All Good Cretins Go to Heaven 

Johnny Ramone, 1948-2004

Johnny Ramone, 1948-2004

Johnny Ramone—blah, blah, blah. Fathers of punk—yak, yak, yak. Took rock 'n' roll back to the basics—yadda, yadda, yadda. Last of the "core" Ramones and so on, and so on. The bottom line is that of the post-Sgt. Pepper era—that period of time after the four moptops drove a stake through the heart of rock 'n' roll and transformed it into the lumbering, pretentious beast known as "rock music"—the Ramones, quite simply, were the greatest rock 'n' roll band there was.

Nobody understood rock 'n' roll better, and nobody was better skilled at producing a really great stupid song chock full of pop hooks you couldn't resist—a legacy that came down to the Ramones through such classics as "Tutti Frutti," "Be-Bop-A-Lula," "Louie Louie," "Surfin' Bird," "96 Tears," and "Wooly Bully." The Ramones embodied the most important fact about rock 'n' roll: that it was loud, stupid music about sex, drinking, partying and raising hell—the perfect soundtrack to make cretins hop. Sure, rock 'n' roll could be more than that. But the point was that it didn't have to be.

Anchoring the four "brothers" from Forest Hills, Queens, was a seemingly quiet, stoic "hood" with his guitar slung low, his feet planted widely apart, and his right hand pounding out three chords like a driving piston. I can't tell you a thing about the man born in 1948 under the name John Cummings. But once he transformed himself into Johnny Ramone, he became the stuff of legend.

When the Ramones said "adios" in 1996, many people bid them a fond farewell but made sure to point out that the group was well past their prime. Their last truly great record had been Too Tough to Die, from 1985; the intervening years had seen a decline in creativity, while groups inspired by the Ramones became critic's darlings. But I like to think that the boys from Queens kept going as long as it was fun. And when it ceased to be fun, they had the good sense to call it quits.

In one of those perfect Ramones-esque ironies, once they called it quits the Ramones were suddenly accepted by the "mainstream" that they loved but rebelled against. From pretentious puddenheads like Bono warbling out a bland version of "Beat on the Brat," as a seeming "tribute," to a slicked-up pole-dancer pop diva like Shania Twain wearing a ripped Ramones t-shirt in a desperate bid to demonstrate her "hipness," the Ramones have become ubiquitous in pop culture. People who would have never even listened to the Ramones in their day now have a "best of" collection in their car CD changer, or sing along with "Blitzkrieg Bop" when their team scores a touchdown.

But most of these people have no concept as to just how much these silly, stupid songs truly meant to the pinheads, cretins, punks and outcasts who were Ramones fans through the '70s and '80s. For that, you can't blame the boys. While the loss of Joey, then Dee Dee, and now Johnny are tragic, the Ramones will have no ill-conceived "comeback" tours or lame "reunion" albums to sully their true legacy. Give them credit for walking away with their heads high.

In the 50-odd years that rock 'n' roll has been around, it's been everywhere and done everything. There's no revolution left in rock, and certainly nothing "cutting edge." Rock music is a corporate whore and good, clean family fun for all ages. The best anyone can do with rock 'n' roll now is to try and reconfigure the pieces that are already here into something fun, but certainly not anything new. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear now that as the Ramones began to matter less and less, so did rock 'n' roll. So long, Johnny, and Joey, and Dee Dee. We'll miss youse guys.


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