Friday, August 15, 2008

Book Review: On the Road with the Ramones by Monte A. Melnick and Frank Meyer

Equal parts oral history of a band and memoir of a tour manager, On the Road with the Ramones is essentially a Ramones fan’s bible. At turns both hilarious and poignant, it’s a sympathetic yet brutally honest account of the band, as told by those who witnessed the band’s many highs and lows over their lengthy musical career. Now republished with details about the recent death of Johnny Ramone and a brief update regarding the surviving Ramones, Frank Meyer’s and Monte Melnick’s book still remains one of the best musical memoirs to be published.

In roles that included tour manager, surrogate father, van driver, human punching bag, intermediary when certain band members weren’t on speaking terms, and occasional sound man – CJ Ramone likens Melnick’s job to “trying to babysit special-needs kids” – Melnick was certainly a key figure in the band’s story. His book, complete with numerous photographs and enough various band memorabilia to make sick musos insanely jealous, is an essential read for anyone with even a passing interest in music history.

Although both Melnick and many of the book’s contributors clearly share a definite sympathy and affection for the Ramones as both a band and as people, the book isn’t a fawning, biased piece of apologia. Indeed, the contributors’ willingness to address the band’s flaws and dysfunctions creates a far better understanding of each Ramone. The book’s not quite as direct, or as shocking, as Crystal Zevon’s recent oral history of ex-husband Warren Zevon, but it’s close.

Of the four original Ramones, Tommy receives perhaps the most sympathetic treatment. John Holmstrom, who also supplied the perfectly cartoonish cover art for the book, plainly states that the band “fell apart when Tommy left… He was the glue of the Ramones.” Tommy also receives much credit throughout the book for being a key component in shaping the Ramones sound; indeed, Tommy produced the band’s first four albums.

Lead singer Joey Ramone is essentially portrayed with great sympathy as well. At times painfully awkward and shy, many of the comments about Joey focus on both his overall gentle nature and his various physical and mental ailments, especially his eccentricities that were most likely signs of OCD (long before the disorder even had a name). Coupled with accounts of the singer’s death from cancer in 2001, it’s sometimes difficult and disturbing reading.

The commentary regarding the final two original Ramones, Dee Dee and Johnny, is frequently far from flattering. While Dee Dee’s significant contributions to the band are acknowledged (the lyricist behind some of the Ramones’ best songs, he even continued to provide material for the band after he was ousted), many of the interviews describe how the bassist treated himself like a pharmaceutical pin cushion, which in turn greatly altered his behavior. Most contributors agree that Dee Dee was a different person when sober, often times quiet, reserved, and polite. Possibly bi-polar and/or split personality, numerous comments recall how Dee Dee was intimidating and wildly unpredictable due to his drug intake; photographer Bob Gruen says that the bassist “used to walk around without a shirt on in the middle of the night carrying a baseball bat. He was a scary guy. You didn’t want to be on his bad list.” Dee Dee’s addictions would claim his life via an accidental overdose in 2002.

Many of the comments about guitarist Johnny focus on his intense focus and discipline on making the Ramones a success; one commentator goes so far as to say that “Johnny was a super hard-ass, but… they probably wouldn’t even be a band if he hadn’t taken control.” Yet this single-mindedness also came with some baggage. Johnny is often depicted as moody, domineering, aggressive, and militaristic; musician Cheetah Chrome says “we used to call them the Marones because Johnny was such a drill sergeant. They’re not the Marines – they’re the Marones.”

Johnny’s right-wing politics and racist tendencies are also the source of much discussion. Allegedly a card carrying member of the KKK (and the possible inspiration behind the song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”), the book’s contributors disagree over whether Johnny was racist or just trying to wind people up. Agent John Giddings wryly comments that the guitarist “was more right wing than Attila the Hun.”

The book is rounded out by a wonderful collection of various odds and ends. The contributions of the various later band members – Marky, CJ, Richie, and Dopey (wait, wrong group) – are finally acknowledged as key pieces in the band’s history. The importance of the band’s dedicated road crew is discussed, and the book offers a nice insider’s view of what it’s like doing the grunt work that makes a concert tour possible. The band’s relentless touring, legacy, and impact on later musicians are examined without any of the gross hyperbole that sometimes creeps into such histories. There are plenty of stories of hotel hijinks and practical jokes, some of them extremely juvenile and thus extremely funny, to break the sometimes heavy tone of the book. With terrific photos and enough memorabilia to satisfy even the most geeked-out fan, the book also serves as an excellent visual history of how the band was marketed and promoted.

Yet what remains most striking is that the band was able to overcome its dysfunction for over 20 years. The band’s members were never particularly close; Melnick likens the relationship between Joey and Johnny to a marriage that stays together for the sake of the children. While offstage the band had serious differences and their own demons to cope with, by all admissions they were consummate professionals onstage.

On the Road with the Ramones tells the band’s history with both affection and honesty. It paints a vivid portrait of each band member as a person, not merely as a punk stereotype or musical persona. Moving, heartbreaking, and hilarious, it’s still the most thorough and objective study of the band to date.

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