their fates. Seemed like a lot of pressure to me. I wasn’t sure I was ready to be the President.

On the bus to Vermont,  I was sitting beside a guy named Renaldo Gomez, whose father worked at the Mexican Embassy. He was the first guy I knew who was brave enough to step beyond the boundaries of our school’s super-conformism. Renaldo was cultivating a modish sensibility, wearing a long black trench coat, with his black hair longer on top and shaved close to the scalp on the sides.

He was listening to his Walkman. He hit rewind. He turned to look at me saying nothing. The tape continued to spool. I stared back at him wondering what all this was about. The tape began to hum like a dentist’s drill as it came to a stop. He popped the tape and handed it to me, an unmarked black, 90 minute, TDK tape.

“You’re gonna’ want to listen to these guys,” he said. I remember as I leaned forward to take the tape, it was as if the world was in slow motion. I loaded the tape in my own Walkman. I pushed play. In thirty seconds something had changed in me, and I was somehow aware of the change. My parents had lied to me. Everything that they celebrated in their world was a lie. And now the guitars roaring in my headphones – at last the truth.

Immediately, the Ramones became a kind of titillating contraband. I could see why the tape was unlabeled. This was precisely the kind of thing my parents would strictly forbid. My parents were not auto-philes.  I believe my mother had some submerged ideas about music being the gateway of the Devil, so she didn’t like to listen to it any more than was necessary. At our house, there was a record player built into the television cabinet that had one speaker at the bottom. My parents only had ten records, maybe: Burl Ives, Simon and Garfunkel, Barry Manilow, Glen Campbell, Mills Brothers. They just didn’t have the capacity to understand a band like the Ramones. And so the Ramones became my cherished secret, sneaking away from the house every chance I got to listen to them again.

I don’t remember the first time I saw the Ramones live, nor do I remember much from the thirty-one shows I attended. It’s all sort of merged together by now. I remember the furious energy—the band, the crowd. I remember feeling like I was part of something, for the Ramones were always inclusive. The chanted chorus of “Gabba Gabba We Accept You, Gabba Gabba One of Us” was an anthem of inclusion for the weirdos and the freaks and prep-schoolers like me. I wanted to be a weirdo I guess, a true weirdo like Joey Ramone, but it was impossible, given the strict pattern of rule bound mental conditioning I had been so rigorously subjected to, but I’d stand there in front of the stage, feeling the awesome volume and speed, and for moment, it would seem like anything was possible.

I do, however, remember the last time I saw them. It was in Baltimore, within a month of the last show they would ever play before they retired. I was twenty-six years old. They played at Hammerjacks, a legendary scum hole that was one of the great clubs that ever existed, probably. There must have been a dozen bars, and liquor stands, along with the trampy, hickey shot girls. There was a hole in the ceiling, so the crowd watched the band from above and below. It was the kind of place where they would have a penny drop at midnight, with a hammock of pennies suspended over the crowd, two hundred dollars worth, and the jailbirds, local biker gangs, and townies would hit the deck, slugging it out on the floor for five or ten dollars worth. What a place. Dark. Smelled like piss and beer and cigarettes and the heat of a thousand bodies. It’s gone now, torn down to pave the parking lot at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But I will always have the memory of that night—glorious, debauched, depraved. I was drunk out of my mind. I used to drink a tall glass of brandy before the punk rock shows I attended in order to fuel myself with the courage I needed to thunder into the mosh pit, feeling the crash of bodies, the elbows, the crowd surfers catapulting onto my head, kicking me in the face. The mosh pit was glorious. Here you could connect with that part of yourself that might have been a Viking raider in another life. There were fights, of course, just like there are at hockey games, but all in all people looked out for each other. If you fell in the whirling tornado of the mosh, usually someone would reach down and pick you up.

The Ramones came on, bathed in white smoke from blocks of dry ice resting on the floor monitors, as the theme song from The Good The Bad And The Ugly played.

Then they tore into it.

At Ramones shows in DC, everybody was always giving everybody else the finger. The suburban punk preppies like myself had decided the finger was a symbol of fellowship and respect. As a student at one of the most regimented and conformist schools you might find in the United States, as opposed to Japan say, well I was very interested in any message that was anti-system.

As the Ramones continued to blaze on, I decided that I would give them the finger and that they would give me the finger in return. I would earn my ribald salute from each of them as we entered into the communion between performer and audience, engaged in a common purpose to go nuts.

I got up in front of the stage and began to give Joey Ramone the finger like you wouldn’t believe, crashing against the spinning bodies, both hands above my head, but he wouldn’t bite. I moved over to C. J.,the bassist, who had replaced the truly great Dee Dee Ramone—lyricist extraordinaire’, real life liver of the street tragedy, a moody dope addict who lived at the Chelsea Hotel, and who had been a male prostitute, turning tricks in the train station. C.J. had been asked to fill some pretty big shoes. And I would say he did it well. He made the rest of the Ramones better as they got older and more worn out from life on the road, drugs, drinking, and the thousand stops at Taco Bell. He played on the Ramones later day masterpiece Mondo Bizarro, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame committed a real sin where they excluded him from entrance with the Ramones in 2011. Here’s to C.J.

I gave C. J. the finger. He was delighted to flip me off. One down. I swung around in front of Joey again, who looked at me for a moment and flipped me the bird, maintaining total cool, or just trying to keep from falling over in some kind of alcohol and heroin induced trance. Two down. Two more to go. I squeezed through the crowd over behind the back drum riser. Marky, the drummer, gave me the finger between beats. Three down. One to go. I crashed my way in front of Johnny, the guitar player, who clearly saw me and refused to take the bait. That Johnny, he was always a stubborn one. I stood in front of him for the next ten songs. I flicked him off with both hands pulling them from magic holsters. I worked the air like I was hitting a speed bag at the gym, a left finger, a right finger. I twirled. I thrust. I punched at him a thousand times with my middle fingers raised, but he would not do it and give me the finger back.

The moment the show ended, I raced down the rear hall and out into the gravel parking lot as the four separate vans that ferried the band members sped by, heading for the hotel. First Joey, then C. J. then Marky, and then finally Johnny’s van. He was sitting in the front passenger seat. I stepped out in front of it holding my hand up like a fearless traffic sergeant and the van slammed to halt in a cloud of dust. I slowly raised my middle finger. Johnny looked at me for a moment then laughed, thrusting his finger against the windshield with an audible “thunk.”

My heart was beating in my chest like a drugged donkey in a horse race. My god, I had done it. I understood what a gold medal winning Olympian felt, or a climber at the top of Everest. My heroes had given me the finger.

A second later, Johnny rolled down the window to scream, “Get out of the road!”

Sometimes I go visit his grave at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, or Dee Dee’s which is nearby. I look at the black granite sculpture of him, blazing away on that Mosrite guitar for the rest of time, trapped in the pure moment when he was most fully alive.

And so was I.

Tony Shea ( Editor-in-Chief, New York)

Tony Shea is based in New York, having recently moved from Los Angeles after more than a decade on the sunny coast. His short films have won numerous awards and screened at major festivals around the world including Comic-Con. As a musician, he is the lead singer for Los Angeles rock n’ roll band Candygram For Mongo (C4M) candygramformongo.com who has been a featured artist on Clear Channel Radio’s Discover New Music Program and whose songs have been heard on Battlestar Gallactica (Syfy Channel) and Unhitched (Fox) among other shows and films.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Adriano Mendes April 23, 2013 at 5:49 am

Hi tony

How will you

My name is “Adriano Mendes” and speak of Brazil

I went to the Ramones show in 1994 here in Brazil

Congratulations for the site you have made in honor of the Ramones

Short the Ramones this my 15 years and I miss the time

Joey Ramones always been my idol

A hug and happiness and success for you

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