I am a relic, standing in front of a reliquary.
The leather jackets are the hardest to face, hanging there like empty husks. The Ramones always wore their leather jackets. It could be 80 degrees onstage in August, and they were wearing their jackets onstage. The one time they tried to abandon the jackets in order to ‘soften’ their images (around the time of their sixth album, End of the Century), the exhibit notes “the experiment was not a success.” It feels like any second The Ramones are just going to walk around the corner–Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee–and put their jackets on, and everything’s going to be okay again.
Except that it’s not, and they’re all gone, and I’m standing in the middle of a museum exhibit where magazines I read every word of and posters I hung on my walls and records I wore out are arranged in historical displays or locked behind glass. Around me, other museum visitors are walking through the exhibit and observing it like it wasn’t real life, as though these were artifacts from hundreds of years ago, used by people whose lives were very different than theirs. Except that it was real to me, and here I am now, standing in the middle of all of it, with actual memories of owning that poster, listening to that record a million times, or proudly wearing that T-shirt to high school and getting shoved into a locker because of it.
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40 years after the release of their first groundbreaking album, local boys The Ramones are being honored by an exhibit at the Queens Museum, titled Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk. If you’ve never heard of the Queens Museum, it’s located out in Flushing Meadows Park, the former grounds for the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs. The museum building itself was constructed to house the New York City Pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair. Today its neighbors include the National Tennis Center and Citi Field. To get there, take the 7 train to Mets-Willets Point, exit away from the ballpark, and head through the park towards the Unisphere. It is very Queens.
Hey! Ho! Let’s Go consists of three rooms full of memorabilia: photographs, posters, stage props and history, executed in a clean, clear flow from section to section. Room one covers the basics: the band’s journey to CBGB’s, the birth of punk–necessary to place them in context–and their records and music. Room two focuses on touring, clothing and instruments. The third room is full of imagery and logos, the band’s various solo outings, and their legacy. And the final room is dedicated to screening live footage.
It’s a very strange experience to go to a proper museum exhibit where you own many of the items now carefully showcased, where you know the stories and explanations displayed on the walls. I can skip the vitrine full of magazines, because I read those articles in Rock Scene or New York Rocker or the Soho News dozens of times, committing the stories and legends to memory. The record covers, the photographs from album shoots, the memorabilia. I take a mental inventory in my mind: is everything here that I expect to see? Is everyone accounted for? Is the story correct and true?
Hey! Ho! Let’s Go is an exhibit that tells the story of the Ramones, and of punk rock, but even if you (like me) were just a fan of the band, if you grew up with this music, it’s your story too, and you have an emotional and very personal investment in having it represented correctly. It’s hard to imagine it now, but back in their heyday, when the Ramones were alive and making records, publicly proclaiming your affinity to the band was a dangerous act. Wearing a Ramones shirt–which, back then, you could only buy if you went to a concert, or lived in a big enough city to have a cool record store–could either mean you’d make a friend or you’d get something thrown at you from a passing car.
Photo by Danny Fields
I understand, intellectually, why this exhibit exists, and I’m glad and fiercely proud that the band are finally getting the recognition they deserve. It’s important that the history is preserved, and I’m happy for people who weren’t lucky enough to grow up with the band to be able to see all of this in person. But standing in the Queens Museum surrounded by my past was devastating. I remember when Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee were wearing those clothes, actual, real-time, pictures in my brain, memories from real life and not books or videos or movies. So I stood in front of those leather jackets for as long as I needed to, not caring that I might be standing where someone wanted to take a photograph. I stood to pay tribute, sort through memories, and feel lucky that I can remember it at all.
There’s Ramones music playing through the exhibit, but it’s an open space, so the volume is unacceptably low: the Ramones are not meant to be soothing, light background music. I decide to go in with headphones and my own Ramones playlist, because I am there by myself on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and I didn’t want to be driven insane by the chatter of random tourists strolling through. That allowed me a reasonable volume level and let me personalize the experience for myself.
The excellent exhibit brochure proudly announces, “They grew up in a small neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens. After they moved to the East Village in the 1970’s, their music and image changed the world forever.” That’s written on the flip side of the brochure, which features a custom-drawn New York City map by John Holmstrom of PUNK Magazine fame. The image is framed on the wall at the beginning of the exhibit, adjacent to the section covering the band’s childhood and Queens roots, and is such a perfect and compelling image that I spend my first walk-through of the exhibit hoping it was being sold as a poster, before opening the brochure and finding it there for everyone to take home and enjoy. The map places the band in the context of the Five Boroughs in Holmstrom’s unmistakable style, marking relevant Ramone landmarks in Forest Hills, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as a couple in “Lawn Guyland” and “Noo Joisey.”
The right names, the familiar names, are on the walls (literally, in the case of PUNK magazine co-founder and Please Kill Me author Legs McNeil, who scrawled the lyrics to “Pinhead” in one section), in the cases, and in the brochure. That list of names is, of course, dwindling, seemingly every day.
The dearth of material from the band’s pre-Ramones early years seems disappointing–if not for this exhibit, then when?–but it’s important to remember that these were the pre-cellphone days, when you had to own a camera and be able to afford not only buying film, but also to getting it developed. Not everything that ever happened back then was photographed or filmed, especially not by a bunch of guys from Queens who carried their guitars on the subway.
But once the band moved to CBGB’s, the photos are endless. Manager Danny Fields (who just published an amazing book of his photographs) captured as much as he could, and other photographers on the scene–Godlis, Bob Gruen, Roberta Bayley–were there too. There’s a lot of professional rock and roll photography in the exhibit and it’s well-chosen and at a size you can enjoy and appreciate. Even if you’ve seen these photographs in books or magazines hundreds of times, there’s nothing like a large, museum quality print.
Photo by Danny Fields
Room 2 has the most for the diehards, beginning with one wall of memorabilia from long-suffering road manager Monte Melnick, who seems to have kept everything from his time with the band. This ranges from snapshots of the band on the road to laminates, old riders and tour itineraries and other paperwork, down to the band’s visa applications for Japan. The snapshots were the sweetest and the most poignant, because the poses are informal and it feels like you’re looking through a shoebox filled with your friend’s old vacation photos–again, even if you’ve seen them before, seeing the actual photograph is always different, and it’s an intimate, welcome corner of the exhibit. Johnny’s legendary datebook, where he kept track of every show the band did, including who they played with and what they were paid, is here as well, open to a page from when they were on tour with Iggy Pop.
The next logical part of the section of the exhibit about the Ramones on the road is, of course, equipment. And there are amps and snare drum and a towering stack of road-worn Marshall amps, but there are also those three leather jackets hanging on the wall. Nearby is a pair of jeans with the knee blown out, an Uncle Floyd t-shirt, and a lonely, solo black sneaker inside a glass case.
Overall, the exhibit does an excellent job of presenting the importance of the band’s visual identity, which probably helps justify the idea of a museum exhibit, but also happens to be true. It was hard for me as a teenager to realize that the Ramones weren’t more mainstream than they actually were, because that side of things was just so tight, the artwork and the consistent, tight, crisp logo. But–you can talk about their visual identity and their branding as much as you want, but the point of it all was that they wore the stuff they wore because it was the stuff they wore. You just viewed vitrines full of candid road photos in which they were wearing clothes just like what you just saw hanging on the wall, which of course makes it that much more heartbreaking.
The exhibit gives props to the artists and the photographers that were part of the band’s visual identity, none more so than “Fifth Ramone” Arturo Vega, also known as the man who created one of rock and roll’s best logos. He created the now-infamous Ramones eagle crest, the sign that, worn on a t-shirt or a button, used to communicate “one of us” across a crowded room at a party or concert or record store. The thing that used to get me shoved into the lockers in high school is now big business–high art. Vega created the band’s posters and their t-shirts and their stage banners, enforcing a consistency of image when that was not a thing anyone in rock and roll was thinking about yet.
Vega lived in a loft on 2nd Street just off Bowery, and he used to hang the backdrops on the wall of his loft. (If the curtains were open and you stood at the right angle down on the street, you could look up and see the backdrops hanging there, right up to a few years ago, not long before he, too, left the planet.) The exhibit includes a floor-to-ceiling wall of posters and an equally expansive wall of t-shirts from over the decades, but nothing was more meaningful to me than the corner near the bottom edge where an early silkscreen was hanging on the wall, eagle logo and that inimitable block letter RAMONES visible and familiar as ever.
The third room covers the band’s influences and their legacy, and chronicles their solo outings, especially Dee Dee’s dalliance with rap as “Dee Dee King.” There’s a bank of video monitors with headphones–my favorite is the trailer for Rock and Roll High School, which I’d never seen, despite seeing the movie at least a dozen times–and a corner covering the band in cartoon and other format (and Johnny’s jacket from appearing on The Simpsons).
But the final room comes at the right time, a darkened space with chairs and a large video screen showing footage from It’s Alive on a loop. Here you can take a minute to collect yourself and hear Joey say, “Take it, Dee Dee,” as your lips form “1-2-3-4” along with him. It’s good to see them now, to have the music at the proper volume, to remember the exhilaration of standing in a crowd at a Ramones show, the excitement and the energy and that feeling like surely the Ramones were going to take over the world at any minute now. It was filmed in London, on New Year’s Eve of 1977, and the band is so tightly wound it’s insane, driving fiercely through the set, playing songs from the first three records, pausing only long enough for another “Take it, Dee Dee” and another “1-2-3-4.”