I FIRST MOVED to New York City in 1997. I was living there when Joey Ramone passed away in 2001, Dee Dee Ramone in 2002, and Johnny Ramone in 2004. Each death seemed to send convulsions through the city’s music scene, but as much as I tried I never felt like I entirely “got” the Ramones. I’d occasionally venture this admission to some elder statesman of the Lower East Side only to be met with that withering dismissal: “you weren’t there.”
There’s something so New York about this — as New York as the Ramones, really. New York City offers up inimitable cultural experiences along with an inimitable self-regard for those experiences, like gazing out a window at an expanse of beauty while keeping one eye fixed on your own reflection in the glass. “You weren’t there” is hipness accumulating at the expense of generosity.
Johnny Ramone’s recently-published posthumous memoir Commando is not a particularly generous book, nor one that does much to demystify the Ramones for the uninitiated. It’s also just not very good. Though it arrives eight years after the guitarist’s death, it feels as rushed as one of Dee Dee’s famous “onetwothreeFOUR!”’s, as if written out of a compulsion to settle scores rather than a genuine desire to tell a story. At times this is affecting — the book’s most moving passages come at its end, Ramone doggedly writing against his own mortality — but nowhere near frequently enough to justify the book’s droning self-involvement, punctuated by gripes over affirmative action, tossed-off derision for “queers” and “dykes,” and general air of closed-minded boorishness. Even Commando’s confessions give little in the way of access or insight: “People say that [Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist] John Frusciante is strange, but I really like him. In Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitar players of all time I’m ranked at #16, and Frusciante is #18,” reports Ramone, a morsel that should concern absolutely no one other than Rolling Stone’s fact-checkers. The fact that such an influential musician dying of cancer can so grossly overplay his hand with regards to both self-aggrandizement and self-pity is a dubious accomplishment.
In broad terms the musician memoir is a genre that breeds disappointment. Music is a hard thing to write about, and musicians usually aren’t much better at it than the rest of us. But Commando also disappoints because in the past few years we’ve been fortunate enough to receive two books by New York music icons that belong on both the short list of the best books ever written by musicians and the much longer list of the best books written about the city itself. Patti Smith’s Just Kids and Jay-Z's Decoded — the latter written in close collaboration with journalist dream hampton — are artist memoirs that ascend to the higher levels of art themselves, works that expand and challenge the conventions of their form. They are also generous books in the best sense, holding that window at the perfect angle so that we might see themselves, ourselves, and all that lies beyond the glass.
Smith’s book is a peculiarly selfless autobiography, an encomium to art, love, and human collaboration. At its center is Smith’s longtime friend, sometime lover, and frequent muse, Robert Mapplethorpe, the visionary photo...read more