Joey Ramone, marked for death
Prior to my immersion into the world of electronic dance music, I was a behind-the-scenes cat in the world of alternative rock. Now before you start thinking about the Nineties alternative scene, let me preface the words "alternative rock", as being truly that. If you think that tired retread bands-as-brands groups like Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bush, or Tool are alternative you may as well stop reading here.
The alternative musical universe I am talking about is comprised the bands that came busting out of the Seventies and carried well into the mid-Eighties carving out a true alternative to the corporate rock demigods who controlled radio, television, and just about every sports arena from here to Wembley. The fact that bands such as Pere Ubu, Television, and the Meat Puppets could not only form but successfully tour and build an entire, credible sub-culture around their tunes speaks volumes about the power of American ingenuity. Sure other countries were doing it to, most notably the UK, but not the the scale nor with the quality of the regional scenes forming around the US at the time. Every town or region had a band, a record shop, label, and zine while kids as young as 10 and 11 got pulled in to this broad cross-section, drawn together despite the diversity of age, musical tastes, skin color, and sexual orientation. This loosely-drawn movement was everything that America wasn't in the post-Vietnam and Reagan eras.
Many artists can arguably lay claim to the musical throne over which they surveyed the kingdom but few have more of a legitimate claim than the Forest Hill, Queens answer to the Beatles - the Ramones. Without the band's proto-fascist minimalism, there would be little defiance against the Yes, Styx, and Boston axis of rock created specifically to neuter the form forever. Had the Ramones known that they kicked the door in allowing garage, power pop, new wave, electro, hip-hop, punk, and techno to develop within that embryo I'm not sure they would have done it, they were not generous. Joey Ramone's real life brother, Mickey Leigh, does a fantastic job of capturing this slice of life rather than just penning another vacuum sealed portrait of a "special" rock band doing their jobs and ascending to the promised land after strife and adversity just like in any VH1 special. As a working band, from personal experience, the Ramones were poor human beings at best and would never be anyone's feel good story but as catalysts for an alternative youth culture that would span generations, there could have been no other but the Ramones because they weren't gonna be learned and they certainly would not be tamed - hell they even sang a song about it using those exact words. Leigh paints a sympathetic portrait in his biography of a basket case brother leading a hapless bus full of wounded individuals in the form of friends, lovers, bandmates, and fans into an uncertain future. That the Ramones never left their mark on pop culture until the creative engines (Dee Dee, Johnny, and Joey) all expired is more a telling look at America's continuing transformation into a mindless nation of consumer sheep unable to think clearly rather than just poor luck and timing on the band's part. They failed simply because they had to, if they had gotten to big they would have been corrupted and never would have stood the test of time.It's a sad, sad fact, especially if you were a Ramone.
Joey's death is covered in explicit detail as the final act of Leigh's book, paced so perfectly that the tears welled from eyes uncontrollably just as I read the last page. But spare the waterworks for a moment, because even though the band failed commercially they still presented this blueprint for an alternative vision of pop music that has now transformed them in to the single most influential musical artists of all time right behind the Beatles - their spectre felt in so many different genres nowadays with just one common thread - things have got to change. That rage became action in the Ramones blitzkreig of bop and so it became the nexus point for the great diaspora of music that defined the real Eighties - whether your bag was Cabaret Voltaire, New Order, Black Flag, the Melvins, or Public Enemy these four ugly kids from New York were paying your dues and dying for your sins even you were totally unaware and way before you could be or would want to be. Mostly because the Ramones changed the way pop music business was done and brought it back to the street level again like in the days of Muddy Waters and Son House and put that stomping power back in to the hands of the artists and their fans. It was never conscious, but often times trailblazing is a different animal entirely than cartography, and I could honestly sense in knowing them personally as well reading Mickey Leigh's telling portrait of them that they could not have done anything else. Above all, now that I am far removed from the insanity of being part of the Ramones universe for a brief time, I miss them as human beings, flawed as they were, and mostly their willingness to continue holding Lester Bangs' torch of aesthetic long after every one else had given up, for me it was my clarion call as a musical tastemaker that has carried me through a wicked industry for the past 22 yrs. Sadly, no one has stepped to the plate since their passing and you can almost see the decline of pop music's quality and saleability once the Ramones left the building, leaving with the sense that they would be the last time pop music would strive for something more than just an endless conveyor of product.