Thursday, February 08, 2007

The End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones

I got lucky: this bullshit became my life while I was ensconced in the relatively decidedly pissant environs of Creem, so once I woke up I made it out and can say that though I have my days just like everybody else I still think I have a future — the final words in Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs, dated 1981. Bangs died a few months later.

A couple of years ago, I dropped a chunk of change for a Mojo Magazine “Special Edition” devoted to Classic Rock Albums. Having grown up as a pious child on the prairies, I now wanted to catch up on all the stories I'd missed behind all the albums I hadn't bought. This was just the ticket. Mojo did a smashing job of gathering writers who were quick to identify the absurdity and exhiliration of a particular moment in Rock History. It was all a little self-conscious, to be sure, but not enough to ruin the fun. The majority of the pieces were written in the “You Are There (With Me)” tone, and once I'd passed the 150-page mark I began to discern a familiar narrative parabola. The band could be Led Zep, Blue Oyster Cult, UFO, Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Guns 'n Roses, Metallica, Lynyrd Skynyrd ... the story pretty much ran like this: Band reaches pivotal moment when their “sound” is captured; the resulting album and tour catapults them from their insane bubble of fame and success to the next level, someplace entirely beyond insane.

There are a number of glossy photos: stadiums packed to the rafters with ecstatic, adoring fans; staged spectacles that look a little threadbare and hokey in hindsight; and many, many portraits of young men surrounded by the detritus of extreme self-indulgence. The shot that sticks out in my mind captures Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes as they wait in line for Disney's Space Mountain. Ozzy and Rhodes both have distracted grins on their faces, but while Ozzy looks up and around him with addled amusement, Rhodes is staring ahead, possibly “inward”. I found the pedestrian nature of this shot both delightfully and depressingly compelling. No doubt some dark corner of my psyche still wants to be a rock star. And, you know, I once stood in line for Space Mountain, too!

Needless to say, the Mojo story-arc concludes in one of two ways: someone dies, or everyone enters rehab. The band might break up, or they might reform and take out a new lease on life. Either way, life is never as “high” as it was in that singular moment of glory.

There are other rock & roll storylines, of course. And though I was familiar with The Ramones and had a Cliff's Notes precis of their story, I wasn't at all prepared for how affected, disturbed and sad I'd be at the conclusion of The End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones. In broad strokes, the Ramones were a band composed of four guys who didn't much like each other — not at the beginning, and certainly not by the end — but they possessed a collective genius that understood their musical moment in time and fucking nailed it to the wall. They were acknowledged as the influence by every big act that followed in their wake. Yet despite this, and a relentless touring schedule that stretched out unrelieved for over thirty years, the Ramones never achieved “breakthrough” status. They certainly never went broke, but by rock & roll standards they never got close to attaining wealth, either.

Through interview footage with the band members and the people who hung out with them, a surprisingly nuanced picture develops around the four uncontestedly unique personalities that originally made up the band. A viewer could forego the Meyers-Briggs test and simply identify her own personality by acknowledging the band member she finds most sympathetic. Is it the distracted romantic who's inept at everything except singing songs? That'd make you a Joey. The blunt instrumentalist who pursues his vision with steely single-mindedness? Congratulations: you are a Johnny Ramone. A flamboyant showman who has to dominate every room he's in, and damn the consequences? You're a Dee-Dee for sure. A co-operator, a tweaker, an enabler who keeps things working and is a bit of an introvert? You're a certified Tommy Ramone, though you'll probably be self-effacing about it.

Alright, since you've pressed me, I'll admit it: I'm a “Tommy”. I was particularly charmed to note how he bailed from the band early on, citing a “personality crisis” brought on by all the touring. While reminiscing, he seems saner than his band mates. Like everyone else, he acknowledges that Johnny was a relentless control freak, and a first-class prick to boot, but this doesn't seem to poison his perspective of the band, the way it does Dee Dee's. Much is made of how Johnny stole (and married) Joey's girlfriend, and how Joey could hold and nurse a grudge like no-one else. Tommy and the other surviving drummers seem to think anyone other than Joey and Johnny would have put the matter behind them and moved on, but the two refused to talk about it, or anything else, with each other from that point forward. Is it any surprise that Tommy (and the other drummers) are the only surviving members of the band? The other personalities used up whatever capacity they had for compromise between naps in the van as they drove from gig to gig.

A picture emerges too of a very gradual and painful death of a dream. The Ramones are accorded a measure of fame, along with a steady income, but never quite launch into the stratosphere the way so many of their followers do. They keep plugging along, doing their thing. Then at some point in the 90s, they agree to a concert in Brazil. Suddenly they get their stadium full of adoring fans. They can't climb into their limousine without getting mobbed. The limo can't move for all the people. The Ramones finally get a taste of what they've been chasing for last 30 years. It's scary, it's claustrophobic, it's exhiliarating. And it basically does them in.

They return to the States and schlep their gear from club to club for a bit longer. Then they call it quits. Joey dies within a year of that; Dee Dee within months of their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Johnny just days after The End Of The Century is released. These guys seemed to have very little outside of their band and their music. Once that was gone, what was left?

Debbie Harry, in one of the interview extras, blurts out a sentiment that strikes close to the heart: “That's what I was thinking when [the World Trade Centre] came down: I just wish I could get back to those years.” If this is wisdom, I suppose it's of the rock & roll variety: life doesn't get any better than bursting in on the scene like a bunch of superheroes in tights. If this happens, it only happens once, and you'll never get it back.

Anyone who has had to let go of some dream, no matter how big or small, has to wonder: is she right? "Tommy" that I am, I rather hope not, of course. I hope I turn away from beckoning nostalgia so that I can embrace an un-nostalgic present, and be of some use to the people around me. I hope, in other words, that there is something to live for beyond my dreams.

Is it possible, then, that there are circumstances when youth isn't just wasted on the young, but on the elderly as well? And if so, how does one avoid that fate?


Jim said...

Blogger's visual verifications are having a hard time making their way from the web onto my screen. Oh, well. I'll just keep trying.

I met Joey Ramone once. In college I helped out with the "concert board." Anyway, we had the Ramones (with The Fleshtones as an opener).

My meeting with Mr. Ramone went something like this.

Concert Board President: Mr Ramone, this is your head stage hand Jim Jannotti.

Me: Hello Mr. Ramone, nice to meet you.

Joey: auauuaoooin.

Whisky Prajer said...

Now, that's a coda that would have left me smiling!

Yahmdallah said...

Great post! Inspired one of mine, kind of a companion piece.

Scott said...

I wrote about the Ramones this week too.

Was there something in the air? :)