Postmodern Conservative

Carl’s Rock Songbook No. 99: The Ramones as Holocaust-Haunted Pop Art

Slight change of Songbook plans—I’m delaying the series on Lennon’s “Imagine” to say a few more things about The Ramones and punk rock, given the interest generated by my recent post.

Earlier this summer, my wife and I saw CBGB, a film on the seminal punk-rock club of the same name, and it led to our doing some reading.  One of the books was The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s:  A Secret History of Jewish Punk, by Steven Lee Beeber.  Its main take-away is that lots of the key figures in early punk-rock/new-wave, e.g., Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman, Hilly Kristal (owner of CBGB’s), Lenny Kaye (compiler of the Nuggets album and guitarist for Patti Smith), Chris Stein (co-leader of Blondie), 4/5 of The Dictators, half of The Ramones, and half of the creators of Punk magazine were Jewish.  Beeber also tells us that Richard Hell of Television was half-Jewish, Patti Smith at one time wanted to convert to Judaism, that many of the early punks were influenced by the Jewish humor tradition as revolutionized by Lenny Bruce, and that quite a few of them, Jewish or not, had a striking interest in…the Nazis.  

The most fascinating thing about the book is the light it sheds on The Ramones, and especially the late Tommy Ramone.  While we usually think of Johnny or Joey as being the quintessential Ramone, it turns out that Tommy was the architect.  He was a Hungarian Jew who along with his parents escaped the rising anti-Semitism and communist oppression of 1956 Hungary (his extended family had been wiped out by the Nazis), and yet, he let few of his music associates know this.  A quick summary of what you can learn from Beeber about Tommy—real name Tamas Erdelyi–was provided by The Jewish Forward, but here I’ll give you some quotes:

As first manager Danny Fields says:  “[Tommy] designed the band…it was Tommy that told us, you know the guitarist stands here, the lead singer never moves, there is no spotlight, all of that.”  …Or as Ramones tour manager Monte Melnick puts it, “It was his concept…he brought them together.”

…Though Johnny resisted bringing Joey [lead singer Jeffry Hyman] into the group, saying that he was too odd-looking, Tommy persisted, explaining to his bandmate that this was the point. “He was another one of the colorful characters I thought of when I envisioned putting together a band using my friends from Forest Hills,” Tommy says.  “He was the kind of guy people looked at twice…the perfect outsider for the Andy Warhol movie I had in mind.”

Forest Hills was not just any outer-borough neighborhood, but a heavily Jewish one.  Johnny (John Cummings, from a working class Catholic family) and Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin, son of an unhappy union between an American soldier and a German woman during the post-WWII occupation) were minorities there.  Dee Dee flirted with Nazi symbols early on as way to rebel against his abusive father, and this leaked into his lyrics.

Dee Dee wasn’t the only one to have conflicted feelings about the Nazis and Germany…  Tommy himself expressed mixed feelings without even realizing it.  Though he stresses that he…doesn’t believe Nazi references are funny, he now thinks, looking back on it, that the reason he may have been attracted to Dee Dee and Johnny in those days is that they represented something so opposite to what he’d grown up with.  In other words, Johnny wasn’t just physical and Dee Dee wasn’t just odd.  In their attraction to Nazi imagery, they were both dangerous.  Just like rock n’ roll. 

Musically, the band put a happy absurdist face on these Nazi interests–but they nonetheless had ugly implications and were an aspect of an ongoing subterranean war within the Ramones:

Did [Tommy] know that Johnny regularly tormented his friend Monte Melnick, and even Jeffery Hyman with anti-Semitic remarks?  Did he know that Johnny was recruiting Dee Dee to go on shopping expeditions for Nazi paraphernalia with him, especially when they were in infamously exile-friendly countries, such as Argentina and Brazil?  Did he know that Johnny would one day have a large, autographed photo of Adolf Hitler hanging prominently above the fireplace of his LA home, apparently placing it there without irony?  He must have sensed it, must have known that there was something beneath the surface, something that was roiling there all along.

Alas.  And Beeber’s book shows that similar flirt-with-danger and exorcise-by-embracing feelings towards the Nazis were roiling throughout the early punk scene and its antecedents:  Lou Reed briefly but seriously falling for “pale blue eyed” Nico, rich Jewish girls falling for the Stooges partly because of their Nazi paraphernalia, several punk-scene Jew-Gentile couples’ love-making sessions reputed to have occurred atop the swastika flag, and so forth.

Beeber at one point says, “no Holocaust, no punk,” and there’s something to this.  I.e., the bleakness and anger of punk is to some degree explained as a belated psychic response to Hitler’s slaughter, one that had been typically repressed from ’46 up through the 60s.  I would add that the punk moment should be more broadly thought of as the second movement of the Counter-Culture that wanted to get its bold self-expression bolder yet, to bring the truly wounded aspects of the self out in the open, and stop reducing everything to platitudes about peace, love, and no-cost hedonism.  Whatever was special about the vibe of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Let’s Get Together,” it didn’t have what it took to face what had only just happened in the Century of Horrors.  Nor did it have what it took to face the demons inside oneself, such as the desires Plato would label “forbidden” and “tyrannic,” nor the specific Jewish demon of Holocaust-prodded self-loathing.  As Beeber says, referring to the early synergy between Tommy, Johnny, and Dee Dee:  “All three considered themselves separate from the upbeat, smiley-faced world of their time.  All three felt there was a need to bring some darker, angrier truths to the surface.”

When younger, I heard about certain controversies about The Ramones making Nazi references in song, as well as ones to girlfriend-beating, drugs, etc., but I shrugged them off, as so much of it was so obviously a joke.  As you get older, however, you become aware of the possibility of hiding half-affirmations within irony, joking, and shock-value games.  That seems to be what Dee Dee and Johnny were up to.  Having absurdist songs about self-destructive drug-abuse and Nazis was a way to annoy smiley hippies, sure, but to some degree known only to themselves it was also a way of saying for me, these things are good.  Beeber argues that in 1985, the Jewish half of the band in a symbolic sense (Tommy was not a member by then) pushed back against Nazi-flirtations through Joey’s “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a song which unambiguously denounced such sentiments via a pretty unfair attack on Reagan; however, I think we have to judge that gesture as regrettably belated.  

Or consider the more basic issue of whether it is good to channel and foster anger through pop music—something generally taboo according to pre-60s/70s manners, and something that the classical (Plato-derived) theory of musical imitation would at the least counsel great caution about. Tommy said he knew from the first that Johnny, “…was…a very angry guy” and that “…a lot of that violence came out in his music.”  And let’s not forget that while you could dress-up “Dee Dee” in teenage-evocative sneakers and jeans, to have a mentally unstable on-and-off addict who claimed to have once worked as a male prostitute in your band was no neutral choice.

Beeber suggests that in Tommy’s hands all these ugly elements became basically healthy through artistic and comic alchemy, but I think you can see the limits of that idea:

[Tommy] …set up a beat that was relentless yet joyful, angry yet celebratory…Tommy capped it all off by altering Dee Dee’s Nazi-obsessed lyrics, changing “I’m a Nazi baby” to “I’m a Nazi Schatze” (kind of like “sweetie” in German) and “I’m a German soldier” to “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor,” the result being that these possibly glorifying lyrics became parodic.  Like Mel Brooks in The Producers, Tommy reduced his “Hotsy-Totsy Nazis” to caricatures who were more laughable than frightening.

Prior to reading Beeber, and prior to reading the great conservative critic of popular music, Martha Bayles, my take on The Ramones was that punk-rock had blown it by following the example of the Sex Pistols instead of theirs.  But the facts makes such naïve championship impossible.  Despite his overall booster-ism, Beeber’s book shows you that their evocation of the rock n’ roll spirit and of teenage-pop-Americana, was a tempering element to a simultaneous expression of a lot of darkness, and perhaps a defense mechanism against that becoming overwhelming.  The Ramones have an all-American, fun, stupid, and joking side incompletely covering over an aggrieved-outsider, Nazi/Holocaust-obsessed, junkiedom-inclined, and anger-issues side. 

And perhaps, what “generates the heat” in their music is more that under-side.  The main Bayles complaint is that The Ramones created a “cult of incompetence,” which through ineptitude and partial intention, stripped the blues out of the Americana.  Red, White, and, well, not the Blues.  Bands like The Beach Boys and The Rivieras (“California Sun”) were already once-removed from it, and by choosing the likes of them as the rock n’ roll model to be minimalized, The Ramones got still further away.

That is, perhaps the British punks, or the hardcore likes of The Dead Kennedys, were right to mainly mine the darker vein in The Ramones’ music.  Structurally speaking, they were right to conclude its magic was in the power-chords, the adrenaline techniques, and the rapid-fire (but swing-allergic) “backbeat.”  So it’s appropriate to suggest, as some publicists verge on doing, that the highest praise for The Ramones’ music is that it eventually influenced the likes of Metallica.  Well, since I’m not a fan of most punk nor of any speed metal, I don’t appreciate such Ramones-appreciation, even if I think we have to admit that it was intuitive enough to carry the day. 

If you read the comments to my earlier post, you’ll see that I stirred up the loyalist ire of more typical fans by saying that the Ramones weren’t Rock n’ Roll.  Now I wouldn’t have said something quite so downer and mean back in ’76—I would have had more of a wait ‘n see attitude about how their example would teach the world to sing. But it’s long been obvious that the primary lesson taken from Ramones instruction was harder, faster, and angrier.  Beginning­­­ as a pop-art project, as an “Andy Warhol movie” that Tommy knew would appeal to the Soho set, is partly to blame for this.  You might have expected the camp-ironic and minimalist ways of “embracing” rock n’ roll would have placed The Ramones in a sense above it, free from its clichés, but in fact, they bound the band quite tightly to a new formula.  

And whatever box that kept them in, it wrongly suggested that there was nothing more to the old blues-swingin’ music than teenaged fun and cocky rebellion.  By The Ramones’ example, what Bayles calls Afro-American music was not something you delved into and learned from, but something you used, kind of as a “found object.”  So their example tended to confirm the verdict delivered by those German art-heads Kraftwerk:  with the exception of The Velvet Underground, American music was little more than “popcorn chewing gum.”   And of course, if the (rather German) judgment that American culture amounted to Mickey Mouse were true, punkifying it might be the way to go.

So I will conclude by asking you to entertain the idea, with all due respect for the ingenious improvised responses of Tommy, The Ramones, and a few other punk pioneers to their situation, that the life-affirming qualities of a music rooted in the travails of American Slavery could have provided a more substantial measure of healing to those haunted by the European Holocaust, had they listened to it more deeply, and been less impressed by the typical twentieth-century avant-gardists like Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, etc.   A bit more Ralph Ellison, who right at the start of Invisible Man said “I know now that few really listen to this music,” and a whole lot less “European Son,” would have been better for those who became known as punk rockers. And for us.

However, I will add this: The Ramones seemed to have known that, all duties to irony and modern angst aside,  joy was still the main point.  That’s the case whether I should refuse to call their best approximations of the genre (such as  “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker”) rock n’ roll or not, or whether they should­­ have packaged their whole project as punk rock or not.  For whatever else we may say, Nazi Germany’s long shadow is utterly and rightly forgotten by the spirit that animates a song like “Sheena.” 

P.S.  I invite Christopher Wolfe, and our recent commenter George, to go to town in correcting any mistakes or misinterpretations made by Beeber or myself.

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