Tommy Ramone is dead and I feel like I just got punched in the gut.
I spent much of my childhood in a house off Stoolfire Road in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. You didn’t HAVE to drive through a truck stop to get there, but doing so would get you home much, much faster. Cable TV was not an option – not in the mid Eighties, anyway. We got about three TV channels – maybe four, if there was decent cloud coverage. Maybe because there weren’t really any other options, or maybe because they knew what they were doing, my parents kept the turntable on the family hi fi spinning almost constantly, with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and a bit of Alice Cooper in heavy rotation, depending on whose bowling night it was. In the car, it was 3WS out of Pittsburgh and a steady stream of the Ronettes, the Crystals, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean. I still remember my parents howling with laughter as I sang along to “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James and the Shondells while we were parked in our white ’77 Thunderbird (a boat of a car if there ever was one) in the lot of Wheeling, West Virgina’s Federal Building shortly after picking up my dad after another beat as a proud member of Wheeling’s Finest. We were going to go to diCarlo’s, for pepperoni rolls, but I don’t think Mom trusted herself to drive until after I finished backing up the Shondells. They needed me. And, Jesus, Solid Gold Saturday nights in the basement while Dad worked on the Shelby and I flung myself around like a tool to “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “My Boyfriend’s Back.” A particularly rousing session to Chris Montez’ “Let’s Dance” took out my cardboard playhouse.
I was five or six when I discovered MTV, on a Friday night visiting Mom and Dads’ best friends, who lived “in town,” and had cable. I was fascinated by Debbie Harry of Blondie and Cyndi Lauper of…well…Cyndi Lauper, and soon began basing any sartorial choice I was allowed to make for myself on what I thought they might do. And then, one night, laying on my belly in front of the Timmons’ TV with their son Chris, I saw “Rock and Roll High School.”
My first thought was that the Ramones sounded like a distillation of every song I’d ever heard coming out of the living room speakers, the car stereo, my dad’s transistor – but faster, and with a beat I could feel in the pit of my stomach. They played “Do You Wanna Dance!” And I’d never wanted to dance more in my life! And then they blew up the school! They were SO COOL. My second thought was that I really, really wanted Joey Ramone to be my boyfriend someday, but that’s a subject for another day.
I had dalliances with other music – later, when we moved to Baltimore and got cable television of our very own, my mom would yell up the stairs to me that Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video was on MTV, and I’d bop around the living room. There was an ill advised and thankfully brief infatuation with the New Kids on the Block. I choreographed a number of clever and highly technical dance routines to the extensive catalog of Paula Abdul and reveled in hissing the “nasty boys!” part of Janet Jackson’s opus by the same name. I actually couldn’t even find the Ramones that much – MTV didn’t show “Rock and Roll High School” anymore, and God knows they were missing entirely on the radio, but they were always there in the back of my head – a snippet of “Blitzkrieg Bop” on a beer commercial here, Joey popping up on the “Sun City” video there, and one glorious day when I caught the “Pet Sematary” video while waiting out a commercial break during a block of “Gilligan’s Island” on TBS (airing at 4:05 and 4:35!).
And then I became an adolescent, and oh my God, it was so. fucking. awful. I discovered old Hollywood, and started spending as much time as I could there, which was infinitely preferable to my actual life, which consisted of being a pale social outcast with a huge forehead and oily hair who was freakishly good at English while being simultaneously freakishly bad at math. Any Debbie Harry/Cyndi Lauper based visions I had of myself were completely eradicated. I took refuge in Judy Garland and Jean Harlow and Clark Gable and practiced being wry and doing pin curls. Even then, I remembered the Ramones one day when I least expected it – watching Tod Browning’s 1932 film “Freaks” and recognizing the “One of us!” chant from “Pinhead.”
By high school I was a full on misanthrope and locking myself in my room to mope and listen to Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead. I wished there was something real and acknowledged that I was a freak, I was a weirdo-o-o with every fiber of my shriveled up heart. There was a power almost, and definitely a relief, in being able to wallow in my outsider status. It felt good to know that it wasn’t just me who kept finding herself completely at odds with the Sports! Shopping at the Gap! Prom Queen! scene at school. I remember feeling so diametrically opposed to everything I was supposed to want to be, which made every single cheerleading practice I went to an exercise in total existential angst. I wanted to be sedated – which I didn’t even realize until the seminal Rayanne Graff/Jordan Catalano incident on “My So Called Life.” The Ramones strike again!
That moment brought me back to them, big time. The Ramones were bored, they were misfits, and they were loud about it – and it was a blast. Trent Reznor may have made me feel less lonely when he asked God “Am I not living up to what I’m supposed to be?” but the Ramones made me feel fucking GREAT about it. “But she just couldn’t stay/she had to break away/Well New York City really has it all/oh yeah oh yeah/Sheena is a punk rocker now.” Rock ON. Fuck sports! Fuck the Gap! Fuck Prom Queen! Fuck worrying so much about who I’m supposed to be and just BE!
I was 19 when Joey Ramone died of cancer in 2001. I’d been recently diagnosed with MS and it wasn’t until after his death that I learned of his many health struggles – both physical and mental – some of which bore an eerie similarity to my own. Somehow that made it hurt worse. I remember watching the Academy Awards montage of Who’s Who in This Year’s Crop of Dead People (an admitted annual highlight for me – fandom of old Hollywood means that at least two of your favorites are probably going to be featured each year) and starting to cry when I saw his face, with “The Long and Winding Road” by the Beatles playing in the background. It just didn’t seem fair. He wasn’t very old, and he’d eased so much of my pain while keeping his own hidden. And it especially didn’t seem fair that he didn’t get to see the Ramones get the recognition they deserved. But the others – bassist Dee Dee, guitarist Johnny, and original drummer Tommy, were still around, as were replacement drummers Marky and Richie (and Clem Burke of Blondie, who did two gigs as Elvis Ramone, if you want to count that) and replacement bassist CJ. They got to see the Ramones inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was something to hold onto.
Except Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose (which, ok, probably everyone maybe saw that coming) in 2002 and Johnny Ramone (who, ok, maybe was a bit of a dick) succumbed to prostate cancer in 2004. So that left Tommy. Tommy, who taught himself to play the drums when Joey couldn’t keep up and no one else had the stripped down, non-pretentious style they demanded. Tommy, who bugged Johnny and Dee Dee to start a band until they finally gave in and plunked down about $80 each on a cheap Mosrite and a Danelectro. Tommy, who fought to make six foot six Joey, with legs encompassing about two thirds of his body, the most unlikely and unforgettable front man in rock history. Tommy, who started a ball rolling without which the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Social Distortion, Bad Brains, and who knows how many other would probably not exist – or at least, not as we know them.
And now Tommy’s gone, too. They’re all gone – all the original members, and even Arturo Vega, they guy who designed that Presidential Seal t-shirt the kid with the skinny jeans and the emo hair (do the kids today still have emo hair? Is that a thing?) who lives next door and wasn’t even born until after the Ramones played their last show in 1996 probably got at Hot Topic. (Full disclosure: three of my Ramones shirts also came from Hot Topic). It’s incredibly sad. And it’s not fair.
But the Ramones? They’re not dead. They’re in every group of misfit kids who turn their amps up as loud as they can in the garage before their mom yells at them to turn it down because Mrs. Schliftenplantz from down the street has already called twice to complain. They’re in every accountant sitting in hideous rush hour traffic who turns up “Beat on the Brat” and reminds himself that, inside, he never sold out. They’re in every girl who grits her teeth and makes it through another day in high school hell because it’s not always gonna be like this. And, thank God, they’re in the parents who hand their kids a copy of “Rocket to Russia” because the corporate sludge on the radio isn’t a shot in anyone’s arm except for maybe Justin Bieber’s.
Thanks, Tommy. Thanks, Joey. Thanks, Dee Dee. Thanks, Johnny. Thanks Marky and Richie and CJ for keeping the fires burning. I just hope you all know it mattered.
It mattered so fucking much.