By: Patrick Grant
It’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to live in a world without rock n’roll. There’s little to be said that hasn’t been regarding the feeling of actively having to seek out new music whether by driving into a town larger and better than yours or tuning a transistor radio underneath your pillow just to catch a half hour of Elvis or Gene Vincent. Stories such as these are part of what constitutes the fabric of the American recording industry and their lasting romantic effects can be felt in everything from Ty Segall to Kanye West, EDM festival overdoses and Dave Brokie’s Viking burial.
Influence is almost impossible to pin down and is generally not impressive at the time it’s happening. Even if people are aware that a person or group is making “important music” (far out, man!), there will invariably be the sneaking suspicion that we only ever really (mostly, kind of) know about musicks that have been invested in by someone somewhere and thus fall into the hubbub of promotion, commercial interest, legacy and so much singing along with the void. Where there are interested parties, at some level everything smacks of falsehood, even, or especially, the pursuit of negating the whole process by finding or making “genuine” art.
Whatever socially produces a group that can be both rebellious and classically styled is impossible to pinpoint. The Ramones are surrounded by a mist of Americana and leather-jacketed bullshit so thick that it can be easy to forget that, while they’re undeniably punk godfathers, they’re actually not much of a punk band. Some ethically dubious subject matter aside, they have omnivorous teeth that enjoy a good vegetable as much as the blood and sweat of their parent generation. The Ramones have always been the kind of band that made you want to rip your jeans and maybe swear at your mom, but never the type of bad that glamorized drug use or real anarchy. If someone was going to corrupt the youth in harmful ways, there are far better candidates for the job. I’d elect GG Allin.
Since Tommy died last month, the world is effectively Ramoneless. Marky, C.J. and some other temps are still around, but it hardly matters. I’m reasonably certain that this is the first time in rock that ALL of the original members of a very significant band have died of old age. Sure, they all died comparatively young in that they didn’t reach 100 or something, but there’s no real tragedy here. Non-drug induced heart attacks and cancer have not heretofore been the rock star death, if there is such a thing. I guess it’s fitting that the Ramones had lifespans that went a little too fast and ended a little too soon, filling a new space in culture for the second time.
The reaction to Tommy’s death is unique because, while he was the founding drummer of the group for Ramones (1976) and Road To Ruin (1978), he left to assume a managerial role in the band for the remainder of its career. Indeed, he had never wanted to be the drummer but they couldn’t find anyone else who jived at the beginning. The widespread mourning at his death feels like a tear shed for punk rock itself rather just a man or a manager. The world feels different without Tommy Ramone more than it felt different at the death of say, Peter Grant or some other stalwart rock handler because he was effectively the Martian Manhunter of the group.
This piece was supposed to be about their debut at CBGB’s forty years ago but I’m not sure how much that “moment” actually meant anything. The set probably sucked and was likely poorly attended, regardless of what anyone says. Like other legendary debut shows, they are subject to so much revisionist history that it hardly matters what actually happened anymore. The Ramones did not invent punk; nobody did. Or, more accurately, hippies invented punk by being so unreliable and shitty when the world needed anything else.
The lasting legacy of the Ramones is probably more like the legacy of Elvis. Their distinctly stylized American cool inspired people to want to be like them. Their legacy lies in making punk accessible to the masses, paving the way for new wave and eventually pop punk more than for hardcore or any of the heavier side of the genre. But you’ll still see people with face tattoos and x’s tatted on their hands telling you they really love the Ramones. I’m not trying to pigeon-hole people who wear punk uniforms, but it proves a point about what makes the Ramones so important. They made music that appealed across genres and age groups because it’s as fun and simple as it is cool and hip. None of their offspring (not even the Offspring) can make this claim.
At the end of the day, the Ramones rocked, and they still rock, so whatever. Nobody ever started a band because of GG Allin. That guy was a shit-eating moron.