Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Road with the Ramones

Groups such as the Stooges and the New York Dolls are considered forerunners to the punk genre, but The Ramones are often considered the first band to be identified with the label. They formed in New York in 1974, toured and produced music nonstop for twenty-two years, and then called it quits without ever having a hit record or achieving mainstream success, but they maintained a strong cult following, and today, they're regarded as an important and influential rock act.

The group's tour manager was Monte Melnick. He was there for their entire run, and it is Melnick, along with Frank Meyer, who penned On the Road with the Ramones. The book covers the formation of the group, the personalities and backgrounds of its members, their hectic touring schedule, their early days in the New York scene, their later years and breakup, and the aftermath of the band's dissolution, ending with the deaths of three founding members: Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny (since the book's publication in 2003, original member Tommy Ramone also passed away).

The book progresses more or less chronologically. Each chapter begins with a one-page introduction before proceeding as an oral history chronicling the band's history. Just about anyone involved with The Ramones in any capacity - band members, road crew, fans, wives and girlfriends, agents, and other musicians such as Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys and Joan Jett - contributes their thoughts. For those looking for insight from Joey and Johnny and all the rest, this is the book to check out. The only notable voice missing is Richie Ramone, although considering his exit from the group was acrimonious (and is covered in the book), it's understandable he didn't want to be involved.

Reading the book, I find The Ramones defined by contradiction. They were a rebellious, teen-friendly rock group that influenced countless groups but never found big success themselves. They wanted success but didn't change to achieve it. Their style combined heavily distorted, buzz saw aggression with catchy, pop sensibilities. Johnny, the driving force of the band, was a driven, disciplined conservative who led the group with military efficiency, but Joey, the front man, suffered from OCD (he would drive back through traffic to hotels and airports to touch knobs and walk through doors) and eventually started doing heroin, and Dee Dee was a bi-polar party animal and drug addict who possibly had multiple personality disorder.

The Ramones perfected a stage show that was always high quality and professional, but the members were frequently at odds with each other and fighting. Most significantly, Johnny married an ex-girlfriend of Joey's, and Joey never forgave him. The two hardly ever spoke to each other after that. Throw in the usual insanity of being rock stars, and the result is somewhere between a music tour, Hell's Angels riding into town, frat boys on vacation, and a three-ring circus.

On the Road With The Ramones gives us the story of The Ramones in their own words, and it doesn't try to clean things up or tell a neat story to keep everyone in a positive light. We hear multiple accounts of the same incident, and the players don't always agree. Some people in the book accuse Johnny of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan and state the song "The KKK Took My Baby Away" was about him taking Joey's girlfriend. Johnny, for his part, admits he kept a white supremacist card in his wallet because he found it funny, but other people deny the song is about him.

Everyone who was a member gets space devoted to him and what they brought to the band, good and bad. Despite the uniform look of the members (black leather jackets and jeans, adopting the same surname), they were all distinct individuals and personalities. Some were good fits for the band, others weren't, but the book tries to play fair and never picks on any of them. Melnick is described many times as having been a babysitter and punching bag for the group, and while he presents life on tour as a non-stop wild and crazy ride filled with setbacks and frustrations, he never appears to have an ax to grind. It was a significant part of his life, and he remembers it fondly.

On the Road With The Ramones is packed with behind-the-scenes photos, passes, posters, fliers, and other images. It's also filled with its share of stories that sound like they belong in This is Spinal Tap. It's a fascinating inside account of one of rock's most consistent and iconic bands.

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