It’s hard to believe that 11 years ago our nation suffered a terrible blow from which we can never truly recover. In April 2011, Joey Ramone gabba gabba heyed into the great rock’n roll beyond.
My friend Peter introduced me to the Ramones. I’d heard a song here and there- Sheena is a Punk Rocker, Rock Rock Rock Rock Rock’n Roll High School- but he lent me RAMONES MANIA, the double LP greatest hits album with its day-glo yellow cover. I must’ve flipped those discs a billion times. We rented Rock ‘n Roll High School from Curry’s Home Video, a video store for suburban New Jersey akin to Kim’s in NYC, who had everything from Kubrick to Pink Flamingos. It informed us on such things as irony and camp and the stunning sexual energy of P.J. Soles.
And it make gawky, lanky, bemopped Jeffrey Hyman look like the coolest black leather zombie in creation.
The Ramones were a fresh take on ’50s rock after the indulgence of the ’70s era. Second verse, same as the first. Lyrics ripped from low budget movies like Tod Browning’s Freaks and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. They could blister the paint of the walls, then switch to sweet melody like “I met her at the Burger King/ Fell in love by the soda machine” in “Oh Oh I Love Her So.” Their newest album was Halfway to Sanity, with “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” which gave Reagan a brutal skewering for saying the German soldiers buried at Bitburg were “victims as surely as those in the concentration camps.” (Now, not every German was a Nazi, and plenty of soldiers die not believing in the country for which they fight, but at the time, veterans groups were staunchly against forgiveness, and so were a lot of other people.)
If there’s one thing that makes me sick
it’s when someone tries to hide behind politics
But the Ramones weren’t about politics, which is what made their one foray into it so stinging. They were about having a good time, and their songs never feel mean-spirited, even when they want to “Smash You” or beat on the brat with a baseball bat. There’s an unspoken but obvious humor in it.
They were a great cover band, from Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” to “Needles & Pins” and versions of “California Sun” and “Surfin’ Bird” that will give you sunburn at thirty paces, like being too close to a nuclear blast. However my all-time favorite is from Joey’s solo career, when he covered Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” He makes it a rock song but imbues it with the same sense of hope.
Joey’s solo album is pretty good, and very funny. He wrote a song about being hot for Maria Bartiromo, the financial news anchor, which still cracks me up. Their songs were rarely about sex, but about the goofy innocent love of the ’50s. Today your love, tomorrow the world.
I regret never seeing the Ramones in concert. Joey is buried in the same cemetery as my grandmother, and I work nearby. So I give them both a visit during lunch hour, sometimes. I miss them both, and memories of them bring me joy.
Here’s the video for “What a Wonderful World,” which stars a young Michael Pitt.