Swan Song of the Century

Michael Atkinson

Now, Johnny Ramone is dead. Like a chilling, not-so-funny answer to Spinal Tap — the fictional rock band whose drummers kept dying in absurd ways — only the Ramones’ drummers, three of them in 20 years, still survive. (OK, CJ, the late-in-the-game replacement bassist, is still walking and talking, but that’s like counting Kenny Jones in the history of The Who.) First Joey, the Frankenstein-monster ur-misfit singer, his voice a straight-outta-Queens mutant-goat bleat, succumbed to lymphoma in 2001. Then Dee Dee, the archetypal post-Iggy hustler-hophead bassist, finally OD’d in 2002. This September, Johnny, whose reactionary militancy provided the group with its glue and whose aboriginal guitar style amounted to assault and battery, let prostate cancer take him. The drummers are, by all accounts, aging gracefully.

Christ, I love the Ramones, but we’re not talking geeky, punk-is-civilization-defining-art, hyperbolic-rock-critic love. I love them the way I love chocolate and good German beer, the smell of playground asphalt and the weight of my wife’s breasts in my hands. I love them for the buoyant, angry, joyous, innocent fact of them in my life, and now that I’ve seen Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia’s bio-doc End of the Century, I love them even more. All successful rock bands beat the odds of anonymity, industry corruption and popular whim; the Ramones also beat the odds of talentlessness. As someone recounts in the film, Johnny replied to the nascent Sex Pistols’ admission that they can’t play with a grunt: Wait’ll you see us, we stink.” No one should’ve been surprised when, in 1975 or thereabouts, Johnny and the boys reinvented rock as apocalyptic hailstorm, and did so with little more in their arsenal than guile and a sense of what music shouldn’t play and sound and look like. Anyone who knew Elvis knew that attitude is all it takes, and the swollen silliness of pop at the time demanded an oppositional response.

Quite apparently, the Ramones were not poetic souls, but because they universalized the pitiful ire of every unhappy teenager, they couldn’t help but muster poetic, heartfelt reactions. Every obituarist chronicling the guys’ domino drop these last four years has been thunderstruck by the intimate connection they made with the group as youngsters. But if we all grew up, the Ramones never did. As the movie makes clear, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee were lifelong martyrs to adolescent-reject misery — they never matured, just got older, never changed how they looked or what they played, never stopped fighting with each other and resenting the world for how unaccepted they were as teens. They remain, in fact, impossible not to love.

A conventional hodgepodge of interviews and video clips, the documentary is profoundly mournful, albeit kneecapped by the lack of decent performance footage. (The Ramones were never popular phenoms, so you don’t have a The Kids Are Alright array of material to sort through.) All the stories told about the band’s initial impressions are the same: On stage, they were the sonic equivalent to a sudden fist in the face, playing short, defiantly simple, hellaciously loud songs, no pauses, no patter, ripping it out as if they had to hurry before the roof caved in. Though doggedly self-defined, in tone and dress, as a homogenized gang, here individuals emerge. Tommy the pioneer drummer-conceptualizer seems relieved he quit the band, while Dee Dee affects the junkie’s sang froid. Johnny is as bullnosed in interview as he was when he was bleeding on his guitar strings, but he’s also surprisingly open and frank. Joey is the most melancholy figure, a still-shy hair disaster whose success on the stage was an indisputably heroic triumph over social ineptness, obsessive-compulsive neuroses and the heartbreak of having Johnny steal his woman.

They’re dead, but they’re still here, in my life. As Keith Phipps, writing on The Onion Web site, puts it, For all the darkness and disappointment that dogged the group, no one else has produced a noise quite so life-affirming as the band’s trademark 1234’ count-off.” The film’s title is fabulously apt: If little in American culture matters as much and lasts as well as the Ramones did in Our Century’s final quarter, now we can say it’s finally over. Adios, amigos.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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