The Curse Of The Ramones

Onstage, they were the personification of unity – even family. The four men dressed the same –in leather motorcycle jackets, weathered jeans, sneakers – had the same dark hair color, shared the same last name. They seemed to think the same thoughts and breathe the same energy. They often didn’t stop between songs, not even as bassist Dee Dee Ramone barked out the mad “1-2-3- 4” time signature that dictated the tempo for their next number. Guitarist Johnny Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone would slam into breakneck unison with a power that could make audience members lean back, as if they’d been slammed in the chest. Johnny and Dee Dee played with legs astride, looking unconquerable. Between them stood lead singer Joey Ramone – gangly, with dark glasses and a hair mess that fell over his eyes, protecting him from a world that had too often been unkind – proclaiming the band’s hilarious, disturbing tales of misplacement and heartbreak. There was a pleasure and spirit, a palpable commonality, in what the Ramones were doing onstage together.

When they left the stage, that fellowship fell away. They would climb into their van and ride to a hotel or their next show in silence. Two of the members, Johnny and Joey, didn’t speak to each other for most of the band’s 22-year history. It was a bitter reality for a group that, if it didn’t invent punk, certainly codified it effectively – its stance, sound and attitude, its rebellion and rejection of popular music conventions – just as Elvis Presley had done with early rock & roll. The Ramones likely inspired more bands than anybody since the Beatles; the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Nirvana, Metallica, the Misfits, Green Day and countless others have owed much of their sound and creed to what the band made possible. The Ramones made a model that almost anybody could grab hold of: basic chords, pugnacity and a noise that could lay waste to – or awaken – anything.

But they paid a heavy cost for their achievement. Much of the music world rejected them, sometimes vehemently. Others saw them as a joke that had run its course. The Ramones never had a true hit single or album, though at heart they wrote supremely melodic music. They continued for years across indifference and impediments, but the rift between the two leading members only worsened. They’re revered now – there are statues and streets and museums that honor them – and we see people wearing their T-shirts, with their blackened presidential seal, everywhere. But all four original members are gone; none of them can take pleasure in the belated prestige. The Ramones were a band that changed the world, and then died.

The Ramones didn’t share bloodlines, but they did have the important common background of coming of age in suburbia – in Forest Hills, Queens, a predominantly Jewish middle-class stronghold that bred ennui and restively ness among its nonconformist youth. The Ramones were a few years younger than their 1950s and 1960s heroes – Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – which allowed them a broader field of musical references to draw from: bubblegum pop, early heavy metal, surf music. More important, most of the original Ramones had some sort of experience of living under dominance – sometimes disconcerting, even frightful – or simply an ineradicable sense of being the wrong person in the wrong place. “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds,” wrote Dee Dee, “because it’s not that civilized an art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”

Drummer Tommy Ramone – who was the catalyst in pulling the band together and in molding its musical aesthetic – largely kept his backstory and hurt to himself. He was born as Tamás Erdélyi (later Anglicized into Thomas Erdelyi) in Budapest, Hungary, in January 1949. His family moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1950s – an eventful moment to arrive in the promised land. “[Hungary] was a very restrictive regime,” he told author Everett True, in Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones. “You didn’t hear too much Western music. I remember the early stages of rock & roll, how much it excited me – even as a young kid I was into dressing cool, into wearing a certain type of shoes.”

In his first year at Forest Hills High, Tommy met John Cummings – later known as Johnny Ramone, the band’s oldest member, born October 8th, 1948. Johnny was charismatic and brooding, and intended to command respect. Tommy and Johnny joined a band, Tangerine Puppets – Tommy on lead guitar, Johnny on bass – that became locally notable as much for Cummings’ volatility as for their music. One time, when the Puppets were playing “Satisfaction,” according to another band member, John noticed the class president standing in the wings. “[John] ran over to him and hit him in the balls with his guitar neck,” said the band member. “He told the kid that it was an accident, but we knew John hated this kid.” Another time, Cummings got into a fight with the band’s lead singer, pummeling him onstage until the other members pulled him off. “We all liked Johnny,” Tommy said. “That anger is pure.”

Sometime later, delivering clothes for for a dry cleaner, he met Doug Colvin, known as Dee Dee. If his autobiography, Lobotomy, is to be believed, Dee Dee’s childhood was hellish. His father, an Army master sergeant stationed in Germany, moved the family back and forth between there and the U.S. His mother, he wrote, “was a drunken nut job, prone to emotional outbursts.” His parents fought brutally. “Their lives were complete chaos,” he wrote, “and they blamed it all on me.” Dee Dee was already taking narcotics in his early teens. “I couldn’t see a future for myself … Then I heard the Beatles for the first time. I got my first transistor radio, a Beatle haircut and a Beatle suit … Rock ‘n’ roll [gave] me a sense of my own identity.” When Dee Dee was about 15, his mother left his father, moving him and his sister to Forest Hills. “I can see now how it was only natural that I would gravitate toward Tommy, Joey, and Johnny Ramone,” he wrote. “They were the obvious creeps of the neighborhood … No one would have ever pegged any of us as candidates for any kind of success in life.”

Tommy, though, did. He urged Johnny and Dee Dee to form a band. He’d help them find their sound and direction; he’d worked as an audio engineer at Record Plant on sessions with Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin. Johnny resisted. He’d become practical-minded. “I want to be normal,” he’d tell Tommy. Also, he had seen plenty of rock & roll live – the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, the Doors – and had become preoccupied with Led Zeppelin. “I liked violent bands,” he said. “I hated hippies and never liked that peace-and-love shit.” Johnny told Tommy he couldn’t play guitar like any of those other musicians.

Then Johnny saw the New York Dolls, featuring singer David Johansen and guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Dolls had taken the license that David Bowie and the glitter movement had implied, and brought a new trashy democratic feasibility: Anybody could make meaningful noise. “Wow, I can do this, too,” Johnny thought. “They’re great; they’re terrible, but just great. I can do this.” Johnny finally accepted Tommy’s suggestion. He bought a $50 Mosrite (the same guitar that MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and members of the Ventures played). As things developed, Dee Dee played bass, Johnny guitar; and a friend of theirs and Tommy’s joined on drums: Jeffrey Hyman.

Hyman, who became Joey Ramone, had hardships his whole life. He was born with a teratoma – a rare tumor that sometimes contains hair, teeth and bone – the size of a baseball, attached to his spine. Doctors removed the growth when Hyman was a few weeks old, but it’s possible the ordeal affected him in later years, contributing to his tendency to infections and bad blood circulation throughout his life. His parents divorced as he was approaching adolescence. His father, Noel Hyman, ran a trucking company; his mother, Charlotte, ran an art gallery. Noel had a bad temper – he once picked up Joey and threw him across a room into a wall. Joey’s lanky height and shy personality also made him a target for bullies. He wore dark glasses everywhere – even to school. “I started to spend a lot of time in the dean’s office,” he told Everett True. “I was a misfit, an outcast, a loner … The greasers were always looking to kick my ass. They’d travel in packs with fucking chains and those convertibles. They were trying to kill you. Johnny was like a greaser [for a while]. He was a hard guy.”

When he was in his teens, Joey began behaving oddly – climbing in and out of bed repeatedly before he was ready for sleep, leaving food out of the refrigerator at night, becoming hostile with his mother when she asked him why he was acting strangely. Once, he pulled a knife on her. He started to hear voices, and could burst into inexplicable anger. In 1972, he voluntarily entered St. Vincent’s Hospital for an evaluation and was kept for a month. There, doctors diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic, “with minimal brain damage.” Another psychiatrist had told Joey’s mother, “He’ll most likely be a vegetable.” Not long after, his mother moved into a smaller apartment in the same building but didn’t take him along; instead, he slept on the floor of her gallery.

But by then, Joey had found his path out of a life of cutoff prospects and mental limitation. “Rock & roll was my salvation,” he said in 1999. Another time, he said, “I remember being turned on to the Beach Boys, hearing ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ But the Beatles really did it to me. Later on, the Stooges were a band that helped me in those dark periods – just get out the aggression.” As a teen, he rented a high-hat, and tapped along to the rhythms of the Beatles and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Joey later discovered the epoch-changing music of David Bowie – which offered a new kind of identity and pride to nonconformists. Joey started bands and joined a glam-rock group called Sniper as lead singer, wearing a tailor-made, skintight outfit and calling himself Jeff Starship. He had already left Sniper when, in early 1974, Dee Dee asked him to join him and Johnny in their new band. When Johnny first met Joey, he thought Joey “was just a spaced-out hippie,” according to the singer’s little brother, Mickey Leigh, in his memoir, I Slept With Joey Ramone.

The new bandmates began practicing in Johnny’s apartment; they determined early on that they should come up with a new song every time they met. At one of those early sessions, they discussed what to call themselves. “Dee Dee got the name ‘the Ramones’ from Paul McCartney,” Tommy said. “McCartney would call himself Paul Ramon when he checked into hotels and didn’t want to be noticed. I liked it because I thought it was ridiculous. The Ramones? That’s absurd! We all started calling ourselves Ramones because it was just a fun thing to do. There were times we were pretty lighthearted when we were putting this together.”

It would take several months to figure out what would work. would work. Dee Dee had trouble playing and singing at the same time, and Joey wasn’t any good on the drums. Tommy suggested moving Joey to lead vocalist, front and center of the band. “Joey was not my idea of a singer,” Johnny said, “and I kept telling Tommy that. I said, ‘I want a good-lookin’ guy in front.'” Dee Dee didn’t see it that way. “Joey was a perfect singer,” he said. “I wanted to get somebody real freaky, and Joey was really weird-lookin’, man, which was great for the Ramones. I think it looks better to have a singer that looks all fucked up than to have one that’s tryin’ to be Mr. Sex Symbol or something.” Later, Johnny agreed: “It was all Tommy, and it turned out to be a good move.” The Ramones also figured out what wouldn’t work: Johnny didn’t want their sound to derive from the obvious past – not from the turbulent bands that had inspired them in recent years, such as the Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls. “What we did,” said Johnny, “was take out everything that we didn’t like about rock & roll and use the rest, so there would be no blues influence, no long guitar solos, nothing that would get in the way of the songs.”

In the place of the rock frills was doo-wop, girl groups, bubblegum – they all loved the Bay City Rollers – and the surf rock of Brian Wilson and Jan and Dean, which informed many of the melodies, a tuneful undertow to the cacophony. When Tommy joined the band as drummer – as the story goes, none of the drummers they auditioned could play without bombast and flourishes – the Ramones’ sound came together. “I wanted to lock in with the guitar,” he told Mojo in 2011. “Most people assume that the bass and drums lock in together … But I locked in with Johnny, and Dee Dee’s bass was the underpinning of it all.” The effect was primitive but also avant-garde: harmonic ideas stacked on a rapid-fi re momentum. “We used block chording as a melodic device, and the harmonics resulting from the distortion of the amplifiers created countermelodies,” Tommy told Timothy White in Rolling Stone. “We used the wall of sound as a melodic rather than a riff form; it was like a song within a song, created by a block of chords droning.”

The Ramones’ April 1976 debut album, Ramones, with its black-and-white photo on the cover, defined punk rock. The term “punk” had been around for many years, usually with distasteful or threatening connotations. A punk was a coward or a snitch or a sniveling villain. Sometimes it was used to signify male homosexuality; Beat author William Burroughs said, “I always thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass.” By 1975, punk came to describe a handful of emerging rock & roll artists, such as Patti Smith, who sang about people outside of society. Critics Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs began using the term “punk rock” to describe a dissonance and spirit that had owed in a continuum from the mid-1960s, including several of the American garage-rock bands that appeared on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets collection. You could also hear that spirit in English bands, such as the Stones and early Kinks. In the late 1960s, Detroit’s Stooges and MC5, and New York’s Velvet Underground, took that dissonance further, musically and lyrically. But beginning with the Ramones, punk came to represent an aesthetic and a subculture. Actually, the opening song alone, “Blitzkrieg Bop,” did the job: noisy guitars, insistent rhythms and hurried vocals pronouncing a young generation piling into the back seat for a ride down deadman’s curve, with trouble ahead and behind.

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