Freezerbox Magazine
Search Contact
Radio Tower
Subscribe to the Freezerbox Newsletter...

I Wanna Be Your...

04.18.2001 | MUSIC

I heard the news of Joey Ramone's death while coming home from Easter dinner, trapped in stop-and-go traffic on the Hutch, inches from the Bronx. It seemed, at the same time, both an inappropriate and fitting setting. A suburban commuter's conduit is not very punk, especially not when imprisoned by automotive glut. But the Ramones' tunes were custom made for the road, Johnny's guitar and Joey's voice rumbling over the tires' purr. My car was lacking a copy of Rocket to Russia to mark the sad occasion, and as I rolled slowly down the road, switching between first and neutral, I flipped through the radio, searching for anything as singable as "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World".

Joey Ramone invented punk, as much as anyone ever did invent a thing that was plucked out of the air. The Ramones' collective musical prowess, which could charitably called 'rudimentary', showed that anyone could pick up some instruments and call themselves a band if they believed it hard enough (the Tinkerbell Theory of Rock). This applied double to Joey's voice, which was equal parts Lefrak City and Sesame Street, a Muppet by way of Woodhaven Boulevard. He could never have belted out a power ballad, and thank god he never tried, but it didn't matter. His bleat was best suited to crooning tales of pinheads, cretins, and glue sniffing. Never held onto a note too long, kind of like huffing itself; short, furtive blasts of brain-cell stabbing.

Especially amazing, and especially hard to understand in our cruelly ironic age, is the fact that the Ramones weren't trying to invent anything. Their music was the odd result of the four people who came together to make it. In all likelihood, it could never have come from anyone else. Unlike a lot of the art school bands that sprung up around CBGB's in their wake, the Ramones had no theories or manifestoes underlying their songs. They just did it, with an approach that suggested zen mastery or idiot savantism. Like all great musical revolutionaries, they did not set out to change anything. They only transformed music when everyone else heard what they didn't hear in themselves and tried like hell to cop their style. Rock was changed forever, not by intellectuals or marketing mavens, but by four dumb guys from Queens. Deal with it.

The most important contribution Joey Ramone made to music is also one of the most overlooked: he was one ugly motherfucker. Please understand that I mean this as a compliment . In the rock world of the 1970's, musicianship seemed to go hand in hand with teased hair and girlish good looks. By this wisdom, none of the Ramones had any business being on a stage. Johnny was a construction gang misfit, and Dee Dee was just plain psychotic.

Joey was a special case even in this crew. Buggy eyes constantly hidden behind smoky Lennon-style glasses. A living embodiment of the word 'gangly', with the stance and walk of a drunk ostrich. It was amazing anyone even let him out of the house and on the street, and yet this monster fronted a rockin' band that toured constantly for almost 20 years. His mere existence gave any pimply-faced geek hope. Maybe one day the world could be at your feet too, and you didn't have to look or sound like Peter Frampton for it to happen. Sleater-Kinney put it best: I wanna be your Joey Ramone/Pictures of me on your bedroom wall. This man should not have been on any bedroom wall anywhere, not even his mother's. But he was and isn't that a beautiful thing?

I first heard the Ramones when I was in junior high, having somehow managed to scam a copy of their first album on my nonexistent income. It was easily the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard, but in a good way. Exciting and hilarious all at the same time. Everything was so stupid and so perfect. And to look at the front cover, and know that these heinous specimens were responsible, that was the best part. Having had girls tell me, on more than one occasion and right to my face, that I was ugly, and not having the cash to acquire a wardrobe that would overcome such an obstacle, the Ramones were the closest thing to hope that I had.

In the wake of my first fevered listenings, I tried to explain the Ramones to my friends. They greeted my enthusiasm with the same kind of absent head nodding they gave me when I recited Monty Python sketches. One pal fixed me with a scowl and asked, with annoyance bubbling over in his throat, "Why the hell are you singing like that?" I was trying to imitate Joey's pinched tones for maximum verisimilitude. Out of my mouth the lyrics, both in substance and execution, sounded all wrong. I couldn't figure out why it was so hard to transmit to my friends the excitement this music gave me.

Years later, stuck in traffic, flipping through the dial, I finally understood why. I was just imitating. Joey was for real. He was using his ugly voice. Out of anyone else's mouth it sounded alien. Out of Joey's mouth it still sounded ridiculous, but in the best possible way. The way that your own voice sounds ridiculous when chanting along to a tune on the car radio, in love with the music and the road. Not giving a flying fuck about those other cars on the highway who might hear you and half hoping the song you're singing will spur them to join in.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
Article Tools
Printer Printer-Friendly Version
Comment Reader Comments
Author More By Matthew Callan
E-mail E-mail Matthew Callan

Back to Home Back to Top

Keyword Search
E-mail Address