Tall and lean, assuming exaggerated wide-legged stances, brandishing long mop-top haircuts, bangs scooped over their eyes, guitars slung to their knees, outfitted in black motorcycle jackets and skinny jeans torn at the knees, they were our rock gods, saviors in the name of all that was youthful. We were positioned halfway between singer Joey and guitarist Johnny. As such, the volume was both a wave of sonic bliss and assault. By the end of the show — 31 songs in little over an hour — exhaustion blanketed the rink, the crowd spilling clumsily from the single-entry gates, stupefied by the blinding energy of it all.
Music, as I understood it, would never be the same.
Having survived the hour-plus line that snaked around Wollman Rink in New York City’s Central Park on August 6, 1979, I craned my neck to peer over the contained space awash with faces and bodies; typically reserved for ice skating, it doubled as a locale for open air concerts from 1966–1980. Packed already, free ticket-holders were crammed like swollen feet in undersized shoes, and probably would have smelled as such if not for the pungent herbal notes of weed and patchouli dotting the stifling summer air.
I was 16 and bummed; it seemed like we would see our heroes perform from a distance, equivalent to a football field’s midpoint. That this was the first time we would attend a Ramones concert made this grossly unacceptable. Dude, what the fuck are we gonna do? I expressed this state of crisis to best friend Jack — who first lent me his copy of Road To Ruin just one year prior, the Ramones 4th and most accessible album to date — which, upon first listen, immediately indoctrinated me into a lifelong club of cretins, pinheads, activists, and DIYers.
Growing up an only child, Jack was the slightly older brother I didn’t have. His birthday at the beginning of February cast him as the senior among our cadre of misfits. To a degree, this placed him in a position of perceived authority to his youngster peers, as we stalked the battered streets of our hometown in all our tattered denim/Chuck Taylor–glory, siding with neither the drug-addled nor geek cohorts, yet pitched somewhere on the fringe of both, Jack assuming the role of protector. He also towered most of our gang by at least four inches, and was the first among us to hold down a job, drive a car, and supply us beer. All of us looked up to him. Personally, he holds the distinction of turning me onto many of the bands that shaped my early musical tastes, shifting everything that would follow. Of course, I dutifully reciprocated his generosity by smoking his weed, chugging his brew, bumming cigarettes and rides when I needed them. But I was our group’s DJ, supplying a soundtrack to our nightly deviant misadventures with a Sony boombox and homegrown cassette tapes stuffed with my own musical discoveries. Above all, Jack and I were comrades, lifeboats in a turbulent sea of adolescent uncertainty; there was an unspoken trust between us.
So when he turned to me — sensing the urgency on my face — and directed, “Grab my shirt and follow me,” I didn’t think twice.
From my five-foot-and-change vantage point, all I could see were torsos to both sides of me clearing a path, Jack doing his best Moses impersonation. Soon after, we were leaning against the edge of stage right. I hadn’t yet experienced such close proximity to the stage, though it seems I was heading in that direction given the seating trajectory of my first 3 concerts seeing Queen, Aerosmith, and Rush: last row, arena midpoint, Loge row A/side-stage, respectively.
My good fortune mirrored that of a surrounding slow-recovering New York City and the 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, and 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 halted with the murder of a concert-goer by the Hells Angels motorcycle gang at an Altamont Speedway show starring The Rolling Stones on December 6, 1969 in Tracy, California. All over America, people were reeling from the effects of a debilitating recession, the first since the Post-WWII expansion; white flight from major hubs such as New York City left large swaths of urban decay in its wake. To a relatively small portion of the population, the music scene suffered a similar fate; the gritty spirit of rock and roll — passed down by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, 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 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 unfolded, a 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.
Aesthetically, its ethos was simple but profound — reduction. Tossed aside were the laborious and meandering guitar and drum expeditions, as well as the odd time signatures characterized by the era, replaced by primal four-on-the-floor backbeats, fuzz-soaked guitars, and catchy melodies delivered with ferocity and attentiveness, as the initial movement touted ideas of inclusion and individuality that other art forms addressed. Artist Harlan Howard once described country music as “three chords and the truth,” his brand of songwriting an homage to that adage for the duration of his career. Later, this phrase would be repurposed as a drawing in the January 1977 issue of punk ‘zine Sideburns as “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band,” and further interpreted as “All I got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth. All I got is a red guitar, the rest is up to you,” by Bono of U2 in their version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” on 1988’s Rattle and Hum album.
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 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 that they forged an imperishable bond with an audience who were coming to terms with the disappointment of past generations legacies of collective shame and trauma, according to Donna Gaines, author of the sociological exploratory/fan-rhapsody Why The Ramones Matter. 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 dilapidated wall, clad in unifying street garb: leather jackets, ripped jeans, tennis shoes and t-shirts, much like their audience.
This excited and inspired the fuck out of us.
With Ramones low budget, no-frills $6400 production aesthetic, stereo-separated razor-edged, blunt downstroke guitar and bass patterns, tight, economic eighth-note high hat drumming laying unsteadily under sweet melody-soaked, hook-laden vocals, they became the unsung pied pipers that saved rock and roll from the clutches of mediocrity. And this reclamation is evident throughout the album, from their amped-up version of Chris Montez’s 1962 hit “Let’s Dance”, to the background oohs and ahs adorning “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” all the way to the borrowed lines “second verse, same as the first” — popularized by Herman Hermit’s 1965 song “I’m Henry VIII, I Am” (as well as their resulting mock response “third verse, different from the first”) in “Judy Is A Punk.”
Above all, the Ramones were fun, a facet reflected in their audience. As singer Joey once claimed, “the media and press are so stiff…but the kids, they know what they’ve come to see. They just want to have a good time, you know?” reports author Warren Kinsella in his informative Fury’s Hour: A (Sort-of) Punk Manifesto. Their brand of musical austerity served to bolster their agency, embracing the outlier, making us feel like we belonged, something that less accessible but skilled acts couldn’t necessarily aspire to.
As day bled into night — threads of orange hue illuminating the tops of buildings surrounding Central Park — the collective charge of the rink climbed to a fever pitch. Though I was pressed uncomfortably against the stage, I couldn’t be more ready for what would come: dimmed house lights, emerging stage gels, and a track of marching-band drums consuming the space, a clarion call that Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky were about to pummel us with four album’s worth of material that sounded more like a greatest hits compilation than a band in the fledgling years of their career.
Though the Ramones barreled through songs at warp speed, only interrupted by a few seconds of bassist Dee Dee’s hallmark 1–2–3–4 count-in, we could decipher and sing along with them because of their melodious quality. We were 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 running amuck.
In contrast to much of the pop culture of the day, the Ramones were real, singing about subject matter that was true for them, in a way that author 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 adored 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 Jack and I experienced empowerment and agency, offering a temporary balm for the restlessness of our youth in the clutches of adolescent hell.