Saturday, September 11, 2004

PINHEAD. Finally saw the Ramones doc, End of the Century. It isn't so much artful as artifactual. It owes a lot to the "oral biography" form George Plimpton invented with Edie (and bears more than a historical resemblance to the punk chronicle Please Kill Me). This technique absents the filmmakers from the responsibility of a POV; they just dump a lot of clips, interviews, and supers on the table, and leave us to savor whichever juicy bits we prefer.

There are a lot of juicy bits, though, and even the fellow among us who was more or less unacquainted with the band enjoyed it. Of course, if you love the Ramones, the juice is more bittersweet.

I already knew a lot of their history, and I knew something, too, about punk aesthetics and the rigors of rock life. But the movie added details that made that -- all of that -- a bit clearer to me.

For example, I'd heard Johnny was the taskmaster of the band, but I didn't realize how completely he was devoted to his Will to Power: how everything about his life -- from the musical discipline to his own personal behavior -- was given over to a maniacal vision of domination. (I thought they were kidding with the Nuremberg theatrics of their big shows, but now I'm not so sure -- at least in his case.) And I came to believe something I'd always known by instinct: that a band pretty much needs an asshole who's always cracking heads and barking out the master plan; otherwise, as Johnny put it, "everybody just flounders around."

It also seems that Johnny's genius (I really think that's the word) at directing his bandmates' gifts and energies into a beautiful rock machine was also a personal catastrophe for everyone involved. Legs McNeil says in the film that Joey had to become a rock star because the poor, gawky, pathologically introverted guy "would have stood out anyway." Maybe. And maybe Dee Dee was better off playing bass than sniffing Carbona and boosting cars. (He might have OD'd sooner, too.) But our gain -- their magnificent albums and shows -- sure looks like their loss in the movie.

If you've been in a band for more than a little while (five years was my longest sentence) you know what the wear and tear can be like. If you're not completely empty-headed (and a lot of people do get through on that; we are talking about musicians, after all), interpersonal relationships tend to devolve into Eugene O'Neill territory very quickly. After a few years of working in an office with a guy, you will probably have learned almost nothing real about him. But if you tour a couple of times with the same guy, you will know more about him than his mother does. Factor in the painful sensitivity of creative people, and drugs and alcohol, and women, and financial hassles, and you get the House of Atreus plus hearing loss.

So watching Dee Dee gabble was very entertaining, and Joey's presence is always sweet, and it was a pleasure to hear inside dope from Tommy and Marky and all the affiliates, but Jesus Christ, I half-think it would have been worth losing Rocket to Russia if these guys could have become sheet-metal workers and obtained houses in Queens and maybe 401Ks and raised dull children and gotten together at holiday picnics and laughed about the dreams they'd once had of forming a great band. And Rocket to Russia is one of my favorite things on earth.

Because they all seemed fucking miserable. The moment when Johnny is asked if he cared when Joey died and he stammers behind huge violet shades, "Maybe, because of some weakness in myself… Maybe, because he was part of the Ramones, and the Ramones was something I loved… if someone threw something at him, I would go after the guy…" is about as depressing as it gets.

That doesn't mean I can’t enjoy their music any more. I, too, am a pinhead. I pissed away all my chances at normalcy and it is far, far too late to get them back, and the bushels of words and music I pour into the resulting hole have their charms, but they don't come close to filling it. Nonetheless, I still have enough soul left to wish better than that for others.

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