The 1979 film Rock N Roll High School is, like America itself, a wild menagerie of fantasy and fact. It's centered around one teenage girl's quest to get the Ramones to play a killer tune that she wrote herself. At one point, this protagonist—named Riff Randall—offers a beam of truth that I think of often when contemplating the Ramones, capturing their profound simplicity and peculiar romance. “He looks like a poem,” she says, caught in a quixotic daydream of her beloved Joey, later adding, “All he eats is pizza.” And so the Ramones museum exhibition of my dreams would be for the Riff Randalls of the world: Joey’s epigrams—teeming with the energy of “Judy” and “Sheena” and “Suzy” and Brill Building girl-group melodies—would be plastered onto gallery walls, while Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and Corin Tucker’s “Joey” play on loop in another room. But maybe that is asking too much.
The Ramones exhibition that opened yesterday (and runs through July) at the Queens Museum, titled Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk, is simpler and more conventional. Though it doesn’t necessarily reveal anything new about the band's teeth-rotting misfit bubblegum, it is an often inspiring tribute to the most crucial chaos that New York City has ever kicked out. The exhibit traces the Ramones’ ascent out of the pages of a Forest Hills High yearbook, to the emergence of Ramones socks—and frisbees, and aviators, and swim trunks, all encased under glass. If the inclusion of such items seems befuddling, consider the Ramones’ role in pioneering the very idea of merch, as well as curator Marc H. Miller’s background in conceptual art. A former Bowery resident and CBGB regular with a Warholian mind, Miller has pushed the boundaries of what does and does not belong inside of galleries. His role as a curator reaches back to a 1978 show called Punk Art, a survey of the visual component of the CB’s scene; you can find its catalog on his comprehensive website, 98 Bowery, which served as a spark for the Ramones exhibit, too.
Hey! Ho! is like the Ramones-song version of an artist retrospective—it’s compact, just three rooms of photos, lyric sheets, set lists, and scribbles, with a coda at the end where you can watch an early performance on a big screen. Throughout, you’ll find items like an anonymous fan letter to Dee Dee pleading for him to not quit the band, a tour rider (they sure liked Yoo-hoo), and a 1977 tour datebook (“October 19: Played Cleveland Music Hall w/ Iggy Pop. Att: 3000. Pay: 500"). But my favorite items were Joey’s extremely rudimentary drawings: a hilariously scrawled dog-faced self-portrait, and a sprawling canvas depicting the whole Bowery scene like The Garden of CB Delights, replete with snappy phrases and doodles of bugs and aliens. It is revelatory, like a direct line to Saint Joey’s heart and mind. These are galvanizing artifacts, and they are what made me think most of the clear influence that the Ramones still have on punk in New York.
The exhibit also highlights photographer Roberta Bayley’s early Punk Magazine shoot with the Ramones, which produced the iconic cover of their 1976 debut LP. In one outtake, they broke their own rule and their deadpan frowns momentarily cracked. That might be the crown jewel of the show. It’s worth the trip to see them smile.
We spoke with Miller about the band's enduring legacy, and what surprising things he learned about them by putting together Hey! Ho!.
Pitchfork: You were a curator at the Queens Museum many years ago, in the late ‘80s. Is this how you got involved with the museum again?
Marc Miller: When I was a curator at the Queens Museum, I had an opportunity to do a Louis Armstrong show. After that I was hired by Flushing Town Hall to do a series of shows that combined music and art, and I also produced for them the Queens Jazz Trails map. It shows where all the jazz musicians lived. One day I went to the Queens Museum to get some photos of the old exhibits I had curated, and I started talking with Tom Finkelpearl, the director. He said, “Why don’t we do a Queens hip-hop map?” And I said, “I’m happy to do it, but the easy one would be to do a Ramones show.” And he said, “Let’s do it!” It took less than a minute—like five seconds.
Pitchfork: Like a Ramones song.
MM: I didn’t take him [Finkelpearl] seriously at first. Then I brought in [longtime Ramones tour manager] Monte [Melnick] and [the late Ramones art director] Arturo Vega. I knew Arturo going back to that ‘78 show and I had met Monte over the years. That kind of gave us what I thought would be the core of a very easy show. Then Arturo died [in 2013]. Monte’s been very solid and is probably still the biggest lender to the show.
Then it became a whole thing about dealing with the Ramones management and getting their permission. They were going, “Yeah great, but we want it to be the world’s biggest show, travel all over the world, dah dah dah.” They saw that the Queens Museum was a symbolically appropriate venue, but they questioned whether the museum had the clout, and they didn’t know me. They were dreaming of MoMA or the Guggenheim. In the end they pushed us together with the Grammy Museum, which travels a lot of shows. Everybody hears “Grammy” and thinks it’s Gucci or something. So, it worked out. The Grammy Museum were co-curators, but I was allowed to do what I wanted.
Pitchfork: What do you think makes the Ramones so quintessentially Queens?
MM: I remember one thing the Ramones’ management said, “Well, they started in Queens, but we don’t want them to end up back there!” [laughs] When you live in Queens, you can dream as large as anybody living in Manhattan. You’re part of the New York metropolis. They probably felt like they were in the center of things even though they were out on the edge. [...] The thing about being from Queens... it’s not Lena Dunham, or the private schools of Manhattan. They were just regular kids in public school and had really down-to-earth perspectives on things.
For the exhibit, one thing we were dealing with was Johnny’s collection of ticket stubs, which includes the Beatles at Shea Stadium, which was walking distance from his house. And he saw Jimi Hendrix at the Singer Bowl—walking distance. The person who staged that concert was Gary Kurfirst, who was their second manager, and he also came from Forest Hills High School. Simon and Garfunkel also went to their high school. So they must have felt connected, or at least they didn’t feel like they were kids growing up in the sticks. They used to go to the Coventry, which was a club on Queens Boulevard where the Dolls played all the time, and KISS. People from Queens may feel like they’re not from Manhattan, but people from Iowa see them as New Yorkers.
Pitchfork: The first press release for the Ramones says that “kids from Forest Hills all became musicians, degenerates, or dentists. The Ramones are a little of each.” How were they like dentists?
MM: The drilling, the incessant drive of the music. That’s a great press release by Tommy.
Pitchfork: Of all the pieces in the show, is there anything that seems especially unexpected?
MM: We found this demo packet that included that press release and an early shot of the Ramones. It has to be the earliest. Dee Dee’s wearing a scarf, there’s a little glam in it still. Johnny’s wearing some kind of spandex. It’s a glitter look. A flyer said “New York’s phenomenal pop combo,” from a very early CBGB gig.
It also includes this reel-to-reel tape and it has on it six songs. It pre-dates any other recording that I know. We transferred it from the reel-to-reel and it’s going to be playing in the front gallery. They have two pages of lyrics to these six songs—for “You’re a Loudmouth Baby,” “53rd and 3rd.” Anyhow, it’s a little slow. It’s not as fast as the final versions of these songs. But it’s still very much the Ramones—they seemed to have been born this way.
Pitchfork: To you, what piece in the show is most exemplary of the Ramones’ story?
MM: One piece of art, we got from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—it’s about four feet by four feet, and it’s a drawing by Joey. He worked in this scribble style, and it’s just crammed with very small doodles, like scribbles, with writing and things. It’s supposedly the whole scene. You see the Palace Hotel, which was the hotel where CBGB was on the ground floor. There’s references to Punk Magazine, to Hilly [Kristal, CBGB owner], to the whole cast of characters.
Michael Homan, who was in a group called Grey with Jean Michel Basquiat, once described the music they made as, “We tried to be ignorant in the smartest way we could.” That applies pretty well to Jean Michel Basquiat’s paintings, and it applies to what Joey did there—it’s like a kid’s scribbles, but it contains a giant world. It could be said of the Ramones’ music as well.
Pitchfork: What do you feel like you learned about the Ramones from this experience?
MM: The Ramones are like caricatures. Their songs are caricatures. [Cartoonist] John [Holmstrom] and Punk Magazine made them into cartoon characters and they went with it. They have some mystery. It’s really hard to pigeonhole them. They’re all a bunch of contradictions. Whether they’re arty or just punks… I’m still not quite sure how they bridge it. Tommy stood back with a vision and said, “This is a group of punks,” as if it was a casting call. They all had issues and they created art out of all of their issues. In that respect, they were extremely pure. And yet it was like a concept.
One revelation I had was, “They’re a bunch of complainers!” The more you listen to them and read their books, all they’re doing is complaining: “I don’t want to walk around with you.” It’s total negativity, which of course is half their appeal.
Also, when I started doing this, I was curious to figure out exactly how popular the Ramones are. I knew them in the ‘70s—I was a regular at CBGB, and watched them come up, but always with that impression that they never “made it.” Obviously, they’ve gotten a lot bigger than they were at that moment—when everybody decided they didn’t “make it” and never would. [laughs] Memories are really short. Last week’s news is already forgotten. So why should people remember this cultural phenomena from the 1970s that produced a couple of bands that had some hits? It all blurs. The bottom line, in some ways, is the Ramones’ biggest hit is a chant in a sports stadium, and most people don’t even know who created it. But the Ramones are big—that’s what I’ve discovered from doing this.
Pitchfork: Is there anything about the Ramones’ story that the exhibit looks to correct, or anything new that it wants to say?
MM: The more I worked on the exhibit, the larger the Beatles loomed. The Ramones’ name comes from Paul Ramon [a pseudonym Paul McCartney used]. In the exhibit, there’s Dee Dee’s ticket stub from [seeing] the Beatles. They wanted to be the Beatles. They wanted that kind of immortality, and they achieved Beatle-like stature—they set off a whole youth movement. I think the exhibit puts a little crown on that. They really were a big-time group. The exhibit completes the journey.