As we enter the rink, I crane my neck and peer over the contained space awash with faces and bodies; typically reserved for ice skating, it has recently become the new home for open air concerts. Jam-packed already, lucky ticket-holders are crammed like swollen feet in undersized shoes, and probably would smell as such if not for the pungent herbal notes wafting through the stifling early-August New York City air.
I am 16 and supremely bummed; it seems we are going to see our heroes from a distance, equivalent to a football field’s midpoint. That this is the first time we are seeing the Ramones in concert makes this grossly unacceptable. I express my state of utter crisis to best friend Jack, who first lent me his copy of Road To Ruin just one year ago — the Ramones 4th and most “accessible” album to date — which, upon first listen, immediately indoctrinated me into what would be a lifelong club of misfits, pinheads, activists, outliers and DIYers.
Jack is the slightly older brother I didn’t have as an only child; his birthday at the beginning of February cast him as the senior among us. To a degree, this places him in a position of perceived authority to his youngster peers. He also towers most of our gang by at least four inches and is the first among us to hold down a job, drive a car, get served and supply us beer. In both senses, we all look up to him. Personally, he holds the distinction of turning me onto many of the bands that shape my early musical tastes. Of course, I dutifully reciprocate his generosity by smoking his weed, drinking his brew, bumming cigarettes and rides when I need them. But I am our group’s DJ, supplying a soundtrack to our nightly deviant adventures with a Sony boombox and homegrown cassette tapes with my own musical discoveries. Above all, we are comrades, lifeboats in a turbulent sea of adolescent uncertainty; there exists an unspoken trust between us.
So when he turns to me, sensing the urgency on my face and directs, “Grab my shirt and follow me,” I don’t hesitate.
From my five-foot-and-change vantage point, all I can see are torsos to both sides of me clearing a path, Jack doing his best Moses impersonation, and soon after, we are sharing the thrill of leaning against the edge of stage right. I’ve not yet experienced this, though it seems I was heading in this direction given the seating trajectory of my first 3 concerts: last row, arena midpoint, loge row A/side-stage, respectively.
My good fortune mirrors that of a surrounding slow-recovering New York City and its subsequent secret youth rebellion that sprang from the ashes of its critical mass. By the early-1970’s, America had become vapid; the Vietnam War was raging on as right-wing conservatism squelched anti-war efforts, the Black Power Movement or just about anything that stood in the way of its law and order agenda, ironically leading to one of America’s biggest political scandals on Capitol Hill. The hippie dream of the 1960’s was unofficially disrupted with the murder of a concert goer by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang at a Rolling Stones show at Altamont Speedway in Tracy, California. All over America, people were reeling from the effects of a debilitating recession, the first since the Post-WWII expansion; white families fled from major hubs such as New York City and as a result, urban decay ensued in large swaths. To a relatively small portion of the population, the music scene shared a similar fate; the gritty spirit of rock and roll — passed down by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and the British Invasion, among others — had been replaced by overproduced, formulaic bands, replete with self-indulgent arrangements, a muted musical state which author Wheeler Winston Dixon would aptly describe years later as “a hopelessly baroque art form that was beginning to devour itself.”
As a result, America’s youth, which included our gang of city-suburban miscreants, was bored and restless; a musical revolution was inevitable. As the decade grew on, this new radical musical genre coined punk would gain a loyal, devoted following during the mid-late 1970’s, even if perplexing to those on its fringes.
Sonically and aesthetically, its ethos was simple but profound — reduction. From their first earth-splitting power chord, the Ramones unabashedly embodied and maintained this unwavering philosophy throughout their relatively brief 22 year career. As four unlikely and largely dysfunctional oddballs from Queens, NY, they managed to single-handedly obliterate rock and roll by subversion, consuming its best components and spitting it out for us in a frenetic, near-perfect manner.
The Ramones became a rallying cry for disaffected youth who were reeling from the backlash of marginalization as a consequence of embracing individuality and it was in this spirit of inclusion that the Ramones forged an imperishable bond with an audience who were coming to terms with the disappointment of past generations legacies of collective shame and trauma. This symbiosis is best exemplified by the cover of their eponymous debut LP, which features a stunning black and white photograph of all four members pitched gang-style against a graffitied wall, clad in unifying street garb: leather jackets, ripped jeans, tennis shoes and t-shirts. This excited and inspired the fuck out of us.
As day bleeds into night — threads of orange hue illuminating the tops of buildings surrounding Central Park — the collective charge of the rink climbs to a fever pitch. Though I am pressed uncomfortably against the stage, I couldn’t be more ready for what comes next: house lights dimming, stage lights emerging and a track of marching-band drums consuming the space, a clarion call that Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky are about to pummel us with four album’s worth of material that sound more like a greatest hits compilation than a band in the fledgling years of their career.
Their presence is overwhelming; I can hardly stand it. Tall and lean, assuming exaggerated wide-legged stances, brandishing long mop-top haircuts, bangs scooped over their eyes and guitars slung to their knees, they are our rock gods, saviors in the name of all that is youthful. We are pitched halfway between singer Joey and guitarist Johnny. Being this close, the volume is both a wave of sonic bliss and assault. Though the Ramones barrel through songs at warp speed, only interrupted by a few seconds of Dee Dee’s hallmark “1–2–3–4” count-in, we can decipher them individually and sing along because of their supreme melodious quality. We’re also pogoing, the act of jumping straight up and down in vertical fashion, making the entire space — from an aerial view — seem like a cylinder engine that’s run amuck. By the end of the show — 31 songs in little over an hour — everyone is exhausted, as the crowd files out the single-entry gates clumsily, stupefied by the blinding energy of it all.
In contrast to much of the pop culture of the day, the Ramones are real, singing about subject matter that is true for them, in a way that author Donna Gaines would later describe as “rooted in the personal-social struggles of daily living, identity, agency, liberty and above all, freedom.” This is why we absolutely adore them.
Though Jack and I would see the Ramones several more times, including a special New Year’s Eve show just five months later at New York City’s Palladium theater — replete with a screening of the newly-released Rock and Roll High School movie which centered around the group — and though there would be myriad other bands that would galvanize and liberate us, nothing would hold the magnitude of that first show. At a time when we were just looking for something to grab hold of, somewhere to belong, “something to do,” citing Road to Ruin’s lead track, the Ramones held out an open hand that night, where restless youth could experience personal freedom, offering a temporary balm for adolescent hell.