Friday, June 07, 2002


by Wayne Robins

I felt bad about the death of Dee Dee Ramone, but not as bad as my colleague Lisa G did when I told her.
She who gasped and groaned--which she usually does on deadline--though this time a little more emphatically. The New York Times on Friday gave Dee Dee both a generous obit, as well as a news feature about the dozens who flocked to Wows!Ville, a Ramones'-themed record and culture store in the East Village, for a kind of impromptu wake.

It's easy to empathize. The Ramones' saved rock and roll, instinctively meshing the original D.I.Y. (do it yourself) spirit of 1960's garage band music with the naive romanticism of surf music, filtered through a uniquely New York outer boroughs (in this case Queens, my home borough) sensibility. Coming hardly months after lead singer Joey Ramone's truly untimely death (at 49, from cancer), months after the Ramones induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as recently as 15 years ago probably a 10,000 to 1 long shot), well, the tragic congruence of events speaks for itself.

But Dee Dee's death at age 50 from an apparent heroin overdose, according to published reports, damped some of my sorrow--it bummed out my bummer, if you will. The people 50 and over still playing with needles ought to be diabetics, unless your name is William S. Burroughs, Jr. Dee Dee's, unfortunately, was Douglas Glenn Colvin. Wonder if he was any relation to Shawn.

Anyway, lucky enough to be a young rock critic living in a $165 a month railroad flat on E. 26th St. in 1975-1976, I got to see the Ramones, a lot, in their residency in lower Manhattan. There was the joy of those packed to the rafters Saturday nights at CBGB' well as the extremely odd experience of seeing the same band, around the same time, playing to an audience of eight--at the club My Father's Place in Roslyn, L.I. While The Police and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played to packed houses at the tiny former bowling alley, the Ramones dreary Long Island experience was symptomatic of the resistance they faced anytime they would "Leave Home."

I once asked a hot shot program director at one of the New York City album rock stations--probably WNEW-FM at the time--why they would never give airplay to these hometown heroes. "Our listeners don't like their image," the genius of radio said. Image? MTV, remember, had yet to be born. It was 1977, 1978, and an increasing amount of people in their listening area were tuning out from the Frampton/Fleetwood Mac/"Baba O' Riley" 12 times a day format. (Their most legendary disc jockey berated me publicly for suggesting in my Newsday column that their tag line should be, "Where rock a cryogenic chamber.")

"Image?," I said. "How do you see an image on a radio station? What about The Music???" The genius (he is, of course, still running big city radio stations) still never played the Ramones, though a dozen or so years later, his people got on the Hootie & the Blowfish bandwagon. Big-time. Now they're talk radio. And we'll never know if Dee Dee learned to count beyond "1-2-3...Go!"

(c) 2002. Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. Comments?
I'm grateful to acknowledge that Wayne's Words can also now be linked directly from our friend Sheila Lennon's blog, Subterranean Homepage News
a weblog of the Providence (R.I.) Journal website.

We can also be reached on the Web log of Doc Searls, one of Silicon Valley's legendary thinkers, co-author of the still-relevant book published way back in 2000, "The Cluetrain Manifesto." Look for my name on Doc's Blogrolodex, or this column's name on Sheila's. Thanks, Sheila and Doc.
We are not worthy, but we try to be.

And, while we’re at it, you can also read my short feature on Gomez, my favorite young band for reasonably selective rock lovers, in this week’s
Boston Phoenix Navigation isn't the easiest, so go to the first music feature, go to the bottom, and click on the link to other stories.

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

"The Last Waltz"

by Wayne Robins

I was at "The Last Waltz," the legendary retirement party for the group known as The Band, in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Then a freelance writer based in New York, not yet hired full-time at Newsday (that would occur January 3, 1977), I was able to get free airfare from the then junket-mad music industry because I had an assignment from a rock magazine called Changes, if my memory serves me well.

Since it was Thanksgiving weekend, it was easy to get a hotel room, at the Holiday Inn in Chinatown my first night. I also had friends and relatives in the Bay Area, so I enjoyed a special Thanksgiving dinner with my beloved "Uncle" Jack Edelson, who passed away a few years ago, much too young, after the sudden onset of pancreatic cancer. (Jack was the younger brother of another favorite uncle, Stanley Edelson, who has been married lo these nearly 50 years to my mothers sister, Lenore). Jack was one of San Francisco's first boho capitalists. On my first trip to San Francisco, on the lam across America after my sophomore year at Bard College, I simply called him up, out of the blue, from the bus station in the grungy Tenderloin district, frightened out of my wits: Where were all the hippies? He gave me his address and told me to take a cab. Half an hour later, unable to figure out how one hailed a cab in San Francisco, I called him again. This time he came and picked me up himself, took me to his home in Pacific Heights, stuck a joint in my mouth, served me a lavish dinner, and, after another primo joint, took me to an all-night supermarket so clean, so bright, so full of fruits and vegetables of every color, that I thought I was in Shangri-La. (We didn't have shiny all night supermarkets then, even on Long Island).

At "The Last Waltz" concert, I was accompanied by two good friends: Ed Ward, the famous critic from the earliest days of Rolling Stone, who now lives and writes in Berlin; and Tom Vickers, my college roommate not just from Bard, but with whom I shared a house in Boulder one summer when, after a year and a continent apart, we both transferred, unbenownst to one another to the University of Colorado. Tom lived in the city. Ed, a wonderful, generous, and thoroughly unkempt guy, lived in Sausalito, and now the very sight on their pristine streets would probably have him ticketed for being a human violation of the recycling laws. (I slept at Ed's Sausalito pad the night of the show; I'm still picking the fleas from my skin). Tom was starting his rise in the record business: He was Minister of Information for Parliament/Funkadelic during the great "Mothership Connection" years, when P-Funk was the greatest show with the greatest on Earth or elsewhere. (When I spoke to Tom a few days ago neither of us had yet seen "Undercover Brother," something I look forward to seeing with him in whatever format the next time our coasts coincide: He's lived in Los Angeles for the last many years).

Tom, Ed and I were a perfect unholy trinity at "The Last Waltz" concert. We had already developed a healthy skepticism about the "prestige" of rock stars. We all liked The Band, worshipped Van Morrison and Muddy Waters, and dug most of the artists individually, from Bob Dylan to Paul Butterfield to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. But the concert ceremony reeked of rock star sanctimony, and we were cynical enough to call it like we saw it. As one seemingly perfunctory star-turn followed another, we began to look at each other, like, "What is this, 'The Gong Show.'?" The idea empowered us: With each torpid performance, one or the other or all three of us would smash the gong, giving psychological closure to each sappy performance. Dylan, in his clownish "Renaldo & Clara"-type white fedora with red feather, was at a particular creative low point. It was with great relish that 30 seconds into the execrable "Forever Young," the three of us looked at each other and simultaneously gonged Bob Dylan.

I was really hoping that watching the recently-released DVD of "The Last Waltz" movie, directed by the usually peerless Martin Scorsese, would make me realize what a shallow cynic I was to mock this magisterial moment in rock history. Unfortunately, the Scorsese film, though it sounds great on my mini-home theater system, only affirms that Tom, Ed and I were right the first time. (Read the disappointed dissection of the release by Roger Ebert. There are some moments of real musical excellence: Van Morrison's extravagantly joyous "Caravan," Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris teaming up on "Evangeline," Joni Mitchell's predatory "Coyote," that really stand out. One still can't understand what Neil Diamond was doing there: He may have been a friend and even a peer, but his music represented the Tin Pan Alley style of emotive songwriting that the music of The Band explicitly rejected. "I Shall Be Released," by the ensemble at the end, now sounds as hackneyed as "We Are the World." And Scorsese, devotee and fan that he was, keeps interrupting the music flow with his gushing questions, exceeded in their banality only by The Band's smug, world-weary responses. Remember, this was the model for "This is Spinal Tap," and there's little doubt that Rob Reiner's parody remains the better movie.

(c) Wayne Robins 2002. All rights reserved. Comments?

Sunday, June 02, 2002

"The Eminem Show" (Act One, Scene One)
by Wayne Robins

Last Tuesday I went to Target my favorite big store for recreational shopping, to pick up two items on day of release: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" on DVD, and "The Eminem Show." One was for the kids; the other was for me. The pricing was, as it so often is at Target, a bargain: $11.99 for the Eminem CD--it's actually two discs, with a second bonus DVD included; and $14.99 or $15.99 for the Potter movie, another two-DVD set. I haven't gotten deep into the "The Eminem Show." I just keep listening to "White America," the first full track, over and over. A heart thumping, butt-bumping, rhetorical masterpiece, Eminem knows what he's got, groove-wise: "Straight through your radio waves, it plays and plays/'til it's stuck in your head for days and days."

What wipes me out, however, is the wordcraft. This rap's not about rhymes or crimes: It's a State of the Youth Culture Union address, and like those humorous slice-of-life Budweiser commercials, it's True. It is, simultaneously, a grand seizure of the the right to free speech; wonderment at the magnitude of his own success; a mocking of the medium that helped make him that made him a star: "I go to TRL look how many hugs I get," he sings. Elvis Costello once sang: "I want to bite the hand that feeds me." Eminem bites the hand, the wrist, the arm, right to the shoulder, and goes for the jugular.

He plays the hand he's been dealt expertly, especially the race card, knowing, like Sun Records' Sam Phillips in the segregated south of the 1950s, shrewdly anticipating the miracle that would be Elvis Presley, that if there existed a white man who could authentically perform black music, the payoff could be incalculable. Eminem clears the table: "Look at these eyes, baby blue...if they were brown Shady lose." Well, maybe not lose, but not do as well: "Look at my sales, let's do the math, If I was black, I would've sold half."

He seizes the free speech mantle, reopening some old wounds by confronting with four-letter alacrity "Ms. Cheney" and "Tipper Gore," the wives of the current and former Vice-Presidents and longtime advocates of less explicit pop lyrics. He assaults them with "the freest of speech this divided states of embarrassment will allow me to have." Then, after another middle-finger salute, Eminem blows everyone a kiss, a gesture worthy of Sammy Davis Jr. after some racial kibitzing with his white Rat Pack buddies: "I'm just kiddin' America, you know I love you."

Did I mention that some of the cadence and the content reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's once-banned, now-revered poem masterpiece "Howl"? (Ginsberg would've loved Eminem). Or that Dr. Dre is again piloting this mothership of a pleasure craft from the control room? And that I've yet to get much beyond this one brilliant track, cause it's stuck in my head for days and days, much less check out the bonus DVD? Or that "Harry Potter" was for the kids, but Eminem is for me? The Show has just begun.

(c) 2002, Wayne Robins. All rights reserved. Comments?

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