Farewell to the father of punk

When disco was king, Joey Ramone thumbed his nose at it and went another way: His hard-driving, no-nonsense road to rock 'n' roll would forever alter American music.

Pop Music

April 22, 2001|By Roger Catlin | Roger Catlin,HARTFORD COURANT

In the field of leather-jacketed punks he inspired, Joey Ramone stood out. And not because he was a gawky 6-foot-6. The lead singer of the Ramones, who died Easter Sunday of cancer in New York at age 49, may have had a fierce single-mindedness about the crazy, fun, B-movie lyrics and the laser focus of his band, which virtually invented punk music. But he didn't need tattoos or piercings, a Mohawk or safety pins. He was fine with the T-shirt, ripped jeans, motorcycle jackets, high-top black sneakers and Beatle bob that had served every garage band since the '60s.

And he didn't need to spit or act like a jerk offstage. Like the rest of the Ramones, he truly cared for the fans, to whom he gave his all in just about every one of the band's 2,263 performances.

His death, after a struggle with lymphoma, was unlike previous demises in punk, where suicide or drug overdose seemed the more common exit. Gentle in death, gentle in life, one may say about the former Jeffrey Hyman of Brooklyn.

But on stage he was ferocious, even in repose.

As Johnny Ramone stood, legs apart, furiously down-stroking power chords, and Dee Dee (and then C.J.) Ramone kept up a steady bass attack, spitting out the "one-two-three-four" in between songs; as Marky (and before him Tommy) pounded the impossible pace on drums, the lanky Joey would hold the microphone close to his face, obscured by hair and sunglasses, and emote in his New York sneer, his motions confined to leaning forward and back.

He rarely spoke to the audience in these marathon shows, where it was not uncommon to have 50 songs go by in a blur of just over an hour, a half-dozen at a time going by without a break.

From his hospital bed, he got to tell Spin magazine -- in time for its current "25 Years of Punk" issue -- how proud he was at what his band had accomplished. Sure, his band fought almost the entirety of its 22-year career. And there was enough immersion into substance abuse that the title to one of the Ramones' 14 albums, "Too Tough to Die," was about right.

But Ramone, sober for the '90s, also got to tell Spin, "Despite all the bickering, I always felt we were the best band around, from the early days until the last show."

It's difficult now, with Blink-182 and the Offspring frequently in the Top 10, to describe how unusual the Ramones sound was in 1976. Other bands, from the Stooges to the New York Dolls and the Dictators, had the anti-mellow drive pointing the way to punk. But when the debut album "The Ramones" was issued 25 years ago this month, there was nothing like the succinct blasts.

With 14 cuts in 29 minutes, some songs, as short as 90 seconds, stopped as soon as they started, adding to the vibrancy.

And those lyrics. The opening tune "Blitzkrieg Bop" had the kind of historical view that could only come from a lifetime of comic book reading.

One song was inspired by the low-budget "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," another by the B-movie bloodfest "Don't Look in the Basement." And one enduring anthem was titled "Beat on the Brat."

Goofy, apolitical, cartoonish for sure. But undeniably great rock 'n' roll, which in turn sparked a whole movement in music that continues to thrive, even if it never fattened the pockets of the Ramones' torn jeans.

The band never got above club level, never got booked in high-profile TV slots until "The Simpsons." Few punk bands were ever aided by radio until the '90s; the Ramones weren't even helped by video.

In a way, that helped their longevity. The band remained a fervently held cult obsession that kept a lot of their original fans -- "the ones who can still hear and the arthritis hasn't set in," Ramone joked at a time when he turned 40.

Only toward the end of its career, when fans began to consider a life without the Ramones, did the band suddenly get bigger gigs, opening for Pearl Jam and White Zombie. Only after they had started their 1996 "Final Tour" was the band booked, finally, to play Lollapalooza that summer.

The booking, done at the urging of the band Soundgarden, made some razz the band for stretching out its farewell indefinitely, from their first hint at goodbye, the 1995 album "Adios Amigos."

But the Lollapalooza extravaganza allowed huge audiences to produce a final cheer, a farewell "Hey Ho!" with even fellow bands paying tribute.

"The only reason we're doing this is the Ramones," Lars Frederiksen of Rancid declared in the Lollapalooza '96 souvenir program. "They are the greatest rock 'n' roll band that ever was. If there were no Ramones, there would be no Rancid, no Soundgarden or Metallica. They are responsible for the world not falling to dance music, Emerson, Lake & Palmer or the Bee Gees."

But almost as soon as they got their final salute, they were gone.

"It's exciting that the mass majority has come around," Ramone said a decade ago, before a show at the Sting in New Britain, Conn. It was at a time when Ramones songs had invaded Budweiser TV ads and movie soundtracks. "We started out with a definite vision, which we stood behind, being rock 'n' roll fans and creating what we've created. The idea is to stick with your original ideals and vision."

That's what the Ramones always did.

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