Distress Signals #1
Photograph by Stunned
by Nicholas Rombes
Tommy Ramone the avant-gardist. Buried in a few obituaries and reminiscences about Tommy Ramone were mentions of the sharp, avant-garde angle of vision that characterized the early Ramones. Maybe now — as the last Ramone has died — it’s time to re-think the Ramones as essentially an avant-garde outfit that just happened, also, to be popular. “To them [the rest of the band] it was just a hobby,” he told Punk in 1976, reflecting back on the band’s formation in 1974, but “to me it was an avant-garde thing.” And in Clinton Heylin’s From the Velvets to the Voidoids there’s this, a comment about what he was doing in the early 1970s: “I was [getting] into film-making. I guess I was jumping around. I went to work for this film company. I was hanging around the Museum of Modern Art ‘cause the company was right next to the Museum. I would take three-hour lunch breaks and watch all the movies there and I got into avant-garde films. I started making some stuff like that.”
The avant-garde doesn’t even exist today; the speed of culture obliterates into fast-fused celebrity any and all forays into the experimental. The avant-garde needs what Walter Benjamin called an aura to flourish, a sense of mystery made possible by the sort of rumor that grows into myth. There are no rumors today, not really, and no aura, and hence no possibility for myth. There’s no firecracker in the soup. There’s nothing about the early Ramones except contradictions. Punks who wore long, hippy-like hair. An avant-garde noise band who signed to a major label. Songs that seemed rejectionist (“I Don’t Wanna . . .”) but that were, many of them, deeply sentimental.
In Greil Marcus’s magisterial Lipstick Traces, the Ramones get mentioned just once in nearly five hundred pages, too stoopid for the French avant-gardism he links to The Sex Pistols. And yet as early — or as late — as 1979 even obscure writers in obscure U.S. fanzines understood that, well, early punk was conceptual art disguised as pop music. In the too-strange-to-be-true-but-true-nonetheless Austin, Texas fanzine Sluggo! there are these opening lines to a review of an Electric Eels (from Cleveland, Ohio) single:
Well to start off—do all the Ramones theorists agree with this one—‘in concert the Ramones’ huge wall of sound in conjunction with simple mack truck melodies act to create a distortion level which produces a pattern of harmonics all its own’? Hey Hey!/?% Conceptual art n’est-ce pas comprendez vous vous vous?
Well, it’s old news now. The Ramones are anything and everything you want them to be and nothing and nothing you want them to be, too. But Tommy was there at the beginning, channeling his love for avant-garde films into a musical style that, in 1974, was yet to be named.
Tommy Ramone: Avant-Garde Ringleader
The “commodore” scene in Rachel Kushner’s otherwise realist novel The Flamethrowers. Ronnie Fontaine, friend and lover of Reno, the narrator, embarks on an extended, absurdist anecdote at a dinner party near the end of the novel, an anecdote that begins with Ronnie getting hit in the head with a railroad tie, losing his memory and sense of self for twelve years, and embarking on a beautiful boat named Reno with a gentleman who instructs Ronnie to call him commodore, his wife, a first mate named Xerxes, and Artemio, a cabin boy. There are passages that go like this:
He [the commodore] said everything he wanted me to do, or did to me, was for my good, but often it seemed like it was for his good. If it was for my good, why did he muffle his glee? Was I a slave of some kind? I suddenly wondered as I lay there in the dark between the two of them. All existence is slavery of one kind or another, right? Who isn’t a slave?
I could tell you, for instance, that the commodore and his wife both died under mysterious circumstances, and lead you to believe that it was at my own innocent boy’s hands that they died, and I could even declare my reasons for murdering them in a way that would leave you satisfied, in fact more than satisfied, that I had done the right thing and that the commodore and his wife had met an appropriate end. Even if you weren’t convinced of their guilt, or didn’t believe in such a crude moral axis as that of guilt and innocence. Still, your judgment would be informed by a simple fact that we can all agree on: that the notion of the sea and sailors by itself suggests the notion of murder.
Ronnie’s monologue, with interruptions, extends for thirteen pages, thirteen pages that feel like that awkward moment when, in shifting bike gears sometimes, nothing catches and you’re left pedaling in the air like a moron. Rooted in the contradictory but sometimes overlapping modes of myth, high-seas adventure a la Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and TV shows like Gilligan’s Island or The Love Boat had they been directed by David Lynch, Ronnie’s story pulls back the curtain, but onto what? At one point the Reno begins taking in water and is rescued by a tug whose captain takes an immediate dislike to the commodore’s wife and in fact prefers that she remain on the sinking Reno rather than boarding the tug with the others. Finally, however, he “agreed that the commodore’s wife could board the tug if she rode in the very back of the boat . The tug captain had wanted her to put a burlap sack over her head because he said if she faced the spray the water gods would be furious and drag us to our deaths.”
On 9 April 1971 Richard Nixon, his Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, and his Press Secretary Ron Ziegler were talking in the Oval Office. On their minds was Edward Kennedy, whom they saw as a potential in the 1972 election. The newly published book The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 (Houghton Mifflin) contains over 700 pages of transcriptions from that era, including from that day in April when, as the editors say, “Nixon was eager for regular updates on Kennedy’s political intentions, and was willing to use questionable means to attain them.”
HALDEMAN: Did you see his wife [Joan] came into the White House again all done up in some crazy outfit?
NIXON: What, did Pat [Nixon] [unclear] something?
HALDEMAN: Yeah, a Senate wive’s luncheon.
NIXON: What did she [Joan] wear?
ZIEGLER: Body stocking.
HALDEMAN: –gaucho, leather gaucho—
ZIEGLER: With a leather gaucho over it.
HALDEMAN: –with a bare midriff, or something.
ZIEGLER: Well, no, they put on a body stocking, which is flesh tone.
HALDEMAN: Oh, is that it?
ZIEGLER: And then they wrap the leather, you know, gaucho-type thing around it. So you look at it from a distance, and you think, “My God—“
HALDEMAN: You think she’s naked.
ZIEGLER: [laughs] “—there she is.” But she has a body stocking.
Of that same year—1971—Jimmie Busby of the 75th Rangers “told an army criminal investigator” about the mutilations of Vietnamese: “There was people in all the platoons with ears on cords. . . . It was pretty much an everyday occurrence that you might see someone with one” (from Kill Anything That Moves, by Nick Turse, Metropolitan Books, 2013, p. 161). Nixon’s language about the war is completely abstract, “bombing the hell” out of this and that. On 20 November 1971 he says to Kissinger: “Bomb Haiphong. You know, the whole thing. I would just put a crippling blow on it. Go on for sixty days of bombing. Just knock the shit out of them” (Nixon Tapes, p. 328).
There’s nothing new about that kind of abstraction, of course. In his preface to Field Notes, the poet Robert Hass accounts for his attention to the intimate details of the California landscape that characterize that collection, his first, published in 1973.
The years in which these poems were written, between roughly 1967 and 1972, were a time of extraordinary public violence. The war would later be characterized as a well-intentioned miscalculation, but it felt then like carelessness and hubris and malevolence. Orchestrated public violence that sends people off to war, off to die for a cause, needs to have a terrifyingly loose grip on language. The California landscape shows up so much in these poems because . . . it was a place for me where language did not belong altogether to desire, to human intention.
Part I of a new series, “Distress Signals”.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is author of the forthcoming novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio Press) and Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series. His work has appeared in The Believer, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Filmmaker Magazine. He is a professor in Detroit, Michigan.