Sunday, June 7, 2009

"A Farewell to Johnny Ramone"

Two things about this column: the first is that when it came out I was well-known for mixing pop-culture with politics. At Planet, we had a neo-con columnist. He could write very well, but he was also a tool that didn't know when to shut up. He ignored everything I said to go online and try to start something, asking if I knew that Johnny was a Republican. Of course I knew. I'm a Ramones fan. Johnny Ramone was one of the best-known conservative rockers ever. I don't care. He was a guitar god and that's what I was writing about. Idiot. The second point is that I name-checked Ja Rule, and man, did I get that one wrong.

Death and rock ‘n’ roll have always meshed. There is some primal element to rock, and rap, and heavy metal, and the blues that fits neatly with the Great Beyond. The only other aspect of the universe that affects rock ‘n’ roll so much is sex, but that’s because almost every kind of music is about sex: about getting some (rock), about not getting some (blues), about getting it from the neighbor’s wife (country), or getting it gently, romantically, and with candles (folk). Many ancient pieces of music were hymns to God, a celebration of prayer to a higher being, but I believe that some of them were asking for something a bit more earthy. And who doubts that Beethoven didn’t perform his creations hoping to nail that front row fraulein?

Music connects with sex and death more than with just the “gettin’ horizontal” ideas. Musicians of almost every style exist at the center of a triad of “music,” “sex,” and “death”, which is why their lives tend to focus on three things: the music itself, who they sleep with, and how they die. It’s a dramatic, dynamic combination. Understand that these things work in concert – so to speak – and you’ll understand why heavy metal will not lead a kid to kill himself, why rap music won’t make you pop a cap in whitey, and why Goths are simply harmless sorts whose rebellion has the heft of the Bobby Fuller Four fightin’ the law.

(Of course, Bobby Fuller got whacked by the underworld for macking on a Connected Guy’s woman; just another dramatic combination of sex, death, and rock ‘n’ roll, but I digress.)

I’m in middle age, so I’ve seen some of my favorites shuffle off their mortal coil, some in dramatic fashion, some in simple, mundane ways. The passing of The Who’s John Entwhistle bummed me out for days and I admit to having a right manly cry when Freddie Mercury went away. But I’m not a baby boomer, so some of the Music Gods of the boomer firmament just don’t bother me.

The boomer’s Holy Trinity of ex-musicians is Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. Their deaths thirty-odd years ago were all seen as tragic. Yeah, well, I think if they were all still alive now, only Jimi would be worth a damn. I can see him working with Slash, with B.B., or with Ja Rule, in competition with Clapton as The Great One. And he would still rock much, much harder than Slowhand.

Judging by the direction the Doors were going, I’d lay a wager that Jim Morrison, were he still alive, would be as well regarded as Alan Parsons; that is to say, not so much. And Pearl would almost certainly have found her niche with those incense sniffers of Lilith Fair.

The Beatles? That’s a little different. I would personally send that credit-scamming McCartney into the Strawberry Fields forever for one more song by Lennon or Harrison.

When a well-known musician dies, there is a period of public mourning, the magazine covers and days of water-cooler discussion. This is as it should be. But for me, it’s often the death of the utility player, the talented musician who was never in the spotlight that is the hardest thing to take. Entwhistle was one.

Johnny Ramone was another. With his death last week, the classic three-front of the Ramones is gone. The band that made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without a hit single or Top 40 album is no more. The band that kick-started punk and created the CBGB sound is no longer with us.*

Music fans know that Joey died in 2001 of cancer and most know that Dee Dee O.D.’d the next year (not going to do what Joey did, I suppose). But it was Johnny’s death by cancer that bothers me the most. He was, in many ways, the glue that held the band together. It was his guitar work that created the Ramones sound. He stayed neutral in the Joey-Dee Dee tiffs. And when he decided to retire in 1996, he brought an end to the band’s career before it became a parody of itself. Without Johnny, there could be no “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” no “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and certainly no “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” No one else sounded like him. His retirement meant the end of the Ramones as a performing act.

His death means the end of the Ramones, period. Johnny never set out to be a rock star. And he did just that. He was a great guitarist in a great band. He did what he wanted to do, he succeeded at it, he maintained dignity and style, and he will be remembered.

But he won’t get the magazine covers and he won’t get the water-cooler discussion. I suppose, as a Ramone, he’d be used to that. And that’s all right, too.


*Yeah, yeah, I haven’t forgotten Tommy or Marky (or to a lesser extent, C.J. or Richie), but Johnny, Joey, and Dee Dee were the core of the band.

Gabba gabba hey, Pinheads! Let’s Blitzkreig Bop down to Rockaway Beach and do the Cretin Hop! Barring that, let’s go to planetweekly and thank our lucky stars for the Ramones.

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