But things don't last forever and somehow baby, they never really do.
-- Joey Ramone in 1977,
"I Remember You"
I was in seventh grade when I purchased my first record. It was Leave Home, the second album by the Ramones. I got it the day after it was released.
Because of Leave Home, I would have to confront countless fists on the schoolyard belonging to guys with names like Tony and Hector, guys with broad backs and thick fingers. My appearance made their hatred obvious; I didn't wear corduroy bells with hand-tooled belts, nor did I have their doughy, well-mothered faces. I was typically down-dressed in wrinkled shirts, unruly hair, and pimples. I would have to endure the faces of students moving toward me in the hallways, watch their mouths twist into sinister smirks as they approached, and listen to the contemptible snickers once they passed. The Ramones ensured that for years to come I would be half-terrified to enter a Circle K; and brother, you do not know the rednecks in my hometown.
Because of the Ramones, I learned that it wasn't me who was wrong. It was the place, the deceitful face of suburbia. That steady dull ache of sameness and sadness that sucked hard the breath from my lungs. Because of the Ramones, Joey particularly, I was activated as a human being. I didn't have to become part of the habitat. The Ramones stood against everything that stood against me. So it had a profound impact on me when I learned that Joey Ramone died Easter Sunday.
There was nothing singular about Leave Home that was life-changing; it was the package as a whole, the spirited notion that something was possible when I had already figured that, by age 12, there was little in life for me.
The Ramones parted the sky above that suburban grid where Peter Frampton and green trimmed hedges and Little League moms driving brown station wagons formed shapes that became constant flickers of agony in my gut. An agony rivaled only by the one felt each time I would see a girl that I could never touch. A girl I could meet like Joey did at the "Burger King and fall in love by the soda machine."
Leave Home counted in one-two-three-fours the friendless footsteps away from the junior high schoolyard each day at 3 p.m.; that count, that walk, those steps, no friends. . . . Get me home to the living room stereo for that feeling, the feeling Joey taught me to feel. One-two-three-fours of the first rush of boyhood anticipation, a harmonic sensory overload not yet articulated by alcohol, drugs or guiltless masturbation. After one-two-three-four comes the brilliant wall of chain-saw guitar, bass and drum racket in a tempo that simply sent me, my tempo, and Joey's reedy, tough but tender tenor telling me: They do their best, they do what they can . . . .
After 30 minutes, the lovely, shambled gust of Leave Home's goosebumped glory would end all too abruptly. The record would be over at the precise moment I heard the dreadful sound of Dad's car sputtering to a stop in the garage. What timing. The Ramones' timing was always perfect.
I would have Leave Home off the stereo, sleeved and back into its usual hiding place beneath the davenport in time to hear Dad's car door slam shut. Panic ensued. Rock 'n' roll was all but banned in our household. I would have my bedroom door closed behind me just as he entered the house.
Then I would sit on my bed, stiffly, silently, listening to my heart. I would think about the Ramones record under the couch, the darkness. How it was a darkness that dads make. I waited for the pop and fizz of the first Pabst and the dismal drone of the newscaster's voice from the television set in the living room. Then I could breathe. I would find the Creem magazine, decipher the words of Lester Bangs, and read again for the millionth time a story about the Ramones. After that, I had Salinger. I could dream out of the dull, monotone hum that is suburbia and wait, couldn't wait to hear Leave Home again.
The simplicity of Leave Home gave me an understanding, the simplicity in the revelation that there is something else, something fucking else . . .
The next year I was at my first rock 'n' roll show, standing 10 rows back at the Phoenix Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. My barely teenaged heart pounded in a rabid tempo of a sleepless night's anticipation waiting for the very band that indelibly marked my suburban resignation with a liberating spirit.
It was an insane bill; the Ramones opening for Head East and Black Sabbath. The Ramones playing in front of 10,000 people frozen in a moment of timeless suspension, a cultural vacuum somewhere between Woodstock and CBGB. I was surrounded by what seemed like the older brothers of those kids who always wanted to kick my ass in school. The crowd absolutely hated the Ramones on principle; the Ramones represented transgressions against what was considered normal. The Ramones depicted real risk and passion simply by taking the stage. Black Sabbath to me seemed so damn old, back-dated and slow-moving; everything that rock 'n' roll wasn't supposed to be.
The Ramones hit the stage in a brotherhood of ripped jeans, leather jackets and untold unity. Guitars slung low, out-scissored legs, chins high. They came on with the stamp of marching men. But 10,000 heads of hatred aimed at four young men can wreak unknown havoc. Within a minute, a half-full beer cup tagged Joey in the face, frothy liquid spilling over his leather jacket. He shook it off. That kick-started it. Suddenly the band was lost in a downpour of cups, bottles, loogies and unidentifiable liquid. The scene bordered on a riot.
Yet the Ramones played on, bravely, for the next 25 minutes. Joey perched unmoving at the bow of the stage, the front line, one fist in the air, the other clutching the mike stand. I took Joey's gestures as symbolic. Joey Ramone was standing tall according to the values in which he believed. It was real virtue. The band finished its set in a hideous torrent of debris and a gut-wrenching chorus of boos. But the band finished its set. To this day, I have never seen anything like it.
Rock 'n' roll, like any cultural force, works best when it's rooted in some form of authentic rage. The Ramones had that and intelligence; yet the band was brilliant at false fronts, showing themselves as cartoon characters while sending the message that boredom is a dividend paid to those too lazy to engage in the use of their intellect. The band's mascot, the pinhead, was symbolic of this; the Ramones were anti-stupid. The irony of the pinhead coming out on stage with the Ramones that night at Veterans' Memorial was lost on the 10,000 Sabbath Neanderthals.
For me that show was a profound moment of clarity, that rare moment of confrontation with a situation that leaves you changed.
Suddenly Frampton and Little League moms with smug baseball sons that girls adored and the green trimmed hedges, the faceless heads in the hallways, the fists, all became a blur of motivation. Leave Home, its first springboard of hope became a kind of personal anthem.
Three years later, at 16, I left home with the same foundation of motivation that I had imagined the Ramones used to bust out of Queens. The Ramones taught me what was reiterated later in works by authors I would admire like Salinger. Joey and the Ramones showed me the real possibilities of breaking from the imagination-free grid of suburbia, becoming connected to a reality larger than my own, and doing it with real spirit of adventure.
Years later, Joey Ramone said in an interview, "We stood alone, we were our own island." In-fucking-deed.
And so it is that Joey Ramone is dead at 49. In my head he died with dignity; he stole the Reaper's grim, because all along I thought him bigger than death, and bigger than life. He did, after all, lead the band that single-handedly blew down the doors of rock 'n' roll. Joey Ramone was a tough ass.
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