I’m just gonna post this article, instead of linking to it. It’s from this week’s New York Times Magazine 2002, the issue in which they run articles about people who died during the year, and it’s one of the best pieces of music-related writing I’ve read. It makes me want to go listen to Ratt again. (It’s been a long time since I’ve wanted to listen to the Ramones.)
The Ratt Trap
By CHUCK KLOSTERMAN
Dee Dee Ramone and Robbin Crosby were both shaggy-haired musicians who wrote aggressive music for teenagers. Both were unabashed heroin addicts. Neither was the star of his respective band: Dee Dee played bass for the Ramones, a seminal late-70’s punk band; Crosby played guitar for Ratt, a seminal early-80’s heavy-metal band. They died within 24 hours of each other last spring, and each had only himself to blame for the way he perished. In a macro sense, they were symmetrical, self-destructive clones; for anyone who isn’t obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll, they were basically the same guy.
Yet anyone who is obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll would define these two humans as diametrically different. To rock aficionados, Dee Dee and the Ramones were “important” and Crosby and Ratt were not. We are all supposed to concede this. We are supposed to know that the Ramones saved rock ‘n’ roll by fabricating their surnames, sniffing glue and playing consciously unpolished three-chord songs in the Bowery district of New York. We are likewise supposed to acknowledge that Ratt sullied rock ‘n’ roll by abusing hair spray, snorting cocaine and playing highly produced six-chord songs on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip.
There is no denying that the Ramones were a beautiful idea. It’s wrong to claim that they invented punk, but they certainly came the closest to idealizing what most people agree punk is supposed to sound like. They wrote the same two-minute song over and over and over again — unabashedly, for 20 years — and the relentlessness of their riffing made certain people feel like everything about the world had changed forever. And perhaps those certain people were right. However, those certain people remain alone in their rightness, because the Ramones were never particularly popular.
The Ramones never made a platinum record over the course of their entire career. Bands like the Ramones don’t make platinum records; that’s what bands like Ratt do. And Ratt was quite adroit at that task, doing it four times in the 1980’s. The band’s first album, “Out of the Cellar,” sold more than a million copies in four months. Which is why the deaths of Dee Dee Ramone and Robbin Crosby created such a mathematical paradox: the demise of Ramone completely overshadowed the demise of Crosby, even though Crosby co-wrote a song (“Round and Round”) that has probably been played on FM radio and MTV more often than every track in the Ramones’ entire catalog. And what’s weirder is that no one seems to think this imbalance is remotely strange.
What the parallel deaths of Ramone and Crosby prove is that it really doesn’t matter what you do artistically, nor does it matter how many people like what you create; what matters is who likes what you do artistically and what liking that art is supposed to say about who you are. Ratt was profoundly uncool (read: populist) and the Ramones were profoundly significant (read: interesting to rock critics). Consequently, it has become totally acceptable to say that the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” changed your life; in fact, saying that would define you as part of a generation that became disenfranchised with the soullessness of suburbia, only to rediscover salvation through the integrity of simplicity. However, it is laughable to admit (without irony) that Ratt’s “I Want a Woman” was your favorite song in 1989; that would mean you were stupid, and that your teenage experience meant nothing, and that you probably had a tragic haircut.
The reason Crosby’s June 6 death was mostly ignored is that his band seemed corporate and fake and pedestrian; the reason Ramone’s June 5 death will be remembered is that his band was seen as representative of a counterculture that lacked a voice. But the contradiction is that countercultures get endless media attention: the only American perspectives thought to have any meaningful impact are those that come from the fringes. The voice of the counterculture is, in fact, inexplicably deafening. Meanwhile, mainstream culture (i.e., the millions and millions of people who bought Ratt albums merely because that music happened to be the soundtrack for their lives) is usually portrayed as an army of mindless automatons who provide that counterculture with something to rail against. The things that matter to normal people are not supposed to matter to smart people.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking I’m overlooking the obvious, which is that the Ramones made “good music” and Ratt made “bad music,” and that’s the real explanation as to why we care about Dee Dee’s passing while disregarding Robbin’s. And that rebuttal makes sense, I suppose, if you’re the kind of person who honestly believes the concept of “good taste” is anything more than a subjective device used to create gaps in the intellectual class structure. I would argue that Crosby’s death was actually a more significant metaphor than Ramone’s, because Crosby was the first major hair-metal artist from the Reagan years to die from AIDS. The genre spent a decade consciously glamorizing (and aggressively experiencing) faceless sex and copious drug use. It will be interesting to see whether the hesher casualties now start piling up. Meanwhile, I don’t know if Ramone’s death was a metaphor for anything; he’s just a good guy who died on his couch from shooting junk. But as long as you have the right friends, your funeral will always matter a whole lot more.