(Originally printed in OC WEEKLY, May 22, 2003)
Looking at a print of an impressionist painting in the waiting room of your podiatrist’s office, it is hard to imagine that the Impressionists were once reviled by critics and the public alike, that people looked at Monet’s pretty, ploppy little pictures of water-lilies and thought he was an absolute madman. Igor Stravinky’s avant-garde ballet Rite of Spring caused actual riots when it debuted in 1913. Parisians heard those violins strike up and a bloody mosh pit broke out at Le Theatre des Champs Elysees. To the modern ear, Stravinsky’s churning score sounds like nothing so much as background music for a PBS documentary about mollusks. And then there’s the Beatles, who surely never imagined, when they were thumping out a cellar-full of noise in the Hamburg nightclubs of the early ’60s, that 40 years later their music would be sold in compilations designed to send babies off to slumber land. Over and over and over again, yesterday’s artistic revolutionary has become today’s Muzak.
And so it is easy now, with punk having been so thoroughly co-opted by the mainstream that you find Avril Lavigne and Blink-182 performing Disney Channel music while tricked out in Sid Vicious gear, to forget that for a couple of decades after it began punk scared the absolute crap out of people. When Johnny Rotten would turn up on TV and snarl at the camera, 99 percent of the people watching would make a desperate grab for the channel changer and mutter to themselves about how this crap ever made it on the air. Walking around in public with a mohawk was a good way to get your ass kicked by hillbillies in Led Zep T-shirts, and the one thing that repressive conservatives and soppy liberals were in complete agreement about was that kids who listened to punk were polluting their brains with the worst garbage imaginable.
The band that arguably began this whole sorry, scabby genre was the Ramones, although all these years later, time has so blunted their edge that many people now boggle at the notion that the band was ever considered punk at all. But punk they were, and they set a standard that thousands of bands have attempted to live down to ever since. In 1974, when rock was jaded and fat and guitar solos were proliferating out of all control, when mellow singer/songwriters and arena rock doofs ruled the charts, the Ramones were strikingly homely goonybirds who took to the stage in leather jackets and pageboy haircuts and blasted out something pure and primal and wonderfully ridiculous, music that slapped you around and actually made you want to dance again. Sure, every song sounded the same, but it was all the same great song. Ramones: End of the Century, a new documentary screening this week at the Egyptian Theater, offers us the chance to look back at the band, and what emerges inspires frustration as well as affection.
While the Sex Pistols and many other punk bands of the era had the decency to burn out early, breaking up and/or dying before they got old and desperate and irrelevant, the Ramones kept banging out that same song for decades. Most of us can only hear that same song so many times, but for the Ramones and their die-hard fans, the refusal to develop was part of the point. Experimentation was a dangerous road that, once started down, could turn you into a prog rocker if you weren’t careful. I saw the band’s founder, Dee Dee Ramone, perform his final gig in 2002, a few days before he died of a drug overdose. I remember thinking that he put on a great show, but there was something more than a bit tragic about him, this man who had written so many great and famous songs, now an old duffer screaming himself hoarse trying to recapture faded glories on the tiny stage of LA’s El Rey.
On their last album as a group, the Ramones covered Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” a sentiment that was their salvation as well as their curse. They held tight to angry youth until their youth had long since slipped away and their anger had faded to bitter resignation, stubbornly refusing to grow up until a couple of them up and died. They came along too soon for their own good, but at just the right moment for the rest of us; it will be a long time indeed before the one great song they sang stops ringing in our ears.