The most famous case of bodysnatching in the history of rock ’n’ roll is that of Gram Parsons, the highly regarded singer and guitarist who played with the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers and influenced the Rolling Stones and the Eagles, among others. Parsons, one of the fathers of country-rock, died from a drug overdose in 1973. Supposedly in fulfillment of the performer’s dying wish, Parsons’ road manager and a friend stole the corpse from Los Angeles, drove it to Joshua Tree National Monument, and tried (unsuccessfully) to cremate it.
A similar, if less literal, bit of grave robbing occurred soon after punk rocker Joey Ramone (nee Jeffrey Hyman) died from lymphatic cancer on April 15, at the age of 49. This time, it was not a body but a band’s musical legacy that got boosted.
Joey Ramone’s beautifully weird-looking body had barely gone cold when he was eulogized not simply as the vocalist for arguably the most influential band of the past 30 years but as a politically engaged performer whose progressive bona fides were every bit as undeniable as those of Sting, Bono, and Barbra Streisand. Indeed, within hours of shuffling off his mortal coil, Joey Ramone, known for singing songs such as "Cretin Hop" and "Teenage Lobotomy," had been resurrected as Joe Hill.
Forget that the Ramones made their reputation with songs that sketched an irresistible world filled with dumb and often explicitly anti-social fun. (The uninitiated can get a good sense of this from the titles of some of the band’s signature tunes, which include "Beat On the Brat," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "You’re Gonna Kill That Girl," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," and "I Wanna Be Sedated.")
For some righteously left-wing critics, such anarchic, aimless pleasure must always, in the final analysis, give way to something deeper, something more serious. Ironically, it must give way to precisely the sort of pedantically earnest musical messaging that helped provoke punk rock -- and the Ramones -- into existence in the first place.
In death, Joey Ramone became "the punk who did not hide his politics," according to The Nation’s Web site, a latter-day, leather-clad Pete Seeger dedicated to exposing the synonymous evils of Reaganism and apartheid. Writer John Nichols sloughed over the Ramones’ early comic, Hogan’s Heroes-level fixation with Nazi themes -- evidenced by songs such as "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World," which features the line "I’m a shock trooper in a stupor...I’m a Nazi schatze." Instead Nichols zeroed in on the Ramone’s real legacy. Joey was, he wrote, "more than just a groundbreaking rocker. He was, as well, an artist with a conscience."
Nichols’ two main examples of Joey Ramone’s engagement are both from 1985. The first is the Ramones’ song "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," which rightly mocked Ronald Reagan’s notorious visit to a German cemetery in which SS members were buried. (Originally released as a single in England, the song was retitled "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down," with "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" reduced to a parenthetical subtitle when it appeared on the 1986 LP Animal Boy. The change was made to assuage bandmate Johnny Ramone, who considered Reagan "the best president of our lifetime.")
The second example of Joey’s dedication to political action was his participation in the protest single and video, "Sun City," which featured an all-star cast (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Run- DMC) and attacked musicians who played at the famous segregated resort in Bophuthatswana. Salon’s arts and entertainment editor, Bill Wyman, referenced those same events in his obit, even going so far as dubbing "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" "the group’s greatest song and [Joey’s] greatest vocal performance."
Wyman merely resorts to exaggeration and overstatement, for few Ramones fans peg "Bonzo" as being anywhere near the band’s definitive number. In his rush to enlist Joey Ramone as a comrade in arms, Nichols actually manages to misquote the song at the center of his piece, writing that "Bonzo" includes the line, "If there’s one thing that makes me sick, it’s when someone hides their politics." "Clearly," he concludes, "Ramone was no longer hiding his politics."
Joey actually sings, "If there’s one thing that makes me sick, it’s when someone tries to hide behind politics," a crucial difference that seems to indict Nichols for his own heavyhanded take on the Ramones. One is only left wondering why Nichols didn’t praise the band’s wry girl-group homage, "The KKK Took My Baby Away," as a sign of Joey’s progressive stance on race issues.
Both Nichols and Wyman simply ignore that which doesn’t fit into their take, such as the band’s popular and irreverent 1986 video for "Something to Believe In." The video parodies charity singalongs such as "Hands Across America" and even "Sun City" with a faux event called "Hands Across Your Face."
The Ramones’ most characteristically absurdist take on political action can be found in their song "Commando," which posits four orders that soldiers from "old Hanoi to East Berlin" must follow: "First rule is: The laws of Germany. Second rule is: Be nice to mommy. Third rule is: Don’t talk to commies. Fourth rule is: Eat kosher salamis." Now there’s an agenda.
The attempt to appropriate cultural figures for political ends is nothing new. But it remains a dreary exercise at best, reducing complex and often joyous creative expression to grim simplicity.
In the case of Joey Ramone and the Ramones, it seems particularly desperate and off-base. Even granting for the sake of argument that Joey believed fervently in full public financing of elections, a $10 minimum wage, and the vanguard of the proletariat, his band’s enduring appeal had nada to do with a clichéd progressive political agenda.
The Ramones, who cut their first LP in 1976 and broke up 20 years and more than a dozens albums later, were avatars of self-expression, taking and giving pleasure by creating the music they wanted to hear even before they knew how to play their instruments or write songs.
Along with that came a vividly antinomian attitude toward authority and a remarkably inclusive attitude toward misfits of all stripes. (One of their best-known songs, "Pinhead," openly borrows a line -- "We accept you, we accept you, one of us, one of us" -- from Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks.) The band’s example inspired thousands of imitators who took off in their own idiosyncratic, highly personal directions.
There’s a political implication to such activity, to be sure, but it has precious little to do with what some commentators insisted Joey Ramone ought to be remembered for.