At the business end of the Queens Museum’s current Ramones exhibit, Joey Ramone (a.k.a. Jeffrey Hyman) stands almost motionless, his body pitched forward over a microphone like a figurehead on the prow of a ship, leading his raucous craft into a sea of hopping, happy humans.
The footage, projected larger than life on a wall, is from a 1977 New Year’s Eve show at London’s Rainbow Theatre—the Ramones’ self-proclaimed “greatest moment as a band” (the soundtrack of which became their concert album, It’s Alive). Take a seat for half an hour (that’s enough time for loads of economical punk songs), next to a case displaying the group’s 2002 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction trophies, while the looped screening provides a fitting, immersive close to Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk. Coproduced with L.A.’s Grammy Museum (where the show will move to in September), the exhibit celebrates the 40th anniversary of the seminal punks’ self-titled debut album, which contains such groundbreakers as “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy Is a Punk” and “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement.”
I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my personal history as a Ramones fan. And after living in their home borough of Queens for nearly 20 years, I’m even more proud of them—the singular Ramones, who attempted to save America from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and whose nonstop shows and joyous noise helped define New York City in the 1970s. This exhibit is, above all, for the fans.
It begins with a specially commissioned map by Punk magazine cofounder John Holmstrom, charting the Ramones’ path from Queens to CBGB, the Bowery’s ground zero for punk rock. The background music playing in the galleries is from a Ramones demo, circa 1975, the typewritten cover letter of which, written by then-manager and drummer Tommy Ramone (né Erdelyi), describes the band’s origins in Forest Hills. Explaining that the “kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists,” the letter astutely concludes, “The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.” This first gallery also contains early family photos of all four original members, including shots of Johnny (né Cummings) in the military school he attended before Forest Hills High, along with report cards for Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin) and Joey, who, according to his teachers, did “not function as a member of class.”
The show perforce displays plenty of Ramones memorabilia. You’ll see tour badges, visa applications, passport photos, riders, stage-setup schematics. There are magazine articles and pictorials, including the iconic 1976 Punk magazine cover (right) featuring Joey Ramone illustrated à la Edward Gorey, lurking on an urban street corner. There’s no shortage of the band’s vintage stage equipment and props: Marshall stacks, Rickenbacker and custom Mosrite guitars, Schott leathers, Buckwheat and Uncle Floyd Show tees, fingerless gloves and torn Chuck Taylors, as well as a Pinhead mask, gown and “Gabba Gabba Hey” sign (with attendant inspirational banner from the Coney Island Side Show).
Gracing the walls are photos by Bob Gruen, Mick Rock and early Ramones manager Danny Fields, along with every album cover, dozens of posters and promo shirts, and a “merch table” case including everything from button packs to a logo-emblazoned cloth purse from Japanese brand Hysteric Glamour. Other corners feature the group as depicted in cartoons, notably some by Mad magazine’s Sergio Aragones and an original cel from the band’s 1993 birthday serenade for The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns. Video stations are set up for personal listening and feature the trailer for perhaps the most adorable musical film ever, 1979’s Rock and Roll High School, starring the Ramones.
Additional sections show the band’s life on the web, with fans’ Pinterest pages and Tumblr posts, seemingly incongruous photos of such celebrities as Elijah Wood wearing Ramones T-shirts, and evidence of those keeping the flame alive, such as all-female Ramones tribute band the Hormones. There are original portrait tributes by artists Shepard Fairey (above), Mark Kostabi and Yoshitomo Nara, as well as original paintings by Dee Dee and humorous, intricate drawings by Joey. The show especially spotlights the work of Ramones art director Arturo Vega, creator of the iconic Ramones eagle crest logo. A photograph of Vega late in life shows the artist’s back, tattooed with a version of the famous crest that includes his own name along with those of the boys.
None of the founding Ramones survives today. Joey, whose birthday we celebrate on May 19, died of lymphoma in 2001, and Tommy’s was the most recent loss, in 2014. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to commemorate their lives and influence than by visiting this show in the borough they enshrined in song. How about just “Sitting here in Queens / Eating refried beans / We’re in all the magazines / Gulpin’ down Thorazines.…”
Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk is on view at the Queens Museum through July 31.
Photos courtesy of Queens Museum