Friday, October 21, 2016

Myths on the Rock and Roll Stage

I saw the Ramones for the first time at the long-gone Wax Museum in Washington D.C. in March of 1984. The band was supporting Subterranean Jungle, an album that I pulled out recently to listen to and which floored me—again—with its great guitar sound, courtesy of co-producers Ritchie Cordell and Glen Kolotkin, and overall amped-up energy. Like each Ramones album since Road to Ruin, the record has its detractors, among them the band members themselves (but they hated everything). Some decry the slick, of-the-era production and drum sound; some lament the three cover songs; some hate the cartoonish cover. Johnny Ramone liked the guitar sound—aided and abetted by ex-Heartbreaker guitarist Walter Lure, who's thanked on the inner sleeve but otherwise uncredited—and he recalls watching the Cardinals/Brewers World Series while recording the album, and that's enough for me. Those cover songs—"Time Has Come Today," "Little Bit O' Soul," and the Boyfriends' transcendent, desperate "I Need Your Love"—are all great, as are the originals "Outsider," "Somebody Like Me," "In the Park," "Time Bomb," and "Psycho Therapy," the opening siren-wailing-riff of which excites me as much as it did when I first heard it in Regan America.

What I remember about the show is the scarifying ringing in my ears for a week afterward, but there was a current running through the performance that had nothing to do with the band's considerable Marshall backline. Seven months before the show, following a show in Queens, Johnny had been involved in a street confrontation with twenty-two year old Seth Macklin, a member of the punk band Sub Zero. According to an August 16, 1983 New York Times account, Ramone "suffered a fractured skull during a fight . . . that began at 3:50 A.M. when Mr. Ramone encountered Mr. Macklin with a young woman Mr. Ramone had dated, according to Sgt. Peter Ruane, a police spokesman."
Mr. Ramone, who was born as John Cummings, was injured when Mr. Macklin kicked him in the head near the end of the fight, Sergeant Ruane said. Mr. Macklin was arrested on assault charges and Mr. Ramone was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital where he underwent surgery. The hospital refused to disclose Mr. Ramone's condition. 
The following day, the Times reported that "punk-rock star" Ramone was in stable condition, and "Mr. Ramone's friend" was identified as Cynthia Whitney, twenty-two; Macklin, who wasn't injured, "was arrested and charged with first-degree assault, according to the police. He was arraigned and released in his own custody." 

Here's an account in the Prescott, Arizona Courier of the so-called "jealous rage":


Johnny didn't talk about the incident much afterward until his posthumously published autobiography, Commando (which I wrote about here.) He devotes a page to the incident, acknowledging that he remembers little of the attack that put him in the hospital for ten days. "I was thankful that I didn’t have brain damage and that I was okay," he wrote, "but other people said that they saw something different about me after the attack."
They thought that it had changed me. I didn’t feel any different, but I began to be more cautious, and looked to avoid confrontational situations. I didn’t back down, of course, because New York is a confrontational place. But I watched situations more carefully, even people around the Ramones who might want to get too close. I did not want to get into another fight. I saw the damage that it had done. I was now more vulnerable to head injuries. 
He revealed that Macklin served only a few months in jail. "I went to court and testified," he wrote. "I never heard from him again. I was very angry. I wanted him killed. I'm all for capital punishment. I think it should be televised." Afterward Johnny worried about going soft, and he peered around a bit more while on the street, bought a gun and began carrying mace.

My buddies and I knew none of this the night of the show, of course. Somehow we'd heard that Johnny had been fighting for his life, the result of a street brawl with some skinhead on a grimy, shadowy street in scary New York City. I hadn't visited the city since I was a child with my family, and so the imagery in my head quickly grew lurid and exaggerated, a story telling its own story. This is how the imagination works: facts are replaced by desire, what it wants. Before the Internet, such vivid conjuring was easy, required even. Down in D.C., because we had no corroboration of, or updates about, the fight, we recreated the incident in our heads, giving it mythic proportions within which to grow. The details were murky, so we brightened the story with our own, internal versions. Now: every fact can be searched for and found online, and there's precious little time left for mythology to form between an incident and its instant sharing, and vetting, by millions around the world. Then: we'd heard that his head had been shaved for emergency surgery and that he was sporting uncharacteristically short hair, or maybe even a wig! (It didn't look like it the night of the show, but then again it was months later.) That fall in the tiny record store in the Student Union at the University of Maryland, I looked at the Ramones' new album and sensed that the band was working up a little myth of their own about the incident: Too Tough To Die it was called. On the cover they emerged, back-lit, from a tunnel. Inside they played faster than they ever had.

There are a lot factors that affect the memory of a great show: the songs; the performance; the venue; the size of the crowd; the drugs or alcohol coursing through or absent from your body. Within minutes, driving or walking home afterward, a show can grow large in our retelling of it. Also graphically affecting a show are the stories that we carry inside of ourselves as we're rocking out, narratives that may or may not have happened to those guys and girls up there onstage, or next to me on the floor, but which cast the evening on an even larger stage.

Anyway, RIP John Cummings. Turn it up:

Photo of Johnny Ramone via David Corio / Getty


Anonymous said...

"Some decry the slick, of-the-era production and drum sound; some lament the three cover songs; some hate the cartoonish cover."

To say nothing of Johnny's NIKE sneakers!!

Joe Bonomo said...

At least he's wearing leather!

Eddie said...

the douche who started the fight is the one who becomes the paranoid gun nut. there's some irony deserves to be a song.

M.grogan said...

Any pictures of that show at the wax museum blowing around the internet?

Joe Bonomo said...

Good question. Not that I've seen,

Jim said...

Joan Kornblith has photos from that show.

Joe Bonomo said...

Jim, thanks for letting me know! I'll try and track 'em down.