Punks of Bleecker Street

From the September 20, 1976 issue of New York Magazine.

Last week I saw Dee Dee Ramone, bass player of the Ramones rock-and-roll band, buying comic books at the Gem Spa candy store at Second Avenue and Saint Marks Place. Not that I haven’t seen Dee Dee around a lot. I’ve spied him at CBGB, the bar at Bowery and Bleecker where the Ramones usually play. Wearing his leather jacket just like Johnny, Tommy, and Joey Ramone, smacking his instrument, and counting “one-two-three-four” before the beginning of each song. Last month I even interviewed him. But watching him walk around the neighborhood buying Weird War Comics, that was perfect. A real New York hero in his element.

I’d been wanting to approach Dee Dee on the street for some time. But I know how to be cool when I see a rock star—especially one who wears a chain and padlock around his neck—so I just nodded and went out to walk my dog. Now I’m sorry. I should have thanked him.

You see, I’m indebted to Dee Dee and the other kids he pretends are his brothers. Before I let them destroy 20 percent of my hearing on a regular basis, I’d forgotten how much I love rock and roll. But after laying an eardrum on Ramones tunes like “Judy Is a Punk” and “Beat on the Brat,” I’m happy to report I’m cruising again.

But it wasn’t just the Ramones. There are the Heartbreakers, Television Blondie, Tuff Darts, Talking Heads, the Dictators, and half a zillion other kid bands putting together three-chord riffs for the collection of SoHo intellectuals and street urchins at CBGB. More groups come all the time. For CBGB is the mecca of what people call “punk rock”; and as a center for loud music, the joint rivals the Fillmore of a decade ago.

Still, when you come down to it—my new passion for rock, that is—it’s mostly the Ramones. One of the first bands ever to play CBGB (back when the “scene” was first starting, in late 1974), they’re the first to get a major recording contract. With true New York austerity, they made their Sire-label album for only $6,400 (most rock albums cost from $25,000 to $50,000). With minimal exposure, it has sold 50,000 copies. But why not? They sell out Max’s Kansas City and CBGB.

This isn’t just hype. The Ramones are classic. Classic punk rockers. Let the rock critics keep on arguing about what “punk rock” is—I can only offer the lyrics of the Ramones’ “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” as an interpretation: “I don’t wanna walk around with you/I don’t wanna walk around with you/I don’t wanna walk around with you/So why you wanna walk around with me?”*

Until I heard “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You,” I thought the Animals’ “It’s My Life” (“… and I’ll do what I want”) was the greatest rock song of all time. But now I’m going with the Ramones as vessels of adolescent frustration-cum-mock violence. They’re closer to home. If “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You” doesn’t define high school for you, you never went to high school in Queens. The Ramones did: Forest Hills High. That was back in ‘70 and ‘71 (they’re all in their early twenties). In those days the Ramones (you’re not supposed to tell their real names) did the whole Queens scene. They stood around Jahn’s ice cream parlor trying to score chicks, they drove up and down Yellowstone Boulevard, they ate burgers at Wetson’s. Greaser stuff.

They’ve been playing together, off and on, since the tenth grade: Johnny, the friendly guitarist Ramone who always had a car; Tommy, the short drummer Ramone with the good business sense; Joey, the spindly-legged singer Ramone who once sold plastic flowers in the Village; and Dee Dee, the strange Ramone. Back then, “hippie” music (the Grateful Dead, etc.) was still in, and the Ramones hated it with a passion. They preferred the Vagrants and the Rascals—Long Island “grease bands.” Also early British rock—the nasty stuff. After all, Ramone is the name Paul McCartney used before he got famous and sappy. But that was all before the Ramones moved to the Bowery (Dee Dee and Joey live in a loft a block from CBGB) and became punk-stars themselves.

Punks are greasers with art. And somewhere along Queens way, the Ramones got art. They sing of tough-guy posturing in “Loudmouth.” Their most horrifying song (but one of their best) is “53rd & 3rd,” about how a kid (Dee Dee says it’s a friend of his) is chicken-hawking on the East Side to make money: “53rd and 3rd/ I’m tryin’ to turn a trick/53rd and 3rd/You’re the one they never pick.”*

Gamy stuff, you say. Well, the Ramones have an existential sense of irony about things like mass murder, street fighting, and Nazis. (Their first single, “Blitzkrieg Bop,” was killed by the distributor; just imagine the D.J.’s trying to devise cute openers for that.) Perhaps that’s what twenty years of watching TV will do to you. Dee Dee says, “I don’t understand why people get upset and call us Nazis. It’s terrible. We wrote the songs because we watch a lot of war movies.” Gallows humor has escalated to apocalypse funnies in this naked city. And like all the smart kids of the coming nonliterate age, the Ramones know how to crack the jokes. Check the Ramones’ “form.” Dee Dee says, “I don’t like long songs: They’re boring.” So the Ramones never play a tune lasting more than two and a half minutes. Just the attention span of a couple of commercials—or an amyl-nitrite high. Hysterical French magazines call this structural minimalism, but onstage it’s electrifying. When these kids play, hellish power images run wild.

By now the Ramones will be getting tired of all this philosophizing, so I’ll stop. But do yourself a favor and catch them at a club this fall. They appear every month or so at either CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. Consult your local listings.

*© 1976 Taco Tunes/Bleu Disque Music.

Punks of Bleecker Street