Thanks to John Ross Bowie, I’m on a(nother) Ramones kick. Last week I went and saw a pre-opening performance of the play he wrote about the Ramones, called “Four Chords and A Gun.” It’s a fictionalized account of the time the band spent recording their “End of the Century” album with producer Phil Spector.
If you are in LA and somehow read this before July 31st and it’s not sold out, I highly recommend you go see it.
I’m no theater aficionado, but I really enjoyed it…
The play has been marvelously cast, with all of the actors doing a fantastic job embodying each of the Ramones quirks and peccadillos, both physical and emotional. I thought the fellow playing the notoriously disagreeable Johnny, Johnathan McClain was a particular standout. He does a great job (along with the writing) of portraying the man’s difficult personality with dimension. It’d be easy to paint Johnny as a one-note curmudgeon, because he really was a prick, but I’m glad Bowie and director Jessica Hanna didn’t make that choice.
Then there’s the fascinating-to-watch Josh Brener, aka “Big Head” from HBO’s “Silicon Valley” playing Phil Spector. I love that guy on Silicon Valley and he’s as much fun to watch in this play as it sounds. Big props to the costumer on this point as well, as his outfits are a performance all their own. We all know how erratic Phil Spector is rumored to be – or I guess convicted of being – so it’s fun to watch Bowie imagine what went down behind closed doors.
The other 3 Ramones are pretty fantastic as well.
It’s a genius idea to bring this story to life, because it really is just an incredible human odyssey. And theater feels like the right medium for it. A film just seems too hard to approach, considering all the vested interests in the form of the band’s estate. Maybe this is the first step on that road. If so, bravo, it’s a good one.
If you’ve seen the amazing documentary “End of The Century” you know about the vast quantities of dramatic gold to be mined from this story. It’s human folly, brotherhood, ambition, love, stubbornness, dysfunction and betrayal played out in the sausage-making machine that is this iconic rock band. If you don’t know specifically what I’m talking about then go see this play and then rent the documentary. You’ll be emotionally paralyzed for weeks afterwards. You’ll also never listen to the songs “Danny Says” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” the same way again. It’s an absolute tragedy.
The only hint I’ll give you is this: BETRAYAL.
Believe me, both the play and the movie are absolutely worth it, even if you aren’t a Ramones fan. Perhaps they are even more worthwhile if you aren’t a fan.
Which brings me to the confessional part of this post. The poor Ramones! They just never got the respect that they deserved!
And I am, more than most, guilty of not giving them their due.
As a teenager in the 80’s I took them for granted. I figured they’d always be there, doing what they do.
I had their records. And I played them. I always thought the music was great. That’s not the problem. I also went to see them, multiple times. I’ve seen the Ramones play at large outdoor venues and several times at smaller clubs. I distinctly recall seeing them play an all ages show on a Sunday afternoon at Boston University. I’d have to guess it was 1987. That also, is not the problem. They got a fair share of my entertainment dollars when they probably still needed them.
No, where I fall short is not paying true homage to the genius behind their approach; their absolute purity, their magnificently slavish dedication to the music: fast, loud, and simple.
Apparently, I preferred attitude over substance. For many years, I was wildly mistaken and swore the Sex Pistols were the best, first and most important punk band. As an adult I am aware of the error of my ways. Please, gods of punk rock, forgive me. I still love the Pistols – they were my entry point to punk – but they were copping New York’s style.
You can argue all you want. Was it the Velvet Underground, the Stooges or the MC5 that kicked it all off? Who holds the title “Godfathers of Punk?”
Well, I’ve come to my senses, as has – over the years – the consensus of the chattering classes. It’s the Ramones. They had the recipe right, straight out of the gate. Fast, loud and simple. Sure those other guys are legend, and undoubtedly influenced the first true punks, but the Ramones deserve the crown.
Everything was in service to the purity of the music. The clothes, the haircuts, the names, even the members were theoretically interchangeable. Nothing else came before the music. They were a brotherhood dedicated to making straight-ahead, fast, loud rock music for the kids. And they put it on wax in 1977. Everybody else has to add something to that formula, some fleck of personality or pathos, thus distorting it. The Ramones were and are the baseline. They embodied fully the true spirit of punk rock.
Lastly, I want to apologize to Joey. I disrespected the man back in 1993 and I’ve felt awful about it ever since. My guilt was only compounded after I saw “End of The Century” and learned about his humiliation at the hands of the KKK (see the above song reference).
Somehow I managed to get invited to a star-studded New Year’s Eve party at the artist Jimmy Rizzi’s loft on Lafayette Street. The place was freaking enormous and there were all sorts of fabulous people there. I had never seen a spread like this in my life before. Debby Harry and Joey Ramone were in attendance, along with maybe 500 others.
The thing about this amazing loft was… there was only one bathroom!
It was insane. All these hoity-toity people had to wait in line to get into the single toilet. The young lady I was with and I, were waiting in line for the bathroom when Joey stepped in behind us. I’m pretty sure I told him I loved the Ramones – I pray I got that part of the memory correct – but then when I went to introduce him to my girlfriend, she had no idea who the Ramones were. She was a few years younger than I was and I don’t know why, I for some reason thought it was hilarious that she could be ignorant of who he was. I recall laughing about it in front of the man.
Forgive me. I was young and stupid. Oh so stupid.
And here’s where it gets really bad. We did not let him cut in front of us! My girlfriend and I went into the bathroom together – never a good sign – and we did coke and laughed about making people wait. We made Joey Ramone wait to take a piss! I deserve to be burned at the stake. Forgive me ghost of Joey Ramone.
I didn’t know the burden you carried. I’m sorry. Thank you for everything. Rest in peace.