Henry Rollins: The Column! Joey Ramone's Legacy Is in Danger
[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
I have been listening to a record that is one of the strangest things I have heard in a long time. From its description, it wouldn't necessarily strike anyone as all that strange, but it really knocked me off balance.
It's the "new" album by Joey Ramone -- iconic vocalist of the Ramones and sadly gone since 2001 -- called ...Ya Know? Apparently, the songs were culled from demos that Joey made over a period of years. Musicians have come in after the fact and overdubbed instruments around some of the tracks, giving the songs a somewhat disembodied feel. I can't think that was the desired effect, but what really can you expect when you do something that is so completely dubious from the start.
It was a hell of a thing to listen to Joey's voice come through the speakers, singing songs I had, for the most part, never heard before. Joey's voice is one of the most distinctive I have ever heard. The songs are OK to good, but the joy of hearing unreleased Joey Ramone songs is overwhelmed by the voice-from-the-other-side-ness of this collection.
I don't think there would have been a better time to release this, as any time would have been weird. Surely there is no shortage of posthumous Ramones income; perhaps the estate figured we fans would like to hear some more and so they did the best they could with what they had?
On the other hand, motive means nothing next to what the result is. I wonder if this record really needed to be released, despite how many of us miss Joey Ramone.
If Joey had liked the songs, then, arguably, he would have released them. If he thought they were worthy, then why aren't any of them on Don't Worry About Me, the album he made right before he passed away? The fact that Joey had no choice as to what has happened to his songs makes ...Ya Know? seem like much too much work. The unnatural feel of it is, at times, unnerving.
Perhaps my hesitation to more fully embrace this album is personal and selfish. Take the final track, an acoustic version of "Life Is a Gas" that's different from the version featured on the last Ramones studio album, Adios Amigos! When I first heard that song, it made me sad because I thought it was Joey saying goodbye to the world. It still gets me, and this new version is so up-close it's almost impossible for me to listen to.
Another troubling thing is that it could be that relatives of Joey Ramone have taken it upon themselves to keep the memory of Joey alive, and this is how they have chosen to do it. If that's the case, what's next? The estate could argue there is a demand and that they are merely trying to meet it. But that is just not true. ...Ya Know? is a forced record. It won't make you think any differently about Joey Ramone, besides reminding you that he is gone and has been ghoulishly reanimated.
Many years ago, a man named Alan Douglas took what many consider liberties with Jimi Hendrix recordings, which Jimi fans found distasteful and downright blasphemous. Three albums of Hendrix recordings were released: Midnight Lightning, Nine to the Universe and Crash Landing. Douglas took it upon himself to wipe many of the original tracks and bring in other musicians to play around Hendrix's vocals and guitars. The results are incredibly bad.
The disrespect that Douglas shows to the memory of Jimi Hendrix by turning the music into the playground for his ego trip is monumental. If this kind of disrespect is what is going to be inflicted on the memory of Ramone, then I am sickened and saddened.
Ramones music, like that of the Stooges, is a mineral -- naturally formed. To mess with it, you are immediately meddling with forces far greater than you.
Do you remember when the remaining Beatles got together and played around with two John Lennon demos and released them as quasi-Beatles songs "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love"? Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne was the producer on the tracks, and they sound like ELO outtakes -- dreadful. Good work if you can get it, right? This was definitely for the money. They are the worst "Beatles" tracks ever and border on the perverse and the morbid.
It is the contamination of an artist's legacy, the betrayal of the essential goodness of the initial intent of the artist's work by other parties, that gets to me. Ramone, Hendrix and Lennon are not around to disagree, and those charged with protecting them posthumously are not doing so. So what good are they?
When an artist is gone, we get to see the integrity of those who are looking after their memory. I would like to thank the Miles Davis and Frank Zappa estates for being so classy and releasing excellent records, which keep the quality at a premium and bring new people to this incredible music.
Seeing more merchandise of a band when it is dead and gone than at anytime the band was alive and functioning makes me weary.
Maybe it's just where we're at these days. Everything is in play, and if it sells, then its validity is not questioned. To hell with everyone's Warholian 15 minutes, decency and a sense of decorum.
In 1927, Blind Lemon Jefferson made this humble request for some post-mortem dignity: "See that my grave is kept clean." Word.
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