Last week, it happened for the fourth time. The radio alarm went off, and a “Morning Edition” host announced the death of a Ramone. Groggy and dispirited, I brushed my teeth, made coffee, put on a Ramones t-shirt—cheesy, I know—and went out to face the world, which otherwise continued as normal.
And then the funniest thing happened. I felt great all day.
Tommy Ramones was 65. A lot of the headlines read something like this: “Tommy Ramone, last surviving member of seminal punk band The Ramones, dies.” Which is only semi-accurate, since three former but non-founding Ramones are still with us: Marky, who replaced Tommy on drums in 1978; Richie, drummer during the Marky-less period between 1982 and 1987, and C.J., who replaced bassist Dee Dee in 1989. Emphasizing this seems in keeping with Tommy Ramone’s unassuming public demeanor. He was okay with the spotlight, but preferred to be out of it.
Even so, there’s a sense of finality to our loss of Tommy. For most punk devotees, experiencing the densities of that universe happened primarily though records, magazines, and 30-minutes sets at run-down music clubs. Only four people ever knew what punk’s storied big bang was truly like from the inside, and they’re all gone now. The music of the Ramones may be immortal, but its members were not.
The t-shirt I picked out to observe the latest occurrence of the traditional Ramones mourning period is pretty threadbare. I have three Ramones t-shirts, and nowadays I parcel them out only for special occasions. Wearing one makes me feel liberated, invincible. To commemorate Tommy, the t-shirt with an image of the cover of their 1978 album “Road to Ruin” seemed the most appropriate. Tommy had left the band by then, but he did produce the album, putting his given name, “T. Erdelyi”, in the credits.
Of all the Ramones, founding or not, Tommy was the least Ramone-like. He didn’t even look like a Ramone; in the plentiful black-and-white photographs of the group’s formative period in the late 1970s, he’s a short, impassive, frizzy-haired presence in a band of tall and dark scowlers with long faces (even Dee Dee, whose face was as round as a full moon, packed a long face to put a pouty horse to shame). Without Tommy, there’d be no Ramones. A recording engineer who ran a rehearsal studio, he managed the fledgling band as a pet project and hopped in on drums when they couldn’t find anyone who could deliver the straightforward style he had in mind. Thus, their personas emerged: Joey, the lovable weirdo; Johnny, the asshole; Dee Dee, the cute lunatic; Tommy, the pragmatist. Which is probably why no one ever says, “Tommy’s my favorite Ramone.” In a group of strong personalities, he functioned as a low-key buffer.
Lou Reed died back in October, and I know I’m not the only one who took it hard. Lou Reed couldn’t just die—he was Lou Reed! For months, inspired by the nudge of Reed’s death, I played “Songs for Drella”, “Transformer”, and all of my Velvet Underground albums every day, steeping in the perfume of the works he created. It was as if I was just a young whipper-snapper branching away from traditional radio pop and dipping my toes into the deep, alluring waters of arty outsiders for the first time.
I feel a selfish jab of darkness every time I see a breaking-news tribute to a lost public figure or beloved entertainer. If perennial fixtures such as Dick Clark and Casey Kasem can die, then so can my parents. So can the entire way of life I grew up with. So can I.
But after the initial shock sets in, a Ramone dying doesn’t bum me out. Leaving this planet is the final gift an artist or entertainer—these people whose music and words and images we are so intimately familiar with—gives to us. I rarely listen to The Ramones anymore, so sublimated is their essence into my existence. My heart beats a cadence of “Hey, ho, let’s go!” without me even thinking about it. But I played Ramones records, cassettes, and CDs all weekend long, and I reconnected anew with the things I like to think I strive for. Directness. Dynamism. And yes, pragmatism. Even just seeing the band’s name in its trademark blocky font furnishes a mainline rush to that heady time when I relied on a scrappy group of ersatz musicians to keep me going. And going, and going. We die, Ramones die. Inspiration endures.
I “hated” him. Then I loved him. His post on books is essential. His script for ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘ taught me camp. But his reviews—they’re going to be read and re-read for the next week, to everyone’s benefit. A valiant battle to the end, but moreso a hugely influential presence hovering over all reviewers, whether they like it or not (many do not). He never grew bitter like so many cranky writers, and he navigated the changing media landscape with aplomb. For every small grain of disagreement that grew in me while reading his reviews when I was younger, he earned back boulders of respect and support for longevity, insight and… that other elusive thing, that movies are our lives, that the human element is paramount, and that making sure it remained untainted was the job of a good reviewer. Anyway, I’m kinda crushed. Back to work.
The great Patti Page died today at age 85. She was a singer I loved, whose albums on Mercury are mainstays in my easy listening, and whose song “Let Me Go, Lover” changed my life one night on 960-KABL AM while driving back from San Francisco at 1:45 in the morning.
So it warmed my heart tonight, while searching YouTube for later-era live performances, to find this footage of Patti Page singing “Tennessee Waltz” for a group of seniors in 2010. (It appears to be her latest-uploaded live clip, just after this appearance on Eat Beluga, a television show from the Philippines.) Here she is, a legend who sold millions of records, who would have accepted a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award next month, who could easily rest on her laurels, and instead she’s bringing some sunshine to people who surely remember her in the twilight of their own lives.
According to his grandson’s Twitter, funk legend Jimmy Castor died today at 2:30pm. Nile Rodgers, founder of Chic, breaks the news as well: “I can’t stop crying. How do I explain how much his brilliant upbeat music touched my soul?”
There isn’t any easy way to explain how much influence Jimmy Castor has had on music, tangible or otherwise. But it’s important to frame Castor outside the novelty of “Bertha Butt Boogie.” Castor put the fun in funk, and pioneered a dense, full-throttle style. Below, watch breakdance anthem “It’s Just Begun,” live in 1973.
“The McGarrigle Sisters, they were stunningly gifted writers. They were really, truly writers in the very best sense of the word. I mean, that’s an incredible song, ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino.’ When you think about the kinds of risks they take—“out to where but the rocks remain”—I mean, who else in the world would sing, you know, ‘Never had the blues from whence I came, but in New York State I caught ‘em’? They have that strange, schoolmarmish, very old-fashioned approach to language, which is still in some parts of Canada, and they absolutely refuse to make any concessions to what trendy is, which I love about them. And then they have this really gifted way of just twisting a little phrase. It makes them just extraordinarily good, I think. Same with ‘Heart Like a Wheel,’ which is just an amazingly good song. Beautifully, beautifully written.”
– Linda Ronstadt, on the phone with me in 2006.
Kate McGarrigle died yesterday. They say you always learn something from obituaries, and the common eulogy that Kate wrote and performed something called “women’s music” was my lesson about the world and how it thinks. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. Scores of women have covered her songs. Who are the guys? Loudon, Rufus and Billy Bragg.
I have always wondered why the town of Mendocino hasn’t elected this as their theme song. It could play over loudspeakers hidden in redwoods on Highway 1 just after Albion, heralding one’s approach. Even just the cello intro would achieve the desired effect.
Dickie Peterson, the bassist and singer of Blue Cheer who spent a lifetime oversaturating amplifiers in underrated glory, has died at age 61. There is no way to go back in time and listen to Blue Cheer devoid of their subsequent context—Black Sabbath, prominently; Sleep, the Melvins and Sunn 0))), less prominently—but it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize that Peterson and his trio were on some heavy shit way before the world was on some heavy shit.
Of course, Blue Cheer played extensively in the Bay Area, including the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds in the 1960s right after Vincebus Eruptum came out, but had even more recent ties to this area. I met Peterson a few years ago when he was living in West Sonoma County, of all places, and playing the occasional blues show at the Forestville Club. He looked exactly like an unsung pioneer of heavy metal, with long hair, a denim jacket and imposing heft. I guess he didn’t stay here long—he died this morning in Germany, presumably of cancer. May he be remembered.
Anthony Williams, a.k.a. DJ Roc Raida, has died. Even if you are not a fan of DJing, watch the clip below to see what the world has lost. I was amazed when the X-Ecutioners came to Future Primitive in S.F. and blew everyone’s mind with their choreographed acrobatics. Lots of people on the West Coast dismissed ‘em as “trick DJs,” and that’s legitimate, but tricks are entertaining and they were entertaining as hell. Rest in peace, Raida.
Earlier this year I saw Freddie Hubbard, one of the world’s greatest trumpet players, at Yoshi’s in San Francisco. It was a living, breathing disaster. If you’d like, you can read about the show here, but if you ever listened to this man and felt the transport in his trumpet playing, I warn you—it will only make you sad.
In his prime, Freddie Hubbard’s solos were the very definition of speaking through playing. His notes were words, his runs long sentences. He was sad, funny, and fearless, all without opening his mouth. I have spent cumulative hours with my eyes shut listening to his solos, being taken on beautiful journeys no oral storyteller could match.
There are so many amazing albums that Freddie Hubbard played on I don’t know where to start. I also keep discovering them in my own collection. The hallmarks: Oliver Nelson’s The Blues and the Abstract Truth, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. The standards: John Coltrane’s Olé, Art Blakey’s Mosaic, Tina Brooks’ True Blue, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil. The big-band avant-garde: Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, John Coltrane’s Ascension. His own: Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard and yes, Red Clay. All of them superb.
Freddie Hubbard died today at age 70, a month after suffering a heart attack. He had a really terrible curtain call in life, and it was torture to watch someone whose playing I loved so much struggling so viciously. It was worse that he was so cantankerous and volatile—just truly heartbreaking. Here’s hoping he found some peace. He’s still my pick over Miles Davis any day, hands down.
A memorial tribute for Freddie Hubbard is planned next month in New York City. In the meantime, here he is with Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Reggie Workman, and Cedar Walton, in 1962. He always blasted hilarious grand entrances in his solos when he was able, and this one’s no exception.