To go to a museum exhibit about the Ramones is to wrestle with questions that have nipped at humanity since Socrates, knowing he was born to lose, drank the hemlock: Namely, what is punk? Should punk be in museums? What would Johnny Ramone do, physically, to Malcolm McLaren's idiot son if he were alive to see Joe Corré's aristocratic, morally vacant, twerp notion of burning $7 million worth of punk paraphernalia as protest against Punk London, the Queen, and apparently his own failure of imagination? All big questions that nagged at me as I bopped from one encased magazine clipping to the next.
What is the true nature of punk? Oh, boy. Fuck if I know. The first punk-sounding band was probably Peru's 1964 band Los Saicos. Was punk an existential "yes" or "no"? Was punk a costume parade for fickle Brits? A boys' adventure story in the Beirut Not Beirut of 70s/80s NYC as told by whatever Patti Smith/Vinnie Stigma amalgamation one prefers to listen to? All that, for sure, and I don't want to fight. I'm not sure I care what punk was about—I don't know what enchiladas are about, but I know they're delicious. I used to keep it simple with a pragmatic "punk was about not sounding like Pink Floyd," but on the train to Hey! Ho! Let's Go: The Ramones and the Birth of Punk! at the Queens Museum, there was a teenage girl with back patches of both Floyd and the Ramones. So what can I say?
The question of whether punk belongs in museums is rendered moot as, well, there it is. And it could be argued that the Ramones were more appealingly counter-revolutionary than revolutionary as what they are credited with is bringing back what their partisans liked about rock and pop: simplicity and a lack of pretense. They loved the Beatles but, you know, mainly their old stuff. So, in that way, the Ramones were already willing and able museum pieces. You can kill your idols all you like, but, living in the world as it is, one that grooves hard to hagiography, I'd argue for a tearing down of all statues of useless Kennedys to be replaced by gargantuan Little Richard in bronze looking down on us all like a hip-shaking titan. I could care less for any shock of the new, so the Ramones behind a rope or in a car-tape deck is all the same to me.
The exhibit apparently almost didn't happen, according to curator, Marc H. Miller, as the Ramones' management wanted more illustrious surroundings than the Queens Museum. It was only a partnership with the Grammy Museum that apparently convinced them, which is frankly too depressing a notion to ponder for too long. Regardless, the exhibit, in its limited ambitions, is enjoyable. Even if it's got a certain air of "punk roommate with bottomless eBay funds," so what: It's cool shit, and Ramones songs are playing in the background.
The Ramones really understood what is important in this world of tears and murder: awesome T-shirts. There's a whole wall of them, and everything that isn't already a shirt could be turned into one with minimal effort. The mix of the late Arturo Vega's design work and the assorted cartoons, each one seeming to elongate Joey further until he began to resemble Mr. Fantastic in shades, makes for the sort of aesthetic that defies mockery. Young people can be cruel about a man of a certain age in a CBGBs shirt, but the Ramones, by encompassing the last 60 years of pop art (with even comparisons drawing back as far as Futurism not seeming completely insane), largely get a pass. Ramones shirts, like Discharge shirts, look good on everyone. One of the early Sire Records promotional shirts had "Ramones" in quotation marks, which is honestly endlessly funny to me, and I now despise every band that doesn't have their name in quotation marks on their shirts. Who the fuck are you to be so smug as to think your stupid band name is like a commandment from God that we should all just recognize?
Other logos sighted on museum-goers, besides multiple Ramones/Discharge shirts/patches, included Crossed Out and Rudimentary Peni. Also, there was a large man with "Gas Rag" and "Negative Approach" stenciled onto the back of his leather jacket, gently bopping his head to "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement," and it was honestly one of the sweetest things I've seen. Also, said punks in patches went under the rope to get in rather than walk the 15 feet around, which seemed to sum up a lot of what's good and bad about punk in 2016 and ever.
The rest of the exhibit was cool enough, if looking at things is your bag. There were back issues of the magazine Rock Scene, which appeared to be a celebration of male sunglass use (and Patti Smith, of course), and the fact that all the Ramones videos were shown on individual TVs was an especially nice touch.
But what was really interesting to me was what was going on in the main museum lobby. There, the Queens Teen organization, the museum youth group, had booked young punk/indie bands to perform as an inspired commentary on the exhibit for Queens' prodigal eternal teens. Badmouth, a youthful, wry, and noisy in all the right ways indie group, covered much of the same thematic ground as the Ramones—young love, the subway—to a crowd of punks in leather, little boys in baseball caps and women in hijabs/chadors. They were followed by Dark Thoughts, a self-described "Ramones band" from Philly whose Ramones worship was loud as hell and bracing and far, far better than any band, no matter how canonical, behind glass. Kids held their ears and laughed and self-consciously tried to get their friends to dance before collapsing into giggles, and it was wonderful and all I really want from rock 'n' roll, at least during daylight hours.
All in all the Ramones, in the context of the Queens Museum, work. And more than it would in any other context. Especially the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an endlessly unfunny joke only recently and briefly made interesting by the feuding between Steve Miller and those perpetual strivers and lesser Stripes, the Black Keys. And more than the Guggenheim or MOMA, where it's impossible to imagine the same level of diversity in attendees and, instead of bands like Badmouth or Dark Thoughts, the tribute music would probably been, if there was music at all, been some Dirty Projectors side-project atrocity or similar viola-ridden bullshit.
As I left, one of the Dark Thoughts guys, as I was buying their record, remarked, "Cool Supertouch shirt," and I beamed from my toes to my thinning hair because, at the end of the day, when it all comes down, isn't that what punk is really about? The feeling you get when a young punk tells you he likes your shirt.
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Hey! Ho! Let's Go! Ramones and the Birth of Punk is on exhibit at the Queens Museum through July 31, 2016.