Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 23, 2005

Two rock-and-roll band documentaries

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 4:13 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 23, 2005

Besides being about famous rock-and-roll bands the subjects of the Ramones documentary “End of the Century” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” have much else in common. Both bands were torn by personality conflicts. Both were paradigms of rock genres punk in the first case and metal in the second. Both bands also underwent wrenching personnel changes driven by the need to stay consistent with the founder’s creative vision or to protect themselves from disruptions caused by drug or alcohol abuse.

The differences were also revealing. The Ramones never enjoyed the commercial success of Metallica but a case can be made that they were far more important as innovators. The Ramones were the quintessential New York band but Metallica is echt-California. The films are also stylistically divergent. In the Ramones documentary the narrative moves forward through penetrating interviews. In “Monster” the film-maker adopts the passive but highly revealing perspective of a fly on the wall.

Leaving aside questions of how the groups differ with each other both films implicitly address the question of how capitalism casts its dark shadow across just about every human enterprise–even something as rebellious as rock-and-roll.

Since three of the four Ramones died within the last three years including founder Johnny Ramone who succumbed to prostate cancer last September the film has added poignancy. Although the group’s most recognizable figure was the tall homely lead singer Joey Ramone who died after a long battle with lymphoma 3 years ago Johnny Ramone was the leader. Born John Cummings he was working in construction in 1974 when he thought up the idea for the band.

In the documentary he explains that he was unhappy with the state of rock-and-roll back then even though he hungered to make it as a musician. He rejected groups like Emerson Lake and Palmer because their technically demanding but bloated compositions were boring to him. And even if he spent twenty years trying to learn to play a guitar in that style he could never succeed. So he came up with the idea of playing a stripped-down kind of rock-and-roll based on a few chords that also avoided the kind of arty pretentiousness on display in the mid-1970s.

Although Johnny Ramone was musically adventurous he was politically conservative. When the remaining Ramones -Joey had died are shown accepting their inauguration into the rock-and-roll hall of fame Johnny tells the audience that he wants to thank George W. Bush and America! Punk magazine reports that Cummings used to enjoy beating up hippies when he worked in construction.

Joey Ramone was Jewish. His real name was Jeff Hyman and he grew up in Forest Hills along with other members of the band who knew each other from the neighborhood. Like many rock-and-roll musicians he yearned for the acceptance on stage that he could never enjoy in high school. Not only was he physically unsightly he also suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to the extent that he checked himself into a mental asylum when the symptoms became unbearable. Even after he became a popular artist he was never able to shake OCD. As the film about Howard Hughes “The Aviator” demonstrates this is a disease that strikes the lowly and the powerful without discrimination.

Joey Ramone was on the left politically. The film shows him speaking at a rally for Jerry Brown who ran for president on a platform similar to Nader’s. Although most Ramones songs are drenched in irony there are more than a few that reflect Joey Ramone’s politics including Planet Earth 1988:

the solution to peace isn’t clear
the terrorist threat is a modern fear
there are no jobs for the young
they turn to crime and turn to drugs
battle ships crowd the sea
16 year olds in the army
our jails are filled to the max
discrimination against the blacks

Two months after they were accepted into the hall of fame bassist Dee Dee Ramone -Doug Colvin who in addition to Joey wrote most of the band’s songs died of a heroin overdose. Colvin had little in common temperamentally with the other band members. The film reveals this ex-male prostitute as having much more in common with glam rock figures such as David Bowie than with the image put forward by the band. Indeed he felt constricted by the strictly regimented image of the band that included a virtual uniform of black leather motorcycle jacket torn jeans and long hair. Although Dee Dee denies that the song was about him “53rd and 3rd” -a street corner that used to be frequented by male hustlers it certainly describes an experience that was close to his own:

If you think you can well come on man
I was a Green Beret in Vietnam
No more of your fairy stories
‘Cause I got my other worries

53rd and 3rd Standing on the street
53rd and 3rd I’m tryin’ to turn a trick
53rd and 3rd You’re the one they never pick
53rd and 3rd Don’t it make you feel sick?

Then I took out my razor blade
Then I did what God forbade
Now the cops are after me
But I proved that I’m no sissy

The other founding member of the band was drummer Thomas Erdelyi who was born in Budapest but grew up in Forest Hills. When Erdelyi was a classmate of Johnny Ramone in high school they formed a band called The Tangerine Puppets that incorporated a lot of the elements that would surface later in the Ramones. Erdelyi eventually left the band in 1977 to become a record producer. In the film he comes across as the most interesting and dispassionate commentator on the band’s history.

The documentary focuses on two essential conflicts that are at the center of the band’s unhappy life story. The first involved the contradiction between their critical acclaim as innovators and their failure to sell records. Although virtually every punk band of any note from the Clash to the Sex Pistols is on record as saying that without the Ramones they never would have been born the band never was a commercial success. By the 1980s they were already on the downward spiral. In a kind of scaled down version of Grateful Dead concerts they traveled around the country for most of the last 20 years performing the same songs to diehard fans at smaller clubs and auditoriums. With their middle-aged jowls the band members seem slightly pathetic striking punk rocker poses at the end of their career.

The other major conflict involved Johnny and Joey Ramone who hated each other. Although they relied on Johnny’s business acumen to keep their careers going they resented his authoritarian methods especially Joey who had exactly the kind of hippy sensibility that Johnny detested. Even though this set them apart early on what really drove a wedge between the two men was the fact that Johnny stole Joey’s girl-friend. Ever the romantic Joey felt that he was forever robbed of true love. In the hermetically sealed world of the rock-and-roll band such triangles can have a powerfully corrosive effect. Since Joey Ramone was never up to the task of making it on his own he was forced to stick with a band whose leader he reviled.

Although the band never enjoyed commercial success their tunes are part of our cultural legacy and can even be heard in the commercials of some of America’s most powerful corporations. An ad for AT&T’s wireless service features the opening to the Ramone’s “Blitzkreig Bop”: “Hey-ho let’s go.” Needless to say it does not include the next lyric: “Shoot ’em in the back now.”

“Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” also details a bitter personality conflict between two members of a rock-and-roll band. Unlike the Ramones who learned to play together despite acrimony Metallica was on the verge of breaking up until a psychotherapist by the name of Phil Towle came into help them manage -if not overcome conflict to the tune of $40000 per month. Towle had been employed by professional sports teams in the same capacity in the past. The film consists of him conducting therapy sessions with the band during the course of their uphill battle to come up with a groundbreaking new record.

Like the Ramones Metallica was held in thrall to their own rigidly defined artistic self-image. During one particularly nasty confrontation between Jim Hetfield the lead singer and drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich Ulrich kept referring to Hetfield’s guitar riffs as “stock.” Since the band operated within metal’s strict conventions this tendency toward stale repetition would appear ineluctable.

During this period Hetfield checked himself into rehab for more than six months to overcome alcoholism. Early clips of Metallica in performance show Hetfield toasting cheering fans with a glass of beer and inviting them to get drunk like him. Twenty years of maintaining this kind of public image on stage takes its toll. Although Hetfield manages -at least temporarily to go on the wagon there are other forms of rebelliousness that he cannot or will not overcome. He is addicted to fast cars motorcycles and tattoos. Now in his middle age and a family man with a young daughter he struggles to balance the need to develop and mature as a human being while catering to the male adolescent fantasies of his fans.

Lars Ulrich is a much more sophisticated and urbane personality than Hetfield. Born in Denmark to a professional tennis player who once owned a jazz club he collects modern art. A scene in the film depicts him putting the work up for auction at Sotheby’s including an enormous Basquiat painting. The sale netted him millions of dollars.

As a careful investor -he explains that the paintings were a kind of savings account that allowed him to have his cake and eat it too and successful entrepreneur -Metallica has sold over 80 million records one can easily imagine why he would get into a fight over Napster. Ulrich was one of the highest profile opponents of free downloaded music. In testimony to Congress Ulrich said “My band authored the music which is Napster’s lifeblood. We should decide what happens to it not Napster — a company with no rights in our recordings which never invested a penny in Metallica’s music or had anything to do with its creation. The choice has been taken away from us.”

The film shows Metallica fans smashing their CD’s on the ground and vowing never to buy another.

Perhaps it is just a function of my musical tastes but I never felt as engaged with the personalities in the Metallica film as I did with the Ramones. The psychobabble that dominates the scenes with the psychotherapist put me off as well as perhaps they were intended to. The general picture that emerges is that of a typical bunch of California narcissist superstars seeking “personal growth” in a narrow careerist vein. For these rock stars psychotherapy would fill the same need that Scientology fills in the lives of Tom Cruise or John Travolta. By contrast the Ramones were operating on a deeper level of introspection and self-awareness. They are also more complex personalities.

In either case the films yield deeper insights into the rock and roll business and are well worth watching. In keeping with their respective commercial fates the Ramones film is not available in DVD while the Metallica film is.

Although it is beyond the purview of either film to address the deeper questions of the social role of punk and metal they do deserve some comment. Punk has really had a major impact on American society. In a profile on Jay Bakker -the son of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker in today’s NY Times Magazine titled “The Punk-Christian Son of a Preacher Man” we learn that he has formed something called Revolution Ministries that caters to troubled youth who feel alienated by traditional churches. The Times reports:

“Revolution is one of several thousand alternative ministries that have emerged in the last decade meeting in warehouses bars skate parks punk clubs private homes or other spaces in a generational rumble to rebrand the faith outside of what we think of as church. To travel among them is to feel returned to the alternative-rock scene of 15 years ago just before Nirvana and Lollapalooza put it on the map. Instead of criticizing major record labels these ministries criticize megachurches; instead of flattening the status of the rock star they flatten the status of the pastor. They cluster in cells rather than in denominations or arenas and connect through D.I.Y. zines online. They are a counterculture on two fronts: at odds with both their secular peers and conventional churches.”

So one might ask how punk rock can be deployed on behalf of such a conservative mission namely convincing the young drug user or alcoholic that heaven is their salvation. The answer perhaps can be found partially in Johnny Ramone’s conservative politics and his appetite for beating up hippies. In a very real sense the decision to take a radically different direction from mid-1970s progressive rock implicitly involved a rejection of the counter-culture that spawned it. The groovy “peace and love” zeitgeist of the 1970s was replaced by “Blitzkreig Bop” irony and political nihilism. Despite the obvious political commitment of groups like The Clash it would seem that the overwhelming drift of punk rock is against idealism and against collective action. In this light the convergence between the punk rock lifestyle and the skinhead scene is no accident.

Metal would appear to be even one step removed from politics beyond punk. Groups such as Metallica Megadeath -started by somebody drummed out of Metallica AC-DC et al seem to exist mainly to provide a raw testosterone injection to their youthful male fans.

This does not prevent its message from being deployed however in a context that is highly political. When the US Marines went into Fallujah they played heavy metal music including AC/DC’s “Shoot to Thrill” to energize themselves:

I’m gonna take you down – down down down
So don’t you fool around
I’m gonna pull it pull it pull the trigger

Shoot to thrill play to kill
Too many women with too many pills
Shoot to thrill play to kill
I got my gun at the ready gonna fire at will

In addition Iraqi prisoners are forced to listen to heavy metal for hours on end at high volume as a kind of torture. Apparently Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” is a favorite of the torturers.

The November 21 2004 St. Petersburg Times Floridian reports:

James Hetfield who co-founded Metallica said the military hadn’t asked his permission or paid him royalties to blast his band’s music in Iraq. But he’s proud he said that his tunes are culturally offensive to the Iraqis. “For me the lyrics are a form of expression a freedom to express my insanity” Hetfield told radio host Terry Gross last week. “If the Iraqis aren’t used to freedom then I’m glad to be part of their exposure.”

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