Johnny Ramone

Tidbits

So what did you guys have for lunch? This is what I had. It was pretty good. Never let it be said that living in NYC doesn’t have it’s perks. Of course, there are downsides, but, hey…why dwell on the negative? We all only get one go-round on this crazy merry-go-round called existence! (Or do we?) I’m not so sure about anything anymore. Ya know how…when you’re a kid and you have all of these questions and you completely annoy your parents and they give you answers that aren’t always satisfactory, but you think, “when I’m that age I’ll know everything,” and, of course, it doesn’t work out like that?

So I saw an old friend at this week. He was here and it was nice to visit, because it’s always nice to see old friends. We met and hung out at Hotel Indigo on Ludlow. It’s got some interesting history…I’m not gonna go into it here…but it’s one of those stories. The place is interesting and very popular. Totally the number 1 spot for PartyGirl Inc. Speaking of punk rock…there’s a picture of Johnny Ramone at CBGBs on the ceiling. As we sat in this lounge/bar (that was really dope by 2018 standards) and shot the proverbial poop, I wondered what fraction of 1% of the people who hustle and bustle through the place actually know or care who JR is? I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. He’s kind of like a wallpaper pattern and maybe wherever he is, he’s okay with that. By all accounts he seemed to have a taciturn sense of humor. If I was dead and a wallpaper pattern that would be like immortality. Probably the Ramones don’t really sell that many albums anymore.

Speaking of albums…I continue to enjoy the Howlin’ Wolf comp that I reviewed last week. One element of the review that I regretted missing is that Wolf, for all of his gnarliness and gravelly voiced danger, actually sang quite a few tender songs about love, good women and great relationships. So it’s not all Saturday night neon somebody better call the ambulance music…although there is plenty of that too. As I related the CD arrived broken in a few places, but the company has issued a return! If that all works out well, I will totally hype the place because their customer service is very responsive. If you remember I guessed (and correctly I think) that it would be very similar to dealing with Zappos. Plus, like Zappos, they have all of these sales that they are constantly hyping and everything is priced to move! I just might have to do more shopping!

Speaking of beating a horse with an old rug or something…there are TWO, yes, count ’em, TWO movies out or coming out on Lynryd Skynyrd. Considering Ronnie Van Zant has been dead for 41 years now, that is pretty remarkable. The first is a SHOWTIME presentation that is OFFICIAL in that it has the band’s (and I use that term loosely since most of “the band” is no longer with us) seal of approval. The other movie, Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash, has been cleared by a court in New York for release. It was held up by Gary Rossington and various estates because they did not approve of its central theme, which seems to be Artimus Pyle’s version of the plane crash. The movie has a whopping $1.5 million budget and is supposedly already shot. To put that in perspective, Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic had a budget of $28 million. So this will probably be released straight to WalMart or something. Back in the day I wrote this post on Skynyrd; it’s one of my most popular all-time by views. I don’t know that either of these movies is really necessary and they might even be a tad, I dunno, redundant at this point. Even though I will always remain a total fan of the original band, we all know how the story ends, there have been many presentations on the Skynyrd story, and I can’t imagine anyone needs to sit through the story of the plane crash. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of biopics anyhow, which is kind of what “Street Survivors” is.

Something that is just opening in New York that I WON’T be missing is the Velvet Underground Experience, which is a multi-floor, multimedia presentation that is gonna be open through the rest of the year. I’m totally going and soon! I’ll have a review and whatever pics they let me take. It will be lots of weirdos in even weirder sunglasses! AWESOME! I’m not the biggest VU fan…musically I think they made be just a tad overrated, maybe, but White Light/White Heat and The Black Album from 1969 are both fun discs and What Goes On (with great guitar solo by Reed/Sterling Morrison and great rhythm guitar by Lou Reed) is definitely one of the best songs of the 1960s. The first album and Loaded I played out a long time ago, but they certainly were revolutionary…so maybe the band isn’t overrated at all! I’m sure some of this exhibit will be interesting!

This is a very dramatic time of the year, especially in New York. It recalls something…in everybody. Like Billie Holliday’s version of the George Duke classic, Autumn in New York, which, and I quote from this page: “The bruised optimism of Vernon Duke’s much-covered 1934 jazz standard—which allows that a New York autumn is “often mingled with pain,” but insists that “it’s good to live it” – found its perfect expression in Billie Holiday’s yearning version with pianist Oscar Peterson. Duke’s moody music and poetic lyrics (“Glittering crowds and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel”) are an invitation to fall in love.”

I’m definitely mingling in pain, and I think probably I’m to old to fall in love…unless it’s with a new restaurant. Besides, I have somebody to love and a lot of people don’t, so I’m pretty lucky. She even buys me lunch. How great is that? This time of the year also reminds me of Django Reinhardt’s Anouman. The two songs sound very similar…They have the same nostalgic, melancholy flavor that is inherent in the approaching end of another year. There is celebration, but also sometimes a pause, a memory, a wistful yearning for someone, something lost; like the sunny high days that will be gone until next year. All of the sushi restaurants play this kind of music quietly in the background…it’s all part of a deliciously, classy, tasteful experience. Yes…it is good to live it again!

Not To Touch the Earth

Taking The Doors music one step further (remember, this all started with Johnny Ramone or wait, was it Jimmy Page?) let’s talk about Robby Krieger. He’s never been thought of as one of the powerhouses of electric guitar (he’s rated #76 on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Guitarists list). Yet, he was/is quite the capable guy and unlike most of his peers from that period, or ever, played fingerstyle instead of using a pick, or plectrum if you will. Originally trained on flamenco guitar, he moved on to learning bottleneck, folk, rock and even a bit of jazz, with Wes Montgomery and Larry Carlton named as big influences. In the process he helped The Doors become one of the most popular bands in America and to this day they are considered one of the best American bands ever. Though he wasn’t a virtuoso he played many an interesting guitar part and wrote music that had a huge impact on the popular musical landscape (his song Light My Fire has been covered 974,322 times or something). The LMF solo is a great example of a guitar in the DORIAN mode although that’s only 1 way to imagine it. I wonder what Robbie was thinking. It has a very 60s sound (in a good way). Obviously the above clip of Spanish Caravan, which incorporates musical ideas from Asturias (Leyenda), written by Isaac Albéniz, highlights Robbie’s flamenco abilities and when combined with Jim Morrison’s lyrics and the band’s penchant for drama, a very exotically beautiful song emerges. Below is a classical interpretation of Asturias (Leyenda). (Sharon Isben is pretty impressive, isn’t she?)

I think of Robbie and The Doors as playing primarily textured music with an ever present theatrical edge and very jazzy tinge. Since Ray Manzarek functioned as a keys/organ/piano/bassist instead of the standard bass player this was (and is) evocative of Wes Montgomery and others from the jazz age with a guitar/organ/drum lineup. Musically anyway. None of those trios had Jim Morrison for a singer, but the interesting thing is, Jim was a crooner (ala Frank Sinatra) so maybe The Doors were the second best (after various Miles’s lineups) jazz band of the 60s? (haha) I’m not seriously suggesting that any more than I was serious that Led Zeppelin was the best jazz band of the 70s, but obviously The Doors, along with Zeppelin and The Allman Brothers (and The Dead) did a whole lot of listening to and a whole lot of incorporating of various jazz elements into their ostensibly ROCK sound. The Doors sound was cold and weird and sometimes (when the organ was the dominant riff of the song) they evoked the nightmarish possibilities of a Clive Barker/Stephen King horror psychotic carnival band. Having an eye for theatrical presentation (Jim Morrison was a film student and heavily influenced by The Living Theatre) helped turn many of the band’s performances from the earliest days into a very strange trip on the dark road at the end of the night. But even without those elements, when the band sat for televised, no-audience sessions (because their performances had become a little too extreme, at least in the eyes of the authorities) they constructed a uniquely dynamic sound with what was already an established type of band line-up. The line-up is still popular in jazz and is especially suited to more intimate surroundings as shown in the following clip.

A few years ago I explored the history of one song, The World is Waiting for the Sunrise and tried to illustrate its evolution as “name” players performed it over a span of almost 60 years. I thought it would interesting to do the same thing with one of the prettiest (if slightly insane) songs The Doors ever recorded, The Crystal Ship, which was one of the songs the band mimed on American Bandstand, the America’s Got Talent of yesteryear.

Obviously a HUGE part of the band’s appeal was Jim Morrison’s presence vocal delivery. Keep in mind this clip is 47 years old — this isn’t some shoegaze band from the early 90s. The Doors put out a whole lot of emotion and feeling in this song and no one has ever completely matched their brand of seductive danger and weirdness. How might one try to capture some of that feeling in a solo guitar piece? Well…this first example recalls Robby Krieger’s flamenco influences or, possibly one can almost hear some José Feliciano or Django Reinhardt in it, something like Django’s song Tears perhaps.

The point is not to focus so much on the playing, although I think it is very well done. While it is not as fiery nor does it have the virtuosity of most of Django’s work, the song (like the harmonic structure in Tears) is very satisfying to play and listen to and more or less arranges itself. A very accessible structure, a haunting melody, supported by various harmonic elements that are reminiscent of either Morrison’s voice or Manzarek’s keyboard and variations throughout that can be improvised or not depending on the mood of the player. It doesn’t have to be played the same way every time. Yet the tone of the guitar and some of the harmonic inventions make this much more than a verbatim cover. Here is another version done a bit more simply, but just as well in a more traditional fingerpicking type of way. Notice that this player’s interpretation doesn’t take as many liberties but throws in a couple of nice moves. I love the Fmaj9-Fmaj thing. Artistic license but done in a way that completely fits with the arrangement he has put together. Very cool. Also note that none of these players are famous, but that is the beauty of Youtube and world-wide connectivity.

If you would like to learn to play either of these arrangements, both players have been kind enough to either put the music as is the case with the first version here, or a part by part walk-through for the second starting here. Finally, here is a third version that is a very stylin’ jazz archtop thing. Notice the rhythm change and all of the melodic and harmonic inventiveness not found in the other versions. Great stuff! But also notice it is no longer very haunting — the song has lost all of its quiet insanity. The tune is peppy and has the same bounce as Girl From Ipanema maybe. But, as with the other performances, it IS the same tune and the limit of where it’s going depends only on the arrangement and the player.

I have been listening to more music from the 60s and 70s lately (hence the recent posts), but as you can see, I am interested in how people today interpreting this music. I have been messing around with my own interpretations of various things and there is something about music from this period that lends itself to this type of experimentation. Perhaps the same could be said for any period of music, but there was so much experimentation and blurring of styles during this era that sometimes the songs just naturally fall into whatever mood you want to make them. Try it for yourself…You might find that thinking like an arranger and arranging your own versions of material can make you a better all-around musician in the process.

The Ramones goes GOLD

photo — Long Island Music Hall of Fame

I remember when I bought this record, in late 1979, at this cool record shop located in a strip mall. I was driving around with a soon-to-be ex from high school and we just stopped in to browse and when I saw the cover of The Ramones I thought “well this looks interesting.” The soon-to-be ex wasn’t nearly as enthralled, especially once we heard it. Released in 1976, The Ramones’ eponymous debut has been heralded as genre-defining and immeasurably influential and it only took 38 years for it to reach GOLD status. I know my first copy of the disc lasted a little over a year. I took it and a stack of other albums to a party and left them up against the electric heat vent in the room. Needless to say it was unplayable after that. I bought another copy that lasted much longer, but I guess a whole lot of other people didn’t follow my example (of buying it, not leaving it against a heater).

While I was aware that The Ramones never had the numbers to compete with Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks or Michael Jackson, I was actually quite surprised that the record wasn’t already gold. I bought 2, so that means only 499,998 more had to be picked up by people over the years and you would think that for all the people who have raved about and praised the band for their importance, the disc would’ve moved. There was a point in the East Village, NYC (1989-91) when it seemed like every other person was wearing the classic Ramones t-shirt. It was a very trendy fashion identifier for the grunge/punk era in NYC. Kind of like beards are now. I wonder how many Ramones shirts have sold since 1976? Maybe more shirts than records? Perhaps this is a lesson in perceptions or perhaps what the band represented to many people was more important than their actual music. The Ramones were very pragmatic in their approach to getting a band together and this process served as a blueprint for thousands of bands that followed. They also defined (to music writers and fans) the very egalitarian ethos that anybody can do it. Pop and Rock music was ripped out of the country estates, private jets and huge arenas and brought back to the streets. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were guillotined in the press, Led Zeppelin went to see The Dammned in concert and Elvis Presley died because he couldn’t compete with Sid Vicious. The era of rock stars as ROYALTY was over! Hurrah!

It’s interesting that in this interview Johnny talks about how he thinks The Doors were one of the best American bands. Many people who would end up being fans of punk rock and numerous music writers viewed punk as an alternative to anything that smacked of the old guard, but the musicians didn’t necessarily feel that way. Rock writers have always had this love affair with early rock and roll as the almighty pinnacle of rock’s artistic achievements. “The music never had to evolve past Bill Haley and the Comets or Eddie Cochran…that was the real deal maaaan!” Which of course is silly. Very few of these writers would want to be diagnosed with cancer and have the doctor start applying leeches. Not only did music evolve because different people brought different influences and abilities to the table, but technology expanded the scope and scale tremendously. (Watch a Zeppelin video from the 70s and then watch a Beatles video from the first tour only 9 years earlier and consider only the technological differences) Changing social attitudes and the vibrant energy of each new generation continued to up the ante of what was possible — this is what humans do with everything. Why would rock and roll be any different? Here’s an exchange in a Johnny Ramone interview from 2003 that is an amazing bit of synchronicity given the profile I just did of Jimmy Page’s guitar opus Dazed and Confused.

Jones: A lot of punk and speed guitarists owe a lot to you. But, who inspires you?

Ramone: Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.

Jones: Jimmy Page! That’s the last reply I would have expected to hear.

Ramone: He’s truly unique.

Jones: It’s ironic: Almost every blurb I read explaining the appeal of the Ramones chalks it up to you guys reintroducing straight tunes in 4/4 time, two minutes, a return to the kind of stuff the Beach Boys or the girl groups from the early ‘60s recorded. That the Ramones were the antidote to the fifteen minute-long “concept rock” stuff from groups like Led Zeppelin.

Ramone: The Ramones were never anti-Led Zeppelin. Maybe “anti-groups-who-just-aped Led Zeppelin.” Everything in the ‘70s was moving towards all that. FM radio was promoting an album rock format. We wanted to record something kids could dance to. But, Jimmy Page: His playing is truly amazing. I could never play at that level. I don’t try to imitate him, but I listen to him a lot.

I wasn’t surprised that Johnny listens to Led Zeppelin, but what is interesting in this exchange is this idea of The Ramones as “a return” and “an antidote.” That originated in the music press, because obviously Johnny never thought that way. Maybe The Clash did…LOL. I would be willing to bet that a number of people who parroted this “antidote” meme over the years are those same people who never bought The Ramones album…bastards! Here is Jimmy Page and Led Zep playing punk rock in 1970:

While I have known some Ramones fanatics over the years — they had the shirt AND the records and loved the band immensely — in the late 70s and early 80s most people looked down on punk music and thought it was stupid. But at parties even die-hard haters enjoyed listening to Beat On the Brat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes while jumping around like lunatics. Even if one couldn’t take it seriously as an art form it was great fun when it was time to let loose. In my early days as a guitar player I was a chord strummer and not much else. I kind of sucked. Later, I started hanging out with people who played guitar really well and while their favorite bands were Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC and Rush, they all liked playing the Ramones and other punk rock for the same reason. It was great fun!! (It’s also much harder to pull off a great 20-minute version of Dazed and Confused at that age). One of the first lead guitar lines I ever played was the break in Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. It was in my friend’s basement and there were maybe 10-15 people there drinking beer and it was awesome. I had gotten a Peavey 50 watt amp over the Christmas holidays a few months before and I played Glue and the intro to Whole Lotta Love over and over.

Throughout my life my musical tastes and guitar abilities have been completely intertwined and related. As my abilities grew and my ears expanded I have continually sought out new horizons for both my ears and my hands. I think this is true of many people, musicians, artists, parents…Because of this reason, and as I explained in this post, I was never a total 100% punk rock fanatic. Those people are a special breed and I admire their dedication and commitment. I played in a few punk bands over the years and saw loads of punk shows and had lots of fun, but have always played (and listened to) many other styles of music. Living in the neighborhood that was the birthplace of The Ramones allowed me to see the whole thing from a unique angle and participate in some of the excitement and good times and for that I will always be grateful. It’s a shame that Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee didn’t live to collect their Gold Records. They certainly earned them. They were idols of an era that has passed, but lives on every time a group of youngsters or oldsters count off a fast 1234 and blast headlong with abandon into a 2 minute rock and roll anthem.