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Joey Ramone was no Einstein, but...

So what's a genius, anyway?

by James Leroy Wilson
May 1, 2001

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Joey Ramone was no Einstein, but..._James Leroy Wilson-So what's a genius, anyway? The death of Joey Ramone two weeks ago, of cancer at age 49, caused me to revisit my one Ramones CD that I bought used last summer. It includes two complete LP's from the 70's and, at 30 songs, is the densest CD in my collection. Initially I thought it paled in comparison to my CD of Clash singles (my only other punk-rock CD), but listening to it more and more makes me agree with a fan on VH-1 who said that listening the Ramones the first time, they sound silly, the second time catchy, but by the fifteenth you're worshipping the band.

The Ramones rival Creedence Clearwater Revival in its ability to grasp the simplicity of rock and roll. Although the Ramones had a far longer yet much less successful career than CCR, and their styles and images were nothing alike, both stripped rock and roll to two basic elements: melody and energy. The recording studio was, to them, a means for recording their best performance, whereas other rockers of greater ambition and imagination viewed rock as an art form and the studio its canvass. CCR's magic was in capturing the sounds of 50's rockabilly, while energizing it with soulful intensity and folklore-ic lyrics. The Ramones took a different route, writing simple yet pretty melodies that you might expect from the Brain Wilson or Paul McCartney. But instead of augmenting the songs with creative arrangements and studio tricks like the 60's pop artistes did, the Ramones' formula was basic guitar/bass/drum arrangements played loud and fast.

No Miles Davis or Benny Goodman here, let alone Bach. No brilliant musicianship, no sophistication. Just northern suburban white trash teenage "blues" with frequently dark and twisted lyrics. The Ramones were not the first punk band - Iggy Pop's Stooges of the late sixties could make that claim, or maybe some other group (I'm no authority, just a partial observer) - but the Ramones took music to the lowest common denominator: if you learn how to play guitar and can conceive an original tune, you, too, may become a rock star. And almost anyone can learn to play guitar if he really wants to. And everyone can conceive an original tune or scores of them; if I understand the math behind the musical scale correctly, the number of new musical combinations is virtually infinite. The problem is that your songs may not sell, and they might not be any good. Whatever. The Ramones' songs didn't sell but they were good. And they directly inspired the British punk scene which in turn produced brilliance (The Clash) and legend (The Sex Pistols) and helped shape American pop culture with their "alternative" approach to the commercial rock scene and through direct musical inpsiration of dozens of bands.

And this provides a conundrum: was Joey Ramone a genius? Genius is a hard concept to grasp. We understand that Albert Einstein was a genius because he had both the understanding and imagination to formulate new theories which came close to truth. And most people accept that Einstein was a genius because we assume that the concepts that occupied Einstein's brain are beyond our comprehension. Ultimately, the equations formulated by theoretical physicists are, when written, a series of symbols that make it difficult for the brain to process. But in the arts,especially music, and especially rock music, we are living in the age of Peter Schickele's proposition that "all musics are created equal, or as Duke Ellington put it, if it sounds good, it is good." It is far, far, easier to grasp a progression of sounds through the sense of hearing and find it agreeeable or disagreeable, than to read a series of symbols and to remember the concepts behind the symbols and how some symbols modify previous symbols. That's why education frequently starts with sing-along songs rather than reading. While reading appeals to the intellect first, and then possibly the rest of the body if what we read is truthful or beautiful, we process music directly, feeling it as a whole person, judging it beautfiul or ugly, at a faster rate than we process and judge the written word.

In music, simple doesn't mean bad or disagreeable. All it means is that it's easy to grasp by all. And there is a better chance that an amateur can attain the same level of greatness as the best-trained and gifted professional. There are more Will Huntings ready to impact popular culture with their untrained, and perhaps untrainable, abilities than there are in the fields of math and science. But that doesn't diminish their genius. Woody Allen knows how to make movies and Mel Brooks, after nearly 35 years making them, still doesn't. But most people laugh harder at Brooks's best scenes than at Allen's because, well, they're funnier, and by that I mean no disrespect to Allen, who can be very funny. But whatever truly resonates with the public must be regarded with some respect and value. If it shouldn't be, than what we are truly saying is that the tastes, preferences, and judgements of the people are not worthy of respect. In short, that they are not worthy of freedom but should be governed by more enlightened and well-meaning forces. That's a road too well-traveled by dictators, demagogues, and their smug followers.

Joey Ramone was no Einstein, but Einstein was no Joey Ramone. Each figured out a formula. Einstein instantly reaped the benefits of his, while Ramone lived to see others make more money than he could imagine borrowing from his. Each brought something new and valuable to the world, even if hindsight proves them to not be entirely correct according to the very latest scientific data or elite artistic standards. Who cares, really? Genius pertains to a particular field. Einstiein was one in his field, but so was Joey Ramone. May they both rest in peace.

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