A RAMONES PRIMER: BY THE BOOK
by Nick Taggart
Hey, ho, have you seen Marky Ramone recently? He’s been turning up in all kinds of interesting places, including NPR’s radio program, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” where he successfully answered trivia questions about another famous Marky (Marky Mark) and was generally amusing and entertaining. Not only is he peddling his own brand of pasta sauce (Marky Ramone’s Brooklyn’s Own Marinara Pasta Sauce. At $88 for a case of 12 jars, it’s a steal! But by whom?) but he’s also keeping alive the memory of the Ramones with his new autobiography, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone.
I’ve always been a fan of Ramones songs. What’s not to love about hard and fast, short and catchy tunes containing juvenile lyrics about sniffing glue and abductions by white supremacist groups? I was never disappointed when I saw them in concert, but I knew little of the band’s background beyond the most sweeping of summaries. You know, stuff like: “American punk rock band formed in New York City in 1974”; and “…often cited as the first band to define the punk rock sound.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) I figured Marky’s book would fill in some factual holes as well as provide some colorful commentary.
I’ve always had trouble keeping track of who’s who in the band. I knew the names, but would have been hard pressed to attach the name to the correct face. While I waited for my reserved copy of Punk Rock Blitzkrieg to come in at the library, I went back and read a couple of other Ramones autobiographies. These helped with my identification problem.
Back in 2000, the bass player, Dee Dee Ramone, published Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones. Dee Dee always reminded me of the actor Larry Storch, best known for his role as Capt. Agarn on TV’s F-Troop. I learned that Dee Dee was responsible for writing many of the band’s songs as well as taking the most drugs. As his book indicated, he did indeed survive the Ramones, but just barely. Less than three months after joining his bandmates for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dee Dee was found dead from a heroin overdose.
In 2012, the posthumous Commando: the Autobiography of Johnny Ramone was released. Johnny was the one with the haircut resembling the knit cap pulled down over the face of Dumb Donald on Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. He was the focused one in the group who kept the Ramones train running on time. His military schooling may have been partially responsible. His goal was to accumulate $1 million in savings before kissing the Ramones gravy train goodbye. He succeeded, but didn’t live long to enjoy it, dying in 2004 after a battle with prostate cancer. Johnny was also the politically conservative one of the foursome who admired Ronald Reagan and who preferred to listen to Rush Limbaugh on the tour van radio; sometimes just to piss off Joey, the liberal singer.
Even if he wasn’t the de facto front man, Joey would have stood out for his looks: 6’ 6” tall, lanky, bespectacled, and holding onto the microphone for dear life. His autobiography might have been the most interesting had it ever been written, but Joey was the first Ramone to die, succumbing to lymphoma in 2001. He suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifested itself in so many frustrating ways, as detailed in his bandmates' books. For example, tour departures were delayed while Joey exited and reentered his apartment multiple times; or he would return dozens of times to the bathroom on a trans-Atlantic flight to tap the soap or touch the seat. The closest thing we have to a Joey autobiography is the 2009 book, I Slept With Joey Ramone: a Family Memoir, written by Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh.
There have been other members of the Ramones, including the original drummer, Tommy, who traded in his sticks after two albums to concentrate on producing the band. There were also Richie, Elvis, C.J., Sneezy, and Tito (I may be wrong about a couple of those. Elvis doesn’t sound right.), but they came and went and rarely appear in photos, so no need to commit them to memory.
By the time I got my hands on Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, I felt a little more grounded in Ramones lore. I still liked and appreciated the music, even if I had learned the band members weren’t the kind of folks I’d lend money to or want to watch a presidential debate with. With Marky’s book, though, I discovered a band member who was, dare I say, somewhat normal. Oh, he had his problems with alcoholism and the like, but he comes across as likeable.
The book caused a bit of a kerfuffle on Amazon concerning the accuracy of Marky’s stories. The only time the Ramones had to cancel a show was in Virginia Beach in 1981 when Marky was a no-show. According to his book, the band had a couple days off after playing Cleveland and he planned on getting a ride to Virginia with a fan, but the ride was a bust. According to an online reviewer from Columbus, the show was actually in the capital city (confirmed in Johnny’s book) and Marky had planned on flying to Virginia all along, but missed his flight after two days of drinking and partying at Crazy Mama’s and a local “punk house” (which still exists, according to another reviewer).
Reading the Ramones autobiography canon prompted me to go back and watch the 1979 movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Wow, is that film dated! But the viewing was worth it purely for the appearance of the Ramones and their spectacularly amateurish “acting” and brief memorable lines. (“We’re not students, we’re the Ramones,” and “Things sure have changed since we got kicked out of high school.”)
A much better DVD option is the excellent 2005 documentary, End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones. Most of the key players were still alive at the time of its production, so were available for informative, revealing, and funny interviews. Two thumbs up!
More importantly, the books encouraged me to go back to my CD collection and listen once again to all those fun, rocking Ramones songs. I tend to forget just how many great ones there are. The debut self-titled album alone contains “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat,” “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “53rd and 3rd,” and “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You,” among others, all clocking in at 2:35 or under. Gabba Gabba Hey, indeed!
So, can we believe the stories Marky tells in his book? Can we believe Dee Dee or Johnny or Mickey Leigh? I’m sure they all had their own agendas, but they’re all like the sightless guys in the parable of “The Elephant and the Blind Men.” The individual perspectives might not capture the entire animal, but together they bring into focus the pachyderm in torn jeans and leather jackets that is the Ramones.
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