On August 16th, 1974, the Ramones – the founding lineup of Johnny (guitar), Joey (voice), Tommy (drums) and Dee Dee (bass and song count-off) – performed at CBGB, a year-old club on a war-zone stretch of New York's Bowery, for the first time. By the end of the year, the most important new band in the city since the Velvet Underground was firmly in residence there, pulling the trigger on a revolution in brevity, velocity and distortion that still exhilarates and inspires.
On September 14th of this year, four decades and one month after that Big Bang gig and only a few weeks after Tommy's death meant the complete passing of that historic quartet, Jesse Malin – the New York vocal spitfire formerly of D Generation and one of the kids changed forever by the Four Horsemen from Queens – opened a marathon anniversary tribute to the band, their songbag and the late CBGB at Bowery Electric, one block north, with a raw mass of cheer and ongoing challenge: "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio" from 1980's End of the Century, complete with a braying budget-Spector horn section. Malin also fired two Road to Ruin bullets that underscored the Ramones' work ethic and contrary purism over their 22 years of struggle, "I Just Want to Have Something to Do" and "I'm Against It."
Outsiders and Headbangers
On the other end of the night, ex-Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome wrestled with the Pleasant Dreams mouthful "The KKK Took My Baby Away" and Rocket to Russia's "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow," missing a couple of lines at the mike but giving both songs a fondly rough time on guitar. Then singer Handsome Dick Manitoba and guitarist Ross the Boss of the Ramones' barely-elder Bronx brothers, the Dictators, took everyone surfing Queens-style in "California Sun" – a 1961 nugget covered by both bands – and "Rockaway Beach."
Another two dozen, local rockers of various generations and tangents repaid their debts of influence, running through classic and deep tracks from the Ramones' catalog backed by a killer house trio. Bassist Sami Yaffa, originally of the Finnish band Hanoi Rocks, led a romp through "Beat on the Brat"; singer-songwriter Willie Nile put avenging-Dylan octane into "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker"; New York-hardcore veteran George Tabb (Furious George, Roach Motel) did right and hoarse by Dee Dee's "Wart Hog"; and Steve Conte of the reformed New York Dolls played the first guitar solo of the night, combining throaty, rockabilly twang and hard glam, in the Ramones' arrangement of Tom Waits' "I Don't Want to Grow Up".
Of the relative youngsters, John Gallagher Jr., the Broadway star of Spring Awakening and American Idiot, sang "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" with raw sugar and singer Mike Montali and guitarist Jonathon Bonilla of the group Hollis Brown thoroughly enjoyed themselves in "We're a Happy Family." There were plenty of women on stage too, reflecting the broader empowerment in the Ramones' sound and their roots in Sixties girl-group pop. Sienna Scarritt threw herself into "Outsider" like a human grenade; Miriam Linna, a co-founder of Norton Records who first came to New York in the Seventies as the drummer in the Cramps, pulled Joey's softer side forward in Road to Ruin's "Questioningly."
A History That Keeps On Giving
The concert was organized by Bowery Electric proprietors Malin and Diane Gentile (who also sang); proceeds went to Love Hope Strength, a rock & roll charity (co-founded by Mike Peters of the Welsh band the Alarm) that supports cancer-treatment centers and registers bone marrow donors. Joey, Tommy and Johnny Ramone all died of cancer-related illnesses. (For more information, go to lovehopestrength.org)
There were times when the show seemed to be a bigger version of that first Ramones date at CBGB: the fighting pride of a gang of exiles, determined to be heard in a world that isn't terribly interested. CBGB closed in 2006 and its fabled address, 315 Bowery, is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also a John Varvatos clothing store, on a street that has all but surrendered to high-end restaurants, celebrity bars and Whole Foods. The day after this concert, most of the singers and players went back to the hard labor of making music, of being in a rock band, in a city that is a lot different than the one the Ramones knew – less of a mess but one that now charges a much higher price for creative struggle.
But for this night, the Ramones – who called it a day almost 20 years ago, in 1996 – were a still active, vibrant and rejuvenating presence. When Malin, at the very end, gathered every act that could fit onto the stage for a final group race through "Blitzkrieg Bop," it was the sight and sound of a real family, bonded by history and a determination not to waste it.