(This piece was written by my “cousin-in-law,” Max Mania. In it, he mentions Dale, who is his wife/my cousin.)
Johnny, Tommy, Joey, and Dee Dee
…And they’re gone. With the death of original drummer Tommy, all four of the original members of the Ramones are gone. Even in death, the Ramones have done it their way, the pure way. I mean, think about it…A lot of bands have had some of their original members die (the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Beach Boys, AC/DC, Nirvana, etc.), but how many have had all of their original members die? Talk about four the hard way, y’know?
Needless to say, the Ramones meant a lot to me, and to countless other people around the world. Driven by the insistent rhythm instituted by Tommy, they embodied equal parts fun, insanity and an unequaled purity of vision. In the end, they embodied everything that makes rock and roll so compelling, boiling it down into two minute bursts of perfection that were as American and as addictive as potato chips. You can’t stop with just one.
As someone who loved the Ramones when they were still a functioning unit, it’s been fascinating to watch their stature and reputation grow in the two decades since they called it quits. When I saw them for the last time, on their last tour, they were headlining the Warfield in San Francisco, capacity around 2,000. Their final studio album, Adios Amigos, was, of course, tanking, and the talk of their impending retirement didn’t seem to be causing more than a tiny ripple in American popular culture.
The Ramones circa that last year, 1996, were remarkably similar to the Ramones of 1974, the year that Tommy, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee started the band. The Ramones often got knocked for this perceived “lack of ability to change or evolve.” I think the members of the band would have simply said they got it right the first time, so why mess with success?
And, in the end, their formula unquestionably was a success. The end of the band itself, and the beginning of their truly fatal bad luck, was, perversely, the beginning of their wider recognition and mainstream popular acknowledgement. Joey, not quite making it to his 50th birthday in 2001, also just missed the band being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an honor bestowed upon them by their peers the very first year the band was eligible. By the time poor, tormented Dee Dee died the next year, you were starting to hear Ramones songs creep their way into commercials.
By 2004, when Johnny died, the Ramones tribute industry (for lack of a better term) was in full swing. The Ramones tribute album, We’re a Happy Family, featured a pretty stunning array of million-selling, superstar artists – U2, Metallica, Green Day, Eddie Vedder, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and most perfectly of all, KISS – performing covers of Ramones songs. At New York Yankees games, you would hear their fans chanting Hey Ho, Let’s Go! In Glasgow, locals tweaked it to Hey Ho, Glasgow! The band was a staple on charts and articles about The Greatest Bands Ever, The Greatest Songs Ever, The Greatest Fill-in-the-Blanks Ever. The adulation seemed to have no end.
Now, with both the regularity that you see the band evoked, hear their music everywhere (Dale has heard I Wanna Be Sedated at Safeway), and see the attention given to Ramones when they die, their transformation from outsiders to insiders is complete. The way they are respected and represented, you’d think they’d been actual Top 40 pop stars all along. In their article about Tommy’s death, here’s how People magazine sums the band up:
“The band influenced a generation of rockers, and their hit songs I Wanna Be Sedated and Blitzkrieg Bop, among others, earned them an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.”
Uh, needless to say, those songs were very much not hits when they were originally released as singles in the 1970s. But now, with some 20/20 hindsight and a pinch of revisionist history, hey, the Ramones were right all along. (Related digression: I was called away from writing this by Dale, who let me know that NPR was doing an extended piece about Tommy passing away.)
And so it is that, with a perfect piece of Ramones luck, Tommy lived just long enough to see the Ramones first album, the seminal Ramones, finally be certified as a Gold Album earlier this year – 38 years after it was released. Though the music of the Ramones was generally fast and furious, their acceptance into the mainstream of the American music business is closer to the old adage: Slow and steady wins the race. Thus, not only can you hear a Ramones song in a recent Cadillac commercial, but in that same commercial the Ramones themselves are invoked as a great, original American creation.
They were that, and so much more. In all of the thousand possible ways I can think of to describe the effect the band has had on me, and my life, I think the simplest is probably the most appropriate. No matter how many thousands and thousands of times I have heard their songs, I still find it impossible not to physically respond to them. So there I was a few minutes ago, listening to Blitzkrieg Bop on NPR, tears welling up in my eyes, my foot bouncing up and down in time to Tommy’s drumming.
As the band might have put it, the mental patients have taken over the asylum, and popular culture, for better and for worse, will never be the same again. I loved the Ramones for all of their lives, and I will love the Ramones for all of my life.
The Ramones are dead. Long live the Ramones.