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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

GABBA GABBA HEY: Conversations With The Ramones

This is an early draft of the preamble for Gabba Gabba Hey: Conversations With The Ramones, a proposed book collecting my 1994 Goldmine interviews with Joey, Johnny, Marky, and C.J. Ramone.


(In 2000, a friend named Eric Strattman was soliciting contributions for a fanzine called Angst & Daisies. Like most writers, I'm always eager to write without actually getting paid for it, so I wrote the following in answer to the question posed to us:  What was the album that changed your life?)

The album that changed my life?  Oh, no--we'll have none of that in this corner!  While this is certainly a popular question for this sort of exercise--a CD buyer's guide to which I contributed a few years back peppered its regular listings with sidebars consisting of the replies given by various Famous People to that very same question--I personally reject it with the specific intent of setting it afire and going wee-wee all over its smoldering embers.

It's not that I don't believe a record album can change one's life; I do believe it, and anyway, I've read too many testimonials of such conversions to ever dismiss 'em all out of hand.  And besides, a record did change my life.  It just wasn't an album that did the deed.  It was a single, a 45 rpm single, the building block of rock 'n' roll.  One sublime song on a 7-inch slab o' vinyl was all it took.  Lemme tell ya 'bout it….

As a child growing up in the '60s and '70s, my musical preferences were largely shaped by AM Top 40 radio.  The Beatles, of course, were inescapable; when I was four years old, I saw A Hard Day's Night at the local drive-in, so I'm all set whenever someone gets around to asking me about The Movie That Changed My Life.  A couple of years later, we had The Monkees on TV every week.  We had that great, transcendent TV commercial for Radio Free Europe, wherein an Eastern European DJ used The Drifters' "On Broadway" as the living, thriving embodiment of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, baby.

And we had the radio, pumping out an endless supply of rockin' pop, from The Rolling Stones to The Archies, Herman's Hermits, The American Breed, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, The Castaways, The Surfaris, The Jefferson Airplane.  We had "I Fought The Law" by The Bobby Fuller Four and "I Like It Like That" by The Dave Clark Five, two songs that I only ever seemed to hear in my brother's red convertible, thus convincing me that his was the only radio that played those songs.  And that's just the stuff that I specifically remember being aware of as a grade school kid.

I continued to listen faithfully to AM radio right through my freshman and sophomore years in high school, rushing on a steady barrage of short, sharp songs that just had to be played over and over again.  I had favorite albums, too--if you'd asked me today's question in 1976 or '77, I'd have dutifully answered Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road, with an honorable mention for maybe the White Album, plus The Sweet's Desolation Boulevard, The Monkees' Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd., even--believe it or not!--Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. But these were all merely records that I liked to play, alongside my regular diet of 45s and compilation LPs.  There was nothing here to really change my life.  Yet.

The seeds of the revolution were planted by a music tabloid called Phonograph Record Magazine.  As a senior in high school, I picked up a couple of issues of PRM, which were sponsored as giveaways by WOUR-FM, the Utica, NY album-rock station that had stolen my loyalty away from the now-disco AM stations.  (WOUR also played The Kinks, a band I'd recently discovered thanks to sage advice from my sister, so AM radio really couldn't compete like it used to.) 

PRM seemed to me like a communiqué from another world, especially with its coverage of something called punk rock, which intrigued me endlessly.  To this day, I can't explain the instant fascination I felt with this sound I'd never actually heard, and with groups I'd never heard of:  Eddie and the Hot RodsBlondieThe Sex Pistols.  And, most importantly, The Ramones.

The descriptions of The Ramones captivated me. They seemed like they must be horrible, degenerate, almost criminal.  They also seemed like they might be the most exciting rock 'n' roll band imaginable.  I was scared of them, and I was hooked on 'em body and soul before I ever heard a note of their music.

In the summer of '77, the year I graduated from high school, I heard punk rock for the first time when WOUR played The Sex Pistols' new single, "God Save The Queen."  It didn't quite change my life, but the seeds were taking root.  During a vacation in Cleveland, I saw some of the records I'd been reading about, but couldn't quite make the commitment to actually buy them yet.  That fall, I started college in Brockport, and the college radio finally allowed me to hear Blondie, Television, and The Ramones.  I didn't immediately fall as hard for The Ramones as I thought I might, but I was still hooked.  And I finally gave in and bought my first two punk rock singles.  One was the import single of The Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen," which I remembered from its spin on WOUR.  The other was a Ramones record that I hadn't yet heard:  "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker."

I didn't even own a stereo at the time.  So I had to wait until Thanksgiving break to actually hear my new acquisitions.  Back home for the holidays, I played "God Save The Queen," and it was good.  And then I played "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" for the first time.

It played.  And I stared at the record, watching it spin as it played.  The record ended.

And I got up and played it again.  And again.  And again.  And several more agains after that.

I swear to God, I suddenly felt taller. Colors seemed brighter.  The confusing world of a seventeen-year-old all at once…well, nothing can make sense of a seventeen-year-old's world, but clarity seemed within reach.  I had never heard anything like this record!  I played it again.  And I played it again.

It sounded like The Beach Boys, like the AM pop music that I always loved, and continued to love.  But it was faster, fuller, innately louder even at low volume.  Everything was different.  Nothing was the same.  My life, like Lou Reed (almost) said, was changed by rock 'n' roll. 

About a month after first hearing "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker," I wrote my first essay on rock 'n' roll music, extolling the virtues of punk rock in general and The Ramones in particular.  It was published as an emeritus contribution in my high school newspaper (a far cooler publication than the inept, illiterate rag at my college, which reviewed The Sex Pistols' album by saying something to the effect that, "Put simply, this record sucks."  Cretins.)  My essay became the focal point for the nascent punk scene at my alma mater.  A few months later, Bomp! magazine published a special issue devoted to power pop, a label that seemed to perfectly describe the type of music I loved the most; Bomp! even listed "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker" as one of power pop's definitive records.

In between, in January of 1978, I saw a local punk/power pop group called The Flashcubes, and my fate was sealed. I'd found my music, and I would preach its virtues forevermore.  Many factors led to this point, from the British Invasion and its aftermath in the '60s, to my vicarious fascination with punk via Phonograph Record Magazine.  But it was "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" that accomplished the change.  And, right now, it's high time I played that record again.  And again.  And again.
In 1994, I was a frequent freelance contributor to Goldmine magazine, a bi-weekly tabloid produced for record collectors.  Goldmine was edited at the time by a gentleman named Jeff Tamarkin, and in 1994 Jeff was actively looking for articles to tie in with the magazine's year-long celebration of its 20th anniversary. Since The Ramones were also hitting the 20-year mark in '94, I pitched Jeff on the sheer inevitability of a Ramones cover story, and he agreed.  Jeff contacted The Ramones' people; the group's publicist, the wonderful Ida Langsam, set me up for phone interviews with each of them:  I could call Joey at this number at this time; I could not call Johnny at all, but should expect a call from him precisely at this time.  Johnny called right on schedule; Joey wasn't even home when I called.

Disappointed that the interview was apparently not going to happen, I left a message on Joey's answering machine. Joey called me back, apologized profusely, and asked me if we could still do the interview, like, maybe an hour from now, ya know?  I was delighted to comply.

(After speaking with Joey for something like two and a half hours that night, I was flabbergasted when he called me back unexpectedly a week later.  Having covered The Ramones' history in our initial conversation, Joey wanted to be sure I knew about his other current projects:  a duet with General Johnson [formerly of The Chairmen Of The Board] on a Southern beach music cover of "Rockaway Beach," which would be included on a compilation called Godchildren Of Soul; a recording project with his brother, Mickey Leigh, billed as Sibling Rivalry, covering Blodwyn Pig's "See My Way;" his appearance on a songwriters' showcase compilation called In Their Own Words, singing "I Wanna Be Sedated" with musical support from Adny Shernoff of The Dictators; and his desire to work again with Holly Beth Vincent [ex of Holly and the Italians], with whom Joey had dueted on a cover of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" for single release back in 1982.  Unprepared for the call, I didn't have a cassette ready to record the conversation, so I just scribbled notes as fast as I could.  It still ranks as the most pleasant surprise phone call I've ever received, to pick up the receiver and hear, "Hi, Carl?  It's Joey Ramone.")

Ida was only able to set up interviews with the then-current members of the band.  I also very much wanted to interview Tommy Ramone, and Richie Ramone, and I was dying to get in touch with Dee Dee Ramone.  But these were not to be.  That said, the interviews with Joey, Johnny, Marky, and C. J. were everything I could hope they'd be.  My wife Brenda helped me transcribe the hours of tapes, and then I tried to assemble them all into something resembling a conversation, creating the illusion of all four Ramones sitting and chatting together at the same time.

At the time, no one knew how unlikely that would be, to ever have all of The Ramones together, sitting and chatting at the same time.  In later years, we'd find out that Joey and Johnny hated each other, that they virtually never spoke to each other, that tension was a way of life if you were a Ramone.  There are hints of that tension in these interviews, but it was still a secret, and none of the brudderhood was prepared to reveal that to outsiders.  Semper Fi.

I went into this project unapologetically starry-eyed. Still am, really.  I had always felt that The Ramones did not get their just due, and I wanted to give them a spotlight, a cover story, a big ol' showcase for the members of the band to tell their own tale. The resulting piece, "Twenty Years Of 'Gabba Gabba Hey':  The Few, The Proud, The Ramones," was published in the September 30, 1994 issue of Goldmine.  When The Ramones were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the hall's website cited my original article in its short list of "Recommended Reading" on The Ramones.  (How short was the list?  Three items.  The list consisted of Jim Bessman's terrific book Ramones:  An American Band, a late '70s article from Rolling Stone, and my Goldmine piece.  I'll risk the sin of pride and say that's kind of a big deal.)

Periodicals have a limited shelf life, so this material has effectively been out of print for over 20 years.  It's time we fixed that.  Hey-ho…ya know?

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