The Quest for Punk Rock on the Road to Ruin
BY CHRIS GRILLO
It must have been ‘89 because I was working at Blockbuster at the time. I remember the oppressive fluorescent lighting, the nauseatingly sweet scent of overly buttered popcorn and, of course, the hideous business casual uniforms—all of these flashbacks pummeled by the screeching tires and gunfire soundtrack of some action movie blaring out of the mounted TVs. Not sure what its hours are now but in 1989 this soul-sucking corporation stayed open until midnight 365 days a year, meaning the high school kids straightening shelves and vacuuming the drab commercial carpeting while the tills were tallied in the back office were let out at around 1am on school nights. We made a wallet-busting hourly wage of about four dollars and fifty cents. These were the pre-DVD days and there were rewinding machines behind the register for the person responsible for checking in the returned videos. (The “Please Be Kind and Rewind” stickers on the VHS tapes rarely inspired goodwill.) This unlucky person was also tasked with greeting customers as they entered the store, an onerous job for any self-loathing teenager wearing khakis and a blue oxford shirt. Allegedly there would be a cash reward for any greeter who said “hello” to the regional manager. This never happened as far as I could tell.
It was around that time that the Ramones were playing at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. I thought it was an odd choice of venue—Sag Harbor being such a yuppie enclave out in the Hamptons—but I wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity to see one of my favorite all-time bands. My buddy Jeff and I were planning to drive out to Port Jefferson to Charlie’s house, where his family had moved after 8th grade, and then we’d head out to Sag Harbor from there. Rounding out our foursome was Vinnie, one of the few guys—including myself—on the staff of the Deer Park High School Year Book. None of us had seen the legendary Ramones before and this was a highly anticipated event.
On the night of the show, we arrived at Charlie’s house early in order to give us some time to find the place. We’d never been to Sag Harbor and again, this was 1989: no MapQuest or Google Earth. We spent some time catching up with Charlie’s parents and three younger brothers, marveled at the staggering number of Costco-sized cereal boxes in the kitchen pantry and took turns entertaining Thor, the family’s curious Collie. (While writing this piece, I emailed Jeff to verify parts of the story and he gleefully reminded me how, after returning to Charlie’s house after the show, I had to hide in the closet to escape Thor’s heat-seeking snout. “Thor was under the impression that you had rubbed steak sauce on your nether regions” was how he described the dog’s repeated attempts to burrow his elongated sniffer into my crotch.) After a half hour or so we were ready to head out. It was a winter evening and snow was starting to fall from the darkening sky. We piled into Charlie’s Monte Carlo and made our way east. We were amped, almost giddy, as we hurtled along the dark and mostly deserted Long Island Expressway, the Ramones and other punk and metal favorites blasting out of the speakers at an unholy volume. Not only were we about to finally see the Ramones—the progenitors of punk and celebrated homegrown heroes—but we had folded an unpredictable adventure into the story. We were on our own, lured as much by the independent punk rock spirit of the occasion as by the magic of the band itself.
Of course we got lost. We had seen signs announcing that we had entered the town of Sag Harbor but we couldn’t find the venue. We pulled over and turned down the music. Huge wet snowflakes piled onto the windshield and were swept aside by the wipers. Damp arcs of precipitation blurred our view of the soggy street that lay ahead, illuminated by the headlights. Someone suggested we turn around so Charlie gave a quick glance over his shoulder, pulled a U-turn over the double yellow line and began driving in the other direction. We were pulled over promptly. There was a collective groan followed by a chorus of saltier expressions cursing our rotten luck. We feared we’d never get to the show in time. A few minutes after a surprisingly lenient warning and some hastily delivered directions, however, and we were turning into the parking lot of the Bay Street Theater. We were finally going to see the Ramones! As we drove slowly past the club—tires crunching over packed snow—we couldn’t help but notice that the people in line were not only ten years older, but also neatly dressed in slacks and buttoned-down shirts, the women wearing skirts and clutching glittery purses. The most ominous problem was the pair of gargantuan bouncers checking IDs at the door. Was this the right place? I rolled down my window.
“Excuse me,” I shouted through the snow to a guy near the end of the line. I could have sworn he was he wearing khakis and a blue oxford shirt. “Is this the Ramones show?”
He shrugged and turned around. I rolled up the window. “Dick.”
“Well, we might as well check it out,” Jeff said. “We drove all the way out here.”
Of course he was right but we all quietly dreaded getting out of the car in our torn jeans and Misfits T-shirts only to be turned away by the thick-necked goon squad guarding the door. Our punk-fueled enthusiasm was quickly waning. We waited in line without saying a word for what seemed like an hour. The way I saw it, Jeff and Charlie would probably get in, but Vinnie and I were doomed. Jeff had always been able to grow facial hair and he sported a healthy mustache that night. Charlie, although not as hirsute, possessed a burlier build than the rest of us and was months away from joining the Marines. Vinnie could have easily passed for 13. He was short and scrawny, his Ramones tee stretching well below the hem of his denim jacket and nearly blousing around his knees. As for me, I was often mistaken for someone much younger. An emergency room nurse once told me I needed parental consent before I could have my chin stitched after a college soccer game. “How old do you think I am?” I asked, incredulous, blood gushing down my shirt front. “Twelve, thirteen,” was her humorless reply. I was 21 at the time.
Standing and shivering outside the club, I was already contemplating a cold, miserable night in the car. What would sting even more would be the injustice of it all, the fact that the genuine punks—the ones who had driven 50 miles in the snow to see one of their favorite bands—would be turned away in front of the smug smirks of an indifferent older crowd just looking for a fun night out. I suddenly felt even more out of place. Whenever I picked my head up to look around, it seemed as if contemptuous glances were cast in our direction. It may have been me-against-the-world teenaged paranoia, but the message conveyed in those disapproving stares seemed to be: “What the hell are these derelict kids doing in Sag Harbor?” At least that’s how I translated what appeared to be a thinly disguised disdain for youth, for blue-collar rebellion, and for punk music.
I have to admit, part of me relished this outsider status as it seemed to blend into the punk rock mindset quite seamlessly. I was young and idealistic, my own disdain for consumerism and untrustworthy government emboldened by the “fuck the world” anti-establishment ethos of the punk music I loved. I wrote lyrics from Fugazi songs on my white T-shirts. I grew my hair long. I drank. Yet I still played for the high school soccer team and joined the year book staff. Not exactly outsider qualifications.
Looking back now, I wonder what happened to that person, the passionate, heart-on-his-sleeve young man who naively thought that making bold statements and being a vegetarian could inspire or even actualize change, however small. Have I become complacent in my middle years? Perhaps a bit too cynical or jaded? Sometimes I think the younger, more idealistic version of me still exists—he’s just inundated with the everyday pressures and rigors of adulthood, the sleeplessness and stress of parenthood, and the daunting realization that that nefarious corporate paycheck is actually very much a necessity to help pay for little things like a mortgage, food and daycare. There’s just never enough time or energy for idealism.
“I just hope we can get in the fucking door,” I remember thinking as I stood shivering in my T-shirt.
Suddenly, a glimmer of hope was revealed as we approached the front of the line. The familiar suffocated thump of loud music could be heard through the walls of the club, the volume amplified every time someone opened the door. Now we only needed to find a way to get in. As luck would have it, this potential roadblock was also overblown. The goons gave our IDs cursory glances and quickly ushered us inside. Was it an all-ages show? Doubtful. Was it too cold for them to care? Perhaps. I’d like to think that nothing could have stopped us on that night, that our desire and determination to experience our first Ramones show would not be denied. Nevertheless, we hustled inside, exchanging furtive smiles, and felt the warmth of the crowded room start to thaw our frigid limbs. I saw a poster announcing the Ramones show and pointed; Jeff and I looked at each other with relief. The bored girl in the ticket booth collected our money with perfected disinterest, not bothering to ask whether we wanted to check our coats. There were more business casual types inside, milling around the bar and chatting up the women. Were we really the outsiders? We’d been to dozens of shows before and we’d never witnessed a crowd that seemed so out of place.
Jeff excitedly tapped me on the shoulder. “GBH!” he exclaimed in reference to the rambunctious, punk metal song the DJ was playing, a track from the “City Baby Attacked by Rats” record from the early ‘80s—not that the gold chain and Drakar Noir-wearing philistines populating this pretentious shithole would know the difference.
The Ramones eventually took the stage in their trademark torn blue jeans and black leather jackets. They ripped through a blistering set of their best songs, an unrelenting maelstrom of up-tempo guitars and pounding drums punctuated by a guttural “1, 2, 3, 4!” before launching into the next assault. It was pure, unabashed rock-n-roll cut down to the bare essentials, a 4-chord nirvana doled out in a barrage of two-minute punk songs. We were ecstatic, jumping around the crowded dance floor and soaking it up. What made the show even more meaningful was the fact that the bassist, CJ Ramone, hailed from our hometown of Deer Park. He was a Ramone and he was one of us!
I’m not sure exactly when I realized it—perhaps during “Teenage Lobotomy” or “Beat on the Brat” or “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”—but it suddenly became quite clear that while we were blissfully bopping our scrawny high school bodies around the club, singing along with their inanely wonderful lyrics (“I don’t want to be a pinhead no more! I just met a girl that I could go for!”), a more sinister element had begun to emerge in the audience. Apparently the older crowd had knocked a few back by this point and was starting to get riled up—you might even say borderline violent. Vinnie, who was standing just to my right, got body blocked into the wall of people in front of us and crumpled to the ground. I spun around to see some ape with his shirt unbuttoned high-fiving his friends and then bounding off in another direction. What the fuck? I helped Vinnie up. He assured me he was OK and we quickly moved off to the side.
“What is wrong with these assholes?” I thought to myself as they maliciously lined people up and barreled over them. Jeff, Charlie and I had been to numerous shows together and although we were metal heads, longhairs, and didn’t exactly fit in with the New York hardcore scene, we were very familiar with the code: You helped anyone up if they fell down. If they had to re-tie their laces, you watched their back so they didn’t get inadvertently stomped by the surging crowd. I once carried an unconscious kid out of the pit during a Murphy’s Law show after he had jumped off the stage and banged his head on the ground. We prided ourselves on being old school (even though we were only teenagers) and we knew that you weren’t supposed to blatantly blindside an unsuspecting person. This was clearly not CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City, not that we had ever been to those places (I’d go to CBGB’s many times later on but Max’s sadly closed before my time), but this was my first Ramones show and I was going to make the best of it.
Again, the set list is now a blur, but at one point Charlie boosted me up and I surfed the crowd for a minute or so, a thrilling yet foolish maneuver that resulted in my crashing to the floor of the narrow space behind the partition dividing the crowd from the stage. I quickly leaped on stage and found myself face to face with Joey Ramone. I was literally inches from his mic stand and couldn’t help but notice, as security swooped in and dragged me off by the back of my shirt, that Joey had a thick stream of what appeared to be blood and snot oozing out of his nose and down his chin. What stands out the most from this brief encounter is that while part of my brain was occupied by the task at hand (I was being forcefully removed from the stage), another part was focused on the entranced expression on Joey’s face—the eerie, fixated stare from behind his round, tinted glasses and the fact that he didn’t even bother to wipe the bloody phlegm from his chin. Was he so locked into the music that he didn’t even notice? Or was he just high, drifting his way through the set list in a world of his own?
Of course we’ll never know. But while a bloodied and spellbound Joey and the rest of the Ramones steadfastly blazed through their set just as they had done thousands of times before, I was mercifully thrown off the side of the stage and permitted to rejoin the sweaty throng of revelers, a combination of glee and trepidation in my heart. I would go on to see the Ramones at least a dozen times, but this show was my first. It may not have been CBGB’s but I was with my friends and, for a few short hours, we were finally living our punk rock dream.
A few days later—the ringing in my ears having finally subsided—I was standing at the register at Blockbuster, which was comprised of a till and a PC monitor that listed all of the customer’s account information. It was late and I was tired. I absentmindedly took the next customer’s card and scanned it, only this name on the screen was instantly familiar: Ward, Christopher. I looked up and standing before me was none other than CJ fucking Ramone! A sleeveless shirt exposed his tattoo-covered arms, and over his shoulder was slung the same black leather jacket from the show. He was with an attractive girl with lots of earrings, torn stockings and purple streaks in her hair. I told him how much I enjoyed the show. He told me he was having the time of his life. I was awe struck, not only by who he was but also by the sheer improbability of his being in my store during my shift just a couple days after seeing him perform. And he was so cool. Despite his recently acquired status as punk rock royalty, he comported himself with the humility and diffidence of a local kid lucky enough to be living his own dream. His newfound fame clearly hadn’t gone to his head and this fact really resonated with me. I felt as if I could relate to him, like he really was one of us after all. Of course I didn’t charge him for the videos. Blockbuster and its bullshit uniforms could kiss my ass.