I was too young to have been here in NYC. I was actually 5 years old. My parents were getting a divorce at the time, and I was blissfully unaware of pretty much everything except the idea of getting my ass into kindergarten, which was exciting. The summer of 1976, while America listened to FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE! (and my mother, recently single, was listening to Neil Diamond in her VW Bug), there was an explosion on Bowrey and 3rd that was heard all the way in London. That explosion was the release of RAMONES, one of the most important albums in the history of rock and roll.
Having just seen End of The Century, Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields’ outstanding documentary about the history of The Ramones, I feel nostalgic for a time that, for me anyway, never existed. It was a time in New York City when discovery was possible, when records changed people’s lives and sparked global revolutions. As the epicenter of a movement, NYC in 1975-77 still mystifies me. CBGB’s was a temple of creativity and the mythology of the bands that played there still sends shivers of envy down my spine. The idea that you could see Television with 12 people on a Tuesday night, and see The Ramones later in the week? Undiscovered geniuses playing and competing week in and week out? Blondie. Talking Heads. It is frightening. How do a place and time converge to create a movement?
End of The Century recognizes the unique serendipity of this moment in history and goes in depth to outline the beginning of The Ramones, the state of the city and the music scene, and the tone of the times. America in 1976 is almost impossible for me to imagine. It was just after Watergate, the oil crisis, the end of Viet Nam– all of these national crises converging to shape the national identity. Certainly, the country must have been going through an existential collapse. Who the fuck are we? In the midst of this American confusion came the bi-centennial. whew. GREAT timing. (Of course, on July 4, 1976, the Ramones were performing in London, sparking the punk movement. Fitting that our greatest band of the moment was out of country during the patriotic sales-a-thon.) The film pretty much ignores the national context, but these issues (and the great post-1960’s suburban flight) are seen clearly in the New York City shown in the film.
If I can summarize: white flight, poverty, crime, drugs, scum. This is the New York of 1976 as the film presents it. The films of the time speak to it as well… Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The French Connection , hell even the exterior shots in 1981’s My Dinner With Andre freak me out! Was the city that grim? Having lived here since 1997, I can only speculate as to what that New York was like. In our post-Rudy/post-9-11 NYC, there certainly IS something romantic about the mean streets of 1976. It’s not that I miss crime, or that the ‘edge’ of danger and urban alienation is a romantic notion for me. I like feeling relatively safe. Crime and drug addiction suck. No, it’s more that, as Gramaglia and Fields detail in the film, the city was emptied out, became less saturated, more open to possibility. One of the great tragedies of the hipster revolution that youth culture in the city has undergone, in my eyes, is that trendiness/music/art has co-opted punk rock to the point where nothing feels punk rock anymore. Maybe it was simply a moment in time, or maybe it is an aesthetic that could be recaptured (I believe in the latter), but NYC today feels sterile by comparison.
One of the great tragedies in rock and roll, and in what I will call the New York City hipster aesthetic in general, is the total misunderstanding of irony that has come to define the arts in our time. Trucker hats and faux poverty, 1970’s candy stores, Tv show revivals, 1980’s cover songs– it’s all bullshit nostalgia covered up in cleverness. “I don’t REALLY care about these things,” the pose says. “It would be ridiculous to actually BE a trucker! I am in a state of constant regret that I am no longer 11 years old! I love the 80’s! Don’t we sound just like Joy Division/T Rex/Gang Of Four?” What’s missing from this irony is the fact that there is nothing ironic about a kid who grew up listening to his older sister’s copy of Thriller becoming an adult and covering P.Y.T., even if he wears an old Izod with corduroys and drinks Pabst (ha ha ha. yawn.)
There was nothing at all ironic in the intent of The Ramones. They played music they knew how to play, they weren’t great on their instruments, were unprofessional on stage, and they meant all of it. Their sound was not an ironic take on what had come before, but a sincere appreciation filtered through an artistic sensibility. The enforced Ramones uniform of black leather jackets and shaggy hair ended up being nothing more than a conservative statement against change, not an intentionally funny piss take on The Wild Bunch. If you would have asked Johnny Ramone to wear a trucker hat, he would have punched the shit-eating grin off of your face.
If you look at 1977, the year punk broke, I can guarantee you there were no investment bankers racing down from the Upper East Side to CBGB’s in a cab with their girlfriends and posse in tow to catch a Ramones show. Those people were all trying to get into Studio 54! Today, while clubs continue to draw the B&T crowd, I still find it shocking that the clear path that all rock and roll bands take in the city on their rise to hipster heaven is paved with such a broad-based audience.
Mercury Lounge–>Bowrey Ballroom–>Irving Plaza–> Hammerstein/Roseland–>Beacon–>Radio City Music Hall (hello Strokes!)
Same people, different room. It has become a formula. On top of that, I feel that local scenes have died down as well. Instead, the creative class gets out of town as soon as possible and moves to New York or L.A. in hopes of becoming famous. We have Austin, TX and some other creative enclaves out there, but it has become harder and harder to innovate no matter where you are.
By the time I was 13 years old, I was buying the punk rock records of 1984, and I had missed so much. Fate had smiled on Minneapolis and Athens, GA, granting these towns some of the best bands of the decade. Seattle would rise in ten years or so. But in ’84 I was listening to The Ramones… The sonic blast of Johnny Ramone’s guitar and Joey’s 1960’s-style surf rock crooning had already been contextualized by The Clash, The Sex Pistols, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat and The Cramps. Timing had prevented me from experiencing The Ramones as the revolutionary band they truly were. End Of the Century was a great experience in that it gave me a beautiful and complete picture of what I had missed and allowed me to long for something I never had. I don’t know where we are headed, but I am hoping for an real voice to rise again and carry me toward bliss. And like The Ramones, I want them to mean it.