All Hopped Up and Ready to Go
Joey Ramone, 1951-2001
Here's your obituary: Joey Ramone didn't choke on his own vomit. Joey Ramone didn't shoot himself. Joey Ramone didn't die in a private-plane crash. There is no place for Joey in that stupid Rock 'n' Roll Heaven where maudlin dopes and dopers picture Hendrix jamming with Stevie Ray, Elvis and Jim Morrison swapping vocals. Joey was not in the pantheon. Joey was in the Ramones.
Joey Ramone, age 49, died peacefully after a prolonged bout with lymphoma. He was the singer of "Swallow My Pride." He was the singer of "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You." He was the singer of "Rockaway Beach."
He sang these songs in a blend of the most debased big-city accents in the English-speaking world, deep natural Queens mixed with fake Brit, profoundly anti-enunciated: vowels stretched and drooping, whole syllables lost somewhere between his throat and his nose. ("All th' kids wanna sniff some glue/ All th' kids want sun'n t' do.")
He sent that voice pealing out over the crashing, howling, roaring instruments of his fellow Ramones, blurting out the notes--blurting, and hitting them. Joey Ramone could carry a tune. And he made you think maybe, if the song was fast enough and loud enough, if you went with it, you could carry that tune too. You could sing like that, if you tried. Or close enough, anyway. You could try.
The idea behind the Ramones was the idea behind countless other things that came after, including to some extent this newspaper: There could be something else beyond the stuff that was already laid out for you. You could make that something else, with the tools at hand. "Mister Programmer," Joey sang, "I got my hammer/ I'm gonna smash my, smash my ra-di-o, -o."
Which sounds corny and naive, except the Ramones did smash radio. Not literally, God knows--Mister Programmer is still there, his broadcast world more monolithic and mediocre than ever--but effectively. Nobody who cares about music listens to radio anymore. Tens of thousands of adolescents have the same epiphany each year, as they swap cassettes or download MP3s or (if anyone still does it) drop a needle on an old slab of vinyl in somebody's basement. The Buzzcocks. The Violent Femmes. Public Enemy. The Pixies. Sonic Youth. Pavement. Guitar Wolf. The Ramones.
Joey Ramone did not look like a rock star. Of all the Ramones, he was the Ramonesiest. He looked the scuzziest in their NYC scuzzbag uniform: leather jacket, tight jeans, cruddy T-shirt. His hair looked especially awful hanging down in his eyes. He always looked that way. When he sang about the beach, Rockaway or Southern Cal, you pictured him surfside in full Ramones gear, pasty behind his prescription sunglasses, getting sand in his jacket and sneakers.
Another thing: Joey didn't work blue. Strange but factual. The key stuff, the '70s-into-'80s stuff that made the Ramones the Ramones, that Created Punk Rock, is as cuss-word-free as a children's songbook: "Jackie is a punk/ Judy is a runt/ They both went down to Berlin/ Joined the Ice Capa-a-ay-des/ And oh I don't know why/ Oh I don't know why/ P'haps they'll di-iee, oh yah/ P'haps they'll di-iee."
The music, when you heard it, was great. You could miss this, in all the talk about pinheads and cretins and wanting to be sedated. The Ramones were not a novelty band or some noise-grinding bunch of amateurs. They were, as Joey said over and over, a rock-'n'-roll band--revved past top speed and cranked till they sounded like an avalanche, but always in sync, and always, always with a melody.
Above all else, they sounded glad. Even when Joey was singing about bitterness, freakishness, or nihilism, what came through was pleasure, the pleasure of being able to put the feelings into a song and send it roiling through the speakers. I have never in my life, not in my darkest moments of existential dismay, been so depressed that the Ramones couldn't uplift me. They are psychochemically impossible to resist. The only other recording artist for whom I can say the same is Little Richard.
And this is the funny fact about the revolution: Once you'd heard the Ramones, you could listen to oldies radio again. You could hear the thing in those tunes that people heard when the songs were new and the people were young, before nostalgia and repetition settled over them and muffled them into background music. The Ramones scoured the music clean.
Which is why, too, they were a great cover band. They didn't muss up the old numbers, smirking their way through half-assed versions. They gave them their due. They barreled, lunatic, through the Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird." They took the squirminess out of Sonny Bono's "Needles and Pins."
But their finest cover--sometimes, I think, their finest moment--is "California Sun." The Rivieras' 1964 original is catchy, but fatally lacking. After lively call-and-response verses, swapping lines with the band ("I'm a-goin' out West where I belong"/ da-da DAH da da, da-da DAH da da da), the singer saunters into the chorus, cluelessly, with a casual rockabilly swing. The momentum just trickles away.
The Ramones instinctively pick up the tension and build it, skipping back and forth between Joey and the lead guitar. He sings, it answers, he sings, it answers. Then comes that chorus: "Where they walk," Joey sings . . . and on "walk," the whole band crashes into motion at once, guitarbassdrumsvocals slamming shut the space between them and pummeling ahead, in unison--"an' I'll walk. . . . They shimmy/ and I'll shimmy . . . "--the band roaring like a jet down the runway, rising, toward the payoff--". . . out there havin' FUN/ In th' WARM Cali-FORN-ia SUN"--rising, triumphant, straight into the promise of Paradise.
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