Sunday, September 19, 2004

More Music, in Memorial

It has taken a couple days, but I am coming back to Johnny Ramone. I was heartbroken by the news of his death. That surprised me a bit - I was sad, but not heartbroken when Joey died, and he was a lot more likable. It’s probably the timing - I'd seen the movie, and was writing about the band, thinking about them - and then he died. It hurt - far more than most celebrity deaths (Marlon Brando, say) - almost as much as when my transcendent cultural heroes (Johnny Cash? Charles Schulz?) died.

It’s odd, feeling sentimental about Johnny Ramone. Joey made sense - but Johnny? He was an asshole - no one liked him. He comes off very badly in the film - a sour, mean, bitter man, with a cruel streak - the way he turns to his wife and puts her on the spot about whether there was any tension between him and Joey, and won’t let her get away with uttering a platitude or too. His wife - the woman he took away from Joey, causing that break. Classy. But at the same time, he comes off as someone who knew what he had in the band - who knew, maybe even better than the others, how fucking good they really were (he says in the film that only the Clash were close to them - the only way to dispute that is to note that the Clash aren’t in their league.) He knew what he had, and respected it (The Ramones) immensely, to the point of realizing it was worth more than his petty feuds.

So, yeah, he was an asshole, but he was also a genius. Everyone says he inspired a raft of guitar players - true. And he and his band (but in a lot of ways, that is him - the sound of the band, if not their material, is really Johnny’s guitar, fully formed from the very beginning, pure and unwavering from that point on) did inspire a raft of musicians, making simplicity possible, making it possible for anyone to be in a band. I myself - I fiercely regret that I did not hear them in time. If I had heard them, instead of Kiss, in 1976? Where would I be? Better than I turned out, right? They were cool, they were simple, they were honest, they were perfect.

That is the last word on them: they were a perfect rock band. Very possibly the perfect rock band. And Johnny Ramone was, probably, the perfect rock guitar player.

Now - perfection is not everything - perfect things are not necessarily the best thing. Perfection, purity, these things are limits - not weaknesses, really - but limits. You have to get past perfection at some point, to be the best - so all this sentimentality can’t blind me to the fact that if I were choosing, I’d still take Pere Ubu or the Velvets or the Beatles, possibly P-funk, maybe the Stones... it’s a short list - the bands I like more, or who were “better” than the Ramones - Beatles, Velvets, Pere Ubu, maybe (by some criteria) Beefheart, Can, P-Funk, maybe the Stones, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Byrds, maybe Fairport Convention/Richard Thompson, maybe even Bob Dylan - but that is about all. There are guitar players I like more, though that list isn’t much longer: Hendrix (though I don’t listen to him as much, and often feel almost intimidated by him), Thompson definitely, Clarence White and Michio Kurihara (the secrets), maybe Roger McGuinn - Jimmy Page, I’m afraid, Wes Montgomery and probably Charlie Christian, with Pete Cosey, Sonny Sharrock, Michael Karoli lingering around the edges. There could be others.

That’s not as long a list as I thought. I started, the morning he died, as it happened, making a list - my top 10 favorite guitar players of all time:

Richard Thompson
Jimi Hendrix
Jimmy Page
Johnny Ramone
Clarence White
Michio Kurihara
Roger McGuinn
Pete Cosey
Sonny Sharrock
Peter Townshend...

...say. There's Johnny, quite high up there. I was thinking about this stuff before he died - the movie had me thinking about him, and writing about him - which is obviously part of why this news was so devastating. They were on my mind...

So back to the Ramones - their place in the world of rock and roll, my reaction to them. About what they did - their sound, their importance...

The dirty secret is that I am ambivalent about them. I mean, the last 2-3 years, I have gone rather far in the other direction - listening to art bands, from Can and Soft Machine and Van Der Graf Generator to Derek Bailey and Keiji Haino to David Bowie and Radiohead. Yet - I have also gotten into punk a bit more, the edges of punk, bands I did not hear at all the first time around - the Buzzcocks (minimal airplay), Stiff Little Fingers (I had never heard them, knowingly, til I got the record - only 2 or 3 years ago.) Minimalism and avant garde and noise and - those things feed off one another, but they do it in a way that kind of pisses on the rhetoric of punk. I have never trusted its Puritanism (it is not accidental that it devolved into real Puritanism, pretty quickly, with straight edge hardcore and the like), its trashing of what came before. I loved AOR before I heard of punk, and continued to love it after I started liking punk, and still love both... so I don’t know.

Still - it is not really the Ramones I am ambivalent about. I am ambivalent about the propaganda that surrounds punk. You never hear anyone talk about the Ramones without talking about killing off the dinosaurs - and about simplicity and fun as if that were somehow antithetical to “seriousness” or virtuosity. That was not part of the first wave of punk. The Ramones' contemporaries were bands like Television - guitar noodling eggheads; Patti Smith - poetess; the midwest bands - Rocket From the Tombs, The Mirrors, the Electric Eels - coming out of the 60s bands, Stooges, Velvets, MC 5, the garage bands, the art bands (Captain Beefheart, Red Krayola, the Mothers, etc.) It was not monolithic - it was just devoted to freedom, aggression, to expression. The Ramones were part of it - it is a bitter pill to hear them being turned into another force of conformity.

I have to stop somewhere. I have the luxury here in blogland of developing whatever it is I'm saying over time. So I can come back. But I want to finish with this - something I wrote down back when Joey Ramone died. Punk changed everything - but it did more than kill off what was on the radio and replace it. (It didn't really do that - just exposed so much of what was on the radio as the shit it was.) It created plenty new - but it also changed what was already there. After punk - and when I say punk, I mean The Ramones - you could, if you were listening, hear the rock in the bloat of what came before. It didn't so much kill off all the Led Zeppelins and Black Sabbaths of the world as redeem them. Robert Plante once said that "God Saved the Queen" was a slowed down version of "Communication Breakdown" - which it is. But you needed punk to hear it again. It changed the way people listened to heavy metal - after punk, people could hear Bonham's drumming, Sabbath's drive and AC/DC's punch again. That is what punk did for me - I started listening to punk in earnest in the mid-80s - and it sent me as much for my old Zep and AC/DC records as for the punk-derived bands around at the time (The Replacements, Husker Du, Butthole Surfers, The Meat Puppets - my personal mid-80s favorites). I was not alone - as grunge would soon show us...

I am very grateful. Thank you Johnny (and Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy).

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