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Mix Tapes From The Midwest:
THE RAMONES Are Cooler Than You

Side A

1. Teenage Lobotomy

(DDT did a job on me / Now I am a real sickie / Guess I’ll have to break the news / That I got no mind to lose)

It’s so cliché to write about the Ramones, I know, I know.

But see, at 13, 14, 15, I would turn on the radio and if I was lucky, I’d hear something that didn’t make me want to stab myself in the ears or kill the guys on my radio.

If I was lucky, I’d find something worthy of blaring from the tinny mono speaker of the handheld tape player and radio that I’d duct-taped to the handlebars of my bike.

If I was really lucky, it was The Clash, or it was the Ramones.

I’ve written so much about The Clash and Joe Strummer, and I’m sure I’ll write about them again. I haven’t written nearly as much about the Ramones, or Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny – and they were equally important to me, in a different way. They were important to me because sometimes I got tired of thinking about politics, sometimes I just wanted to put on a leather jacket, drink a beer, and pogo. I wanted all the girls to be in love with me; I was a teenage lobotomy.

Yeah, sometimes I’d be lucky enough to hear them on the rock’n’roll radio, blaring out of that shitty speaker, as I rode my bike too fast down the sidewalks of Racine. The early spring wind would blow in off the lake, slapping my cheeks pink and freezing my toes through my high-top Chucks. I’d ride downtown to the record shop, where I bought Ramones records.

Sometimes, as I came out of the record shop and slid my new purchase into my backpack, I’d run into kids I went to school with – kids who never gave me the time of day when they saw me in class, or standing by my locker – and they’d ask me what albums I’d bought. “Rocket to Russia,” I’d say, or, “Road to Ruin.” “Wow,” they’d say. “You like the Ramones? The Ramones are cool.”

And I’d think of that quartet of boys in their leather jackets and tight pants, Joey with his hair shrouding his face, Dee Dee with his bass slung low at his hips, and I’d say, “Yeah, they are. The Ramones are cooler than you.”

2. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend 

(Hey, little girl I want to be your boyfriend / Sweet little girl I want to be your boyfriend)

When I wasn’t riding my bike to the record shop, I was cruising it to the library.

There was a girl there, two or three years older than I was. At the time, she seemed infinitely older and inscrutably cooler. She had messy hair with teal streaks in the front, framing her face; she had a black hoodie adorned with punk rock patches. And she always talked to me, complimented me on my band t-shirts or the books I checked out. And I always got flustered, my cheeks made even pinker by her attention than they were by the wind, and I’d leave the library with a silly grin on my face.

The whole way home, or to the coffee shop, I’d sing to myself: “Hey, little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend. Sweet little girl, I wanna be your boyfriend.”

I maintained a crush on her for a good few years.

I went to a show in Chicago with her and her sister, one summer. I never did get up the courage to kiss her or tell her how I felt, to tell her that she was maybe just as cool as the Ramones.

Instead, I wrote about her in my zine. The more things change…

3.  I Wanna Be Sedated

(Just put me in a wheelchair get me to the show / Hurry hurry hurry before I go loco / I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my toes / Oh no no no no no)

Joey Ramone died on Sunday, April 15, 2001, after battling lymphoma for seven years.

I’d known he was sick, but I kept telling myself he was too tough to die. When I turned out to be wrong, I was devastated.  Rather than going to church the day he died, my heathen self lit candles in my bedroom. Rather than singing hymns, I spun Ramones records.

Rather than pray, I wrote rock’n’roll poetry for Joey’s punk rock soul, poems about how, though he had died, his spirit would live on in all us screwed-up kids; poems for my favorite greaser rocker popstar toy, lullaby Rockaway, rock-a-bye.

I wrote a piece for the zine I was working on at the time, a piece about us screwed-up kids stopping our infighting to sit on scummy couches and watch Rock’n’Roll High School.

I closed it with something Joey had said when Kurt Cobain died; something I needed to remind myself of in the wake of Joey’s death – “What are you going to do? Get in the gusto! Go out and live life!” Then I made buttons to give to all my friends, buttons with pictures of Joey and text that read, simply, “J.R. 1951-2001 R.I.P.”

Two days later, I spent my entire two-hour radio show playing Ramones songs, covers of Ramones songs, or songs that mentioned the Ramones/Joey Ramone.

The following Sunday was Earth Day, and I went with some friends to a picnic/party/concert thing, at the band shell by the lake, in Kenosha. I wore my Ramones Mondo Bizarro t-shirt.

A woman approached me. “Did you hear Joey Ramone died?” she asked. “Yes, I did,” I said. I assumed she was going to commiserate with me, say something about how much it sucked that he was dead. Instead, she smirked, and said: “I guess he was finally sedated.” My friends had to talk me down from punching her in the face.

4. She’s A Sensation 

(She’s a sensation / Oh-oh-oh / She looks a-so fine / She’s a sensation)

Summer of 2001, I was down in Chicago, hunting for an apartment to move into come autumn.

I stopped in Quimby’s to drop off some copies of my zine and I happened to glance at the free-for-all bulletin board by the door. One of the adverts caught my eye: “FEMALE JOEY RAMONE,” it said, in all caps at the top of the paper, and beneath that – “looking for female Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy to form all-girl Ramones cover band.” I tore off one of the strips of paper with her phone number on it. “I can do this,” I thought. “I can be Dee Dee.”

Dee Dee because I played bass. I played guitar, too, but I didn’t want to be Johnny. There were other things I had in common with Dee Dee, namely, a pretty serious drug habit. (Unlike Dee Dee, I never had an ill-advised foray into performing rap music.)

I called her number, to let her know that I was moving to Chicago within a couple months, and that I’d love to be part of the band.

She never called back.

Side B

1. Crummy Stuff 

(I had enough, I had it tough / I had enough of that crummy stuff)

Then Dee Dee passed away, on June 5, 2002.

I don’t even remember how I found out.

Did I hear it on the radio? Did someone I knew who knew someone else tell me? I do know that when my dad called to tell me, I already knew. I’ve said before that losing Dee Dee wasn’t as difficult for me as losing Joey was, but that’s not entirely true. What I meant was – Joey’s passing made me sad, but Dee Dee’s death just made me angry.

Because Dee Dee succumbed to an accidental drug overdose.

“You jerk,” I thought. “I got clean. I got clean cos I watched too many people die, or become shells of themselves, and here you go and die, too. You were 50, and you couldn’t even get your shit together.”

I was angry. Half the Ramones were gone, and it was Dee Dee’s fault.

2. I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend, again 

(Do you love me babe? What do you say? Do you love me babe? / What can I say?)

On Valentine’s Day of 2004, I started dating this guy.

We had been friends for a year or so. When both of us found ourselves single, and he asked me out. Our first date was on Valentine’s Day. I went over to his place, and we traded mix tapes. I lost the track list for the mix I made him; I can’t be sure if I put any Ramones on it, though I probably did. I once described myself as “the type of girl who does such cliché things as putting Ramones songs on mix tapes.”

We traded mix tapes, watched Bride of Frankenstein, had sex, and then went for burnt coffee and oily French fries at the neighborhood greasy spoon.

Two weeks later, we were at his place, again.

We were having the ‘where is this relationship going’ talk.

He said – “I’m not going anywhere, and I hope you’re not, either. Let me put it this way…track #4 on the Ramones self-titled album.”

Oh, he wanted to be my boyfriend. I swooned at the reference and thought – punk rock love! – and what did I say? I said ‘yes.’

Two weeks after that, we broke up. Apparently, a mutual love of the Ramones is not enough to build a relationship on.

3. Bye Bye Baby 

(Well I guess it’s over and it’s done / We had some good times and we had fun)

The night of September 15, 2004, my phone rang.

It was a friend of mine. He’d just gotten off the phone with a friend of his, who lived out in L.A. and knew Johnny Ramone, who had just found out that Johnny had died.

Johnny was never my favorite Ramone. He was staunchly conservative, and a conservative punk/rocker just makes no sense to me. (He famously said, in an interview, that ‘punk is right wing,’ but I’m gonna have to disagree on that one.) But I can’t deny that he wrote some great tunes, and his guitar technique, that buzzsaw sound, was so sonically important, not only to the sound of the Ramones, but to many bands that followed in their wake.

And it stung. With Johnny’s passing, only Tommy was left.

¾ of the original Ramones were missing from the world.

So I printed a picture of Johnny from the internet, and I taped it on the wall of my bedroom, surrounded by other pictures I’d printed or torn out of magazines, pictures of punk rock stars and old B-movie icons.

I put Johnny’s photo right in the center.

Then I lit a novena candle, and I cried.

4. I Don’t Wanna Grow Up

(Seems that folks turn into things / that they never want / The only thing to live for is today…)

The years went on, and I never gave up my love for the Ramones.

Though I got in arguments with people, about The Clash vs. Ramones, in which I said that The Clash were a better band, I don’t really think you can compare the two. It’s like comparing apples and oranges, or, uh, combat boots and high-top Chucks.

They feel totally different when you put them on, but there’s a time and a place for both.

In March, this year, I found myself on a back road late at night, driving home to Racine from Milwaukee after seeing Hunx and His Punx at The Cactus Club.

I was listening to an all-Ramones mix I had made the day before. I was suddenly hit with a feeling I had no words for – a mixture of déjà vu, nostalgia, and the sense of how deeply everything was connected. Earlier that day, I had described Hunx and His Punx to someone as sounding like ‘Ramones meets ‘60s girl groups, but super gay.’

I thought about how punk rock has always been at least a little gay – the early New York punks, Ramones included, took a lot of their style from the gay hustlers that hung around the Bowery.

I thought about the girl group connection – in 1999, Joey Ramone co-produced an EP for Ronnie Spector, on which she recorded a cover of “She Talks To Rainbows.”

I thought about how it had been nearly eleven years since Joey passed, nearly ten since Dee Dee died, and over seven since Johnny joined them. I thought about all this, and I pounded my hands on the steering wheel, sang along to that song it always seems like Tom Waits wrote with them in mind: “I’d rather stay here in my room, nothin’ out there but sad and gloom.”

And to my left, I watched a shooting star plunge from the heavens, down toward Lake Michigan.

I made a wish; I said a prayer of a sort.

A wish that true punk spirit would never die; a prayer for all the screwed-up kids whose lives are still being saved by the Ramones.

In the name of the queers, the weirdoes, and the punk rockers, amen.

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