Finally caught the Ramones documentary, END OF THE CENTURY. I stumbled on it the other night as I was surfing channels and it had just started.
I was living in NYC when the Ramones hit the scene at CBGB’s. I remember assuming they were four Italian brothers.
I didn’t dig everything they did at first, but I did dig some of it, and eventually most of it. There was a point when all the downtown scene bands felt like emblems of the spirit of the city in the ‘70s, when New York seemed broken in many ways, but as a result, also exciting because rents were still cheap in many areas (I lived with my kids in supposedly “illegal” lofts that rented for 200 a month and under), and so was a lot of other stuff (I partly furnished them with old office furniture bought on Canal Street for cheap) including second hand clothes and furniture and meals in nearby Chinatown and at Indian restaurants on 6th St.
The Ramones were outer borough kids, from Queens, and, it turned out, not related nor named Ramone, which everyone found out almost immediately as soon as they started getting noticed.
I had a chip on my shoulder back then about not getting enough recognition for what I thought was my influence on various scenes and styles and movements, quite arrogant and mostly unfounded, though with an element of truth in a few cases. So I resisted falling completely under their spell as many others did at first.
But I got the power of the music and it’s return to the basics of what made rock’n’roll so revolutionary initially. I bought their records and didn’t bother to find out anything much more about them other than the rumors of drug use and intra-band abuse.
So watching this documentary was both enlightening and saddening. “Dee Dee Ramone” came off like Gregory Corso (the “Beat” poet), with almost the same accent and facial expressions in articulation (and inarticulation) of their little tough guy street savvy if not street smarts (i.e. able to survive intact and healthy the negative influences of street life etc.), and so deep into their personas it seems difficult to discover the real man and mind behind some of their flashes of brilliance.
I didn’t learn anything from the documentary about him I didn’t already know or sense, but he’s still fascinating to watch wiggle around and out of queries and attitudes he doesn’t want to reveal and reveal those he does.
“Joey Ramone” was the most interesting subject of the film. I had no idea, or very little, about his struggles with what they now call obsessive-compulsive disorder and other personality and mental burdens that he’d been carrying around since childhood. It explained some of the unconscious sympathy I always felt for him, and I suspect a lot of others did too.
The triumph over his “geekiness” is the real story of the Ramones for me, and this documentary explores and exposes that in a pretty straight-forward and unexploitive way. In fact, the film has the feel of the band and the times they started out in, those ‘70s city days when “punk” became a major influence on music and style and international youth rebellion.
“Tommy Ramone” is the most normal and therefore seemingly least interesting. But in fact he comes across in many ways as the “smartest” and most honest. He was the drummer and early spokesman and in many ways the organizer that helped keep them together and going forward, as well as the producer in more ways than one of their first recordings. But he was replaced relatively early on as drummer, and later as producer/engineer. His comments though helped ground the film, as his presence seems to have grounded the band early on.
“Johnny Ramone” is the real enigma of the group, and deliberately so. I never liked the guy from the beginning. His anger seemed forced and phony at times to me back when. Maybe I was just projecting my own onto him and feeling more authentic in my proprietary attitude about having labeled myself a “punk” in my poetry (from the taunts adults and others had given me growing up) and gone back to my early ‘60s too tight pants and been writing angry street poetry for many years before he came along with his strange stage pout that looked like one of those blowfishes or whatever they’re called that go from slim to fat in a nanosecond.
The film spends a lot of time on him, and rightfully so since in many ways he was responsible for the band’s creation and survival. He revels in his “rightwing” perspective, as he himself calls it, and often comes off like a spoiled brat without a clue. After being portrayed as someone who was constantly abusive and disrespectful to others, he complains at one point at how abusive and disrespectful Phil Spector was to him when the band made their album in L.A. that Spector produced.
How the band survived the dynamic of “Johnny” and “Joey” being at opposite ends of the political and emotional and personal spectrum, let alone feuding over the girl who became “Johnny’s” wife, is part of the fascination of the documentary.
It’s not as brilliant and original, but it did remind me of one of my all time favorite documentaries, DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS, another moment in the history of youth group innovation that impacts future generations and embodies a seminal turning point in our collective cultural history whether we know it or not. The Z-boys were actually inventing something totally new, and the movie captures that moment and its influence almost as originally as the Z-boys defined forever the possibilities of skateboarding as an art form.
END OF THE CENTURY isn’t as original, just as the band wasn’t inventing anything entirely new, buty they were taking the relatively undefined dreams of not privileged youth and turning them into if not a new art form than certainly a new version of an older one. And almost at the same moment in time. I think they’d make a killer double bill. They balance each other out in many ways, both expressions of triumph over adversary and originality being born of a youthful imperative to get what’s inside out before it destroys you, though in some cases it destroys you anyway. But DOGTWON AND Z-BOYS is exhilarating and inspiring, where, as I said, END OF THE CENTURY is saddening.
And the saddest moment, if I saw and heard it right (it was pretty late by the time it ended) was when the Ramones are inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, and no one mentions Joey when they accept their award, Joey having died of cancer before he got to see that vindication of his successful overcoming of the outsized odds against him.