I finally finished reading an article in Rolling Stone about the Ramones that I started back in April in my dentist’s office. [Mikal Gilmore, “The Curse of the Ramones”, Rolling Stone, April 21, 2016; the same issue also featured a list of “The 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Times”, compiled by the RS staff, and number one was, of course, Ramones, by the Ramones (issued 1976)]. Coming from New York, I like to believe that I was one of the first kids to bring punk to the masses at preppy Trinity College. That iconic Ramones album was pretty much ever-present on my turntable (along with Electric Warrior by T.Rex, which was always the first record I put on upon arriving back on campus).
I loved those grungy kids from Forest Hills who played and sang genius three-chord, two-minute gems, highest possible energy from start to finish. “Beat on the Brat” was one of my favorites (for the uninitiated, the lyrics are pretty much just, “Beat on the brat/Beat on the brat/Beat on the brat/With a baseball bat/Oh yeah”). Joey Ramone sang with this weird and inimitable fake British accent and his voice would hitch on his “ohs” so they would come out like “uh-uh-oh”. Back in New York for the summer, I actually caught them live a couple of times, including by myself at the Pastimes Pub, which was conveniently located across the street from the bar where I worked (the Copper Fox, which used to be the Witches’ Brew, which was where Ronald DeFeo, Jr., the infamous Amityville Horror murderer, used to hang out WAY before my time). While I later gravitated more toward British punks like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, the Ramones were always my first punk loves (and, in fact, together with the New York Dolls, were heroes to many of the Brits who came soon afterward). According to the article, and also Johnny Ramone’s autobiography, Commando – I haven’t yet read the bios of Dee Dee, Tommy or Joey, but I will – the band that came together as a literal (albeit mock) family of true misfits, that traveled and played together for decades, pretty much despised one another the whole damn time.
[An aside: These days I find that I gravitate toward the biography section when I go to the library, and I’ve actually read some great music memoirs in the past year: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender; Girl in a Band by Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon; Anger Is An Energy by John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten). I always love to read bios of creative folks, to learn about the “tipping point” when they went from struggling (punk) kid to successful (punk) artist.]
My second punk discovery phase occurred during my East Village days, when my new young boyfriend (21 at the time, despite my friend Wendy’s emphatically doubting statement, “He’s 21?? No one is really 21!!”) moved into my basement apartment with his extensive punk vinyl collection, ranging from British squads (I loved GBH most of all but was also fond of the Exploited) to Southern California punks (D.I. and D.R.I., Bad Brains, Black Flag, the Milkmen and the Circle Jerks, precursors of Green Day and Offspring and Rancid to follow). I preferred the more melodic stuff, like the Buzzcocks and Bad Religion; Ian favored the thrash. So when he announced he was starting a band (with an actually pretty clever name, the Diabolix), I strongly suggested that, given he didn’t know how to play the guitar AT ALL (although he managed to teach himself some basic chords), and his singing voice was, well, NOT a singing voice, he should follow the model of the Ramones and some of his more straight-ahead punk favorites – three chords, play them fast, sing loud, don’t worry about the monotone. But Ian and his bandmates – a ragtag group that featured a loony man child named Lance on drums (with built-in groupies, his girlfriend Annette and her friend Harriet, who were big Robert Smith fans); a crazy guy named Tony on vocals following an experiment with a stinky kid with a righteous Mohawk whose name escapes me, who certainly looked (and smelled) the part but never showed up to rehearsals so he had to be replaced (and who Ian let sleep on my couch one weekend when I was away, which couch had to be sprayed and fumigated in the aftermath); a bass player named (I think) Larry who, in retrospect, reminds me now of a cross between Nick Jonas and Kyle Mooney from SNL, who actually had the most musical talent of them all; and a big moody ginger lead guitarist named Eric – were a tad more ambitious. They attempted to write more sophisticated music rather than taking my advice to keep it simple, and actually built up a repertoire of about 5-7 songs. They even managed to play a couple of gigs (including at CBGB). Despite their initial enthusiasm, they were simply not cohesive enough to survive beyond a few months.
Recently, Ian was going through some old photos and posted a few Diabolix shots on Facebook. These are from my personal collection. The first was taken in my basement apartment on East 1st Street in front of a floor-to-ceiling OMNI Magazine poster I’d stolen from work. And the other one is Ian and Tony, I believe on the stage at CBGB. If nothing else in life, at least Ian can say he actually played on the stage at CBs!!
I often describe myself as an “old school punk”, and people seem to immediately know what I mean by that even if it’s less clear to me – I’ve just been saying it so long, it must mean SOMETHING! Maybe it’s the tattoos or the fact that I dress and look out of the norm for a woman, especially a woman my age. Maybe it’s because my background lacks a solid career path despite years and years of education. I didn’t follow the road more traveled, not out of college and not since. And yet mine is a quiet rebellion, unlike many punk icons who are loud to the point of unintelligibility. I may not follow the piper, but I don’t make a big fuss about it.
Some of the punks I love have surprising depths. Take, for example, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Tim Armstrong of Rancid, who are remarkably not related, even though they’re both from the Bay Area and they’re both amazing songwriters of the punk pantheon and beyond. Billie Joe, of course, who grew up proudly singing show tunes, went on to write the Broadway musical “American Idiot”, which I never saw due to my dislike of ANY kind of Broadway show, but I might have actually tolerated that one because the music was so very good. Tim Armstrong is a bit rougher around the edges, with his gravelly voice like he’s got a mouth full of broken teeth, but he too is a sought-after songwriter for artists as diverse as Pink and Jimmy Cliff (both of whom earned a Grammy performing his songs). Dexter Holland, lead singer of the Offspring, is actually a doctoral student in molecular biology. Henry Rollins is a brilliant poet, actor, activist and intense man of many opinions. And all of them continue to thrive and serve as role models to the next generation of punks (because, inevitably, there will ALWAYS be punks).
Sadly, all of the Ramones are gone before their time, the epitome of “hope I die before I get old”, unlike Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, proto-punks of the highest order, who actually wrote and sang those words but who are still very much alive and kicking and who actually put on one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows in recent memory in 2010.
You can’t always tell a punk by its cover!