Walking up to the Queens Museum, nestled in a bucolic park of the New York City borough, there was a mass of black-clad, middle-aged rockers, hipsters, and children sporting leopard print tights and sunglasses.
Well over a thousand people were in queue to see Hey! Ho! Let’s Go, the museum’s new exhibition paying homage to the biggest thing to come from Queens, New York (besides the Mets, the U.S. Open, and the remnants of two World’s Fairs)—the contemptuous, black mop-headed punk band, Ramones.
Opening day guests were greeted by the juxtaposition of museum docents and two 20-something pop-punk bands that did not play Ramones covers, nor embody the charisma or talent of the Ramones.
In keeping with the anarchic spirit of punk rock, the show is free and open to the masses. But visitors will not find the authentic punk grime of Max’s Kansas City or the folkloric piles of CBGB’s dog shit at this pristine establishment.
There are no bathrooms filled with junkies, no graffitied walls, no dank rooms filled with cigarette smoke and beer-swilling lushes.
Here, faded black biker jackets can be neatly checked at the front desk, and wine is served in crisp plastic cups. Perhaps the most free-spirited element of punk at the show’s opening were the many kids of former-grunge masters moshing about, not caring what they looked like or who was watching their mini mosh pit.
It’s endearing and exciting to see parents fold their kids into counterculture, keeping the legacy alive (the annual summer music extravaganza Lollapalooza has a killer kids’ stage each summer; my 8-year-old niece loved every second of a front row Alice Cooper concert with me). But can punk rock’s legacy thrive in the hallowed halls of a museum?
Perhaps the most memorable rock show to thrive in a similar setting was Chicago’s MCA retrospective of David Bowie. Not only did the exhibit lay out the glam icon’s illustrative career, it also demonstrated the conceptual artistry Bowie incorporated into his songwriting, characters, album artwork, and stage presentation. The multimillion-dollar presentation incorporated haute couture, and engulfed visitors in a concert-like multi-media experience.
In London, the Rolling Stones are occupying the Saatchi Gallery in a similarly loud and brazen fashion.
A far less bombastic, but equally engaging music exhibit fitting of New York City’s early underground music scene was Blondie’s 2014 show at the Chelsea Hotel—once home to musicians Dee Dee Ramone, Janis Joplin, Gaby Hoffman, Bob Dylan, and the murder scene of Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
The Ramones’ show at Queens Museum doesn’t quite match the spirit of punk or Ramones.
Ramones came from the scrappy streets of Forest Hills in Queens, New York. Joey Ramone was the most unlikely of characters to end up in a band—unless it was playing third chair oboe.
The lanky, quiet kid joined three loudmouths and, in the basement of the singer’s mother’s art gallery basement, the foursome developed the simplest, yet most successful gimmicks in the annals of punk: uniform greaser clothing (biker jackets, worn jeans, Chuck Taylors, raggedy T-shirts), exaggerated Beatles shag hair, matching surnames, infectious sing-along lyrics, and lightning speed riffs to 2-minute tracks.
What is “successful” in the world of punk rock is not defined by money or fame. Despite an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the group never “made it” to the arena stage, never had a platinum record sale in their lifetime, and their net worth, as a band with 21 albums, was only noted to be around $1 million when all were still alive in the 2000s.
Perhaps the biggest winner of the Ramones’ financial windfall, other than thirsty record executives, was Arturo Vega—whose iconic Ramones logo can be seen on Hot Topic T-shirts and museum gift shop merchandise around the world.
The Ramones’ ferocious approach to pop music, played at a higher rpm with all the distortion and came-as-you-are attitude, became the standard for nearly every single pop band, rock, metal, and punk artist to follow The Ramones’ 1976 album debut—including the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Black Flag, Generation X, Nirvana, Green Day, White Stripes, Danko Jones, and even heavy metal giants Metallica.
Every time you hear a band shout-count off “One! Two! Three! Four!” before ripping into a song, you have Dee Dee and Marky Ramone to thank.
The stark white walls and out-of-reach memorabilia at Queens Museum are the opposite of what punk rock is about: in-your-face antics, aggression, and a casual cool that cannot be bought.
It is odd to see passport documents neatly framed on a wall, rather than shoved in a beat-up guitar case, or tucked behind a bag of drugs and set lists. There’s nothing accessible about a ledger book and tour credentials safely encased in glass instead of scattered about the floor of a broken down band van.
Old T-shirts hung high on display in a perfect grid feel more like a high-end shopping mall fashion store rather than a treasure chest of coveted fan keepsakes.
If a museum were to replicate the punk experience, they would be better served painting their walls black, dropping the ceiling, hiring local muralists and graffiti taggers, and presenting ephemera in a more intentionally haphazard way rather than displaying them as eBay-ready, mint condition relics. (Oh, what I would pay for that tattered 1970’s Ramones/The Runaways tour T-shirt!)
The Queens Museum’s guest curator, Marc Miller, has done a great job of tracking down hard-to-find, temporal Ramones items, such as Ramones boxer shorts and socks, fan art from across the world, contracts, Ramones stage clothes, iconic photographs by Bob Gruen and Roberta Bayley, battered Marshall amps, and a few instruments once played by Ramones members.
But the show falls short of telling a complex, rich story, reflective of the Ramones—who were known for songs about glue-sniffing goofiness and girls, personal battles with booze and drugs, and on-stage fights. The exhibit touches on a few other contemporaries of Ramones (Iggy Pop, Blondie, Patti Smith), but fails to illustrate their place in the timeline of rock and punk music.
Who was the enigmatic Joey Ramone? What was it like to tour in a punk band in the late ’70s? How did they leave their prolific mark on the world (other than Ramones logo coffee mugs)? What was is like to see the Ramones turn CBGB’s into a storied haven of punk and grit?
If one is not already a Ramones fan, what does this museum show teach visitors about the band, the punk movement, and the crossover from dive bars to popular culture? Why were the band members as well known for the personal feuds as their music?
The exhibit’s accompanying brochure does a fine job explaining much of this. But, disappointingly, the show’s stringent displays don’t convey the chaos, the attitude, the struggles, and the spirit of the Ramones.
The overall experience of placing punk’s forefathers in a museum raises the question: What is the proper place to revere the unsung heroes of punk? CBGB’s is now a high-end men’s fashion retail store. Iggy Pop has retired to Miami, Florida, when he’s not on tour.
Film depictions of punk—such as The Runaways, CBGB, and Vinyl—have whitewashed away the grit and underbelly of punk for mass appeal. One can only hope Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Ramones biopic is more brutally honest and aggressive.
If the memories of punk rock don’t belong behind the velvet ropes of museums or within lazily-themed restaurants, how do we keep the memory alive? Maybe the answer lies not in the established confines of institutions, but rather in the garages of reckless youth with amps and dank bars brimming with stories.
Maybe the answer is not found in nostalgia or consumerism, but in experiencing the messy and energetic world of punk first-hand.
While seeing a few rare bits of memorabilia, videos, and art pieces are fun, I think the Ramones would approve of honoring their memory with a half-spilled beer, a bit of “Hey, Ho! Let’s Go!” fist-pumping, or an illicit dive bar bathroom make-out session à la Max’s Kansas City, circa 1978.