Pal Joey

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(photo by author)

Joey Ramone, Cincinnati, 1977

Joey Ramone is dead. There was a nice obit in the Times that ran for two days straight, another one in Newsday, and the Voice ran a Lenny Kaye memorial, but I wonder how folks outside of New York are taking the news. The Ramones never had a hit record, they never played "Saturday Night Live" (though there was a "Simpsons" episode) and their top-selling album, the Spector-produced "End of the Century," only made it to 44. Were they just another cult band?. I don't see America mourning, and it's too bad. Maybe I can supply some context.

Some context
For people of a certain age (and Joey, born in 1951, was just two years older than me) punk was our second chance. We had bands in high school and college or instead of college; we were all trying to make being rock stars a viable career option. But to make real money as a musician (and I'm not talking about the bread-and-butter gigs that kept many of us going — weddings, bar mitzvahs, the lounge circuit, teaching) you have to have the kind of luck that wins a state lottery, that draws a full house from a cold deck.

And so most of us walked away from those high-school bands, but not without regret. By 1976, the year the first Ramones album came out, I had been out of bands for five years.

Through the fog of that party that began about 1970 and ended sometime in the middle of the 1980s, a dim perception of what was happening musically penetrated the mist. And it was so lame! Some top singles of 1974: "The Way We Were" by Babs; "Seasons in the Sun" by Terry Jacks; "Dancing Machine" by Jackson 5; "Bennie and the Jets" by Elton John. By 1975 it was getting worse: "Love Will Keep Us Together" by the Captain and Tenille; "My Eyes Adored You" by Frankie Valli; "Philadelphia Freedom" by Elton John; "One of These Nights" by The Eagles; "Rhinestone Cowboy" by Glen Campbell; and "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" by John Denver.

I'll concede that one could make an equally lame list from among most years' top-sellers, lowest-common-demoninator taste being what it is. But I can't recall another time period with the sheer depth of tastelessness that typified the mid-'70s. It wasn't just the No. 1 one song that was bad, No. 100 was equally compromised. The only good music was way, way, way underground — subterranean, troglodytic, journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth stuff.

Disco and punk
New York City was down, way down, in the mid-'70s. Bankruptcy was looming; 65,000 city workers were laid off; the famous "Ford to New York: Drop Dead" Daily News headline was just a few months away. Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" was filming on 13th Street and around the corner on Third Avenue, looking more like a documentary than a Hollywood feature.

But in the clubs of New York something really cool was happening: two completely new and wonderful genres were emerging.

Disco didn't really cross over until '77, when the BeeGees made it safe for the multititudes with the breakout tracks on "Saturday Night Fever". But by '76, here's what they were asking for in the dance clubs: Vickie Sue Robinson's "Turn the Beat Around"; Silver Convention's "Get Up and Boogie"; Donna Summer's "Love Trilogy" (an LP, and every cut was getting played); The Trammps' "That's Where the Happy People Go"; and the fabulous Andrea True's "More More More" (a tune that will never be removed from my desert-island jukebox).

I know disco has always taken a lot of heat — hedonistic lyrics, monotonous beats, too gay by half — but look at the context. I mean, the Eagles? At least disco was still moving. Rock had crawled into those dry L.A. riverbeds and died. The gays of New York were leading the way, opening a door that led to raves, techno, jungle, ambient, and a host of other styles that still dominate nightlife and creative recording.

At exactly the same time the second half of the revolution was taking place, the one that led to Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, to alternative and grunge, to Nirvana on "Saturday Night Live" with the No. 1 record in the country. In the old Lower East Side of New York, rock was becoming dangerous again, was being taken back from dinosaur FM, graying A&R flacks and marketing departments. In England it set off a firestorm. And it was all happening in a little club on the Bowery, just north of Houston Street.

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