Hey! Ho! Let's Go! Ramones and the Birth of Punk
Queens Museum, April 10–July 31, 2016
My Bowery past, my time at the Queens Museum, and the subsequent development of the 98 Bowery website all came together in 2016, when I co-curated a major exhibition about the New York punk band Ramones.
When I began to develop the section of this website concerning my years at the Queens Museum, I returned to the museum for the first time in well over a decade, seeking archival materials from my time there. The museum's director, Tom Finkelpearl, expressed interest in the Queens Jazz Trail map I had created, and suggested a Queens Hip Hop Trail. When I mentioned the idea of a Ramones exhibition, he leapt at the suggestion.
The exhibition, "Hey! Ho! Let's Go! Ramones and the Birth of Punk," marks the 40th anniversary of the Ramones' debut album. It is the perfect epilogue to the story told on this website. My last exhibition for the museum had been about the jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who had lived about a mile west of the museum in Corona; the Ramones had attended Forest Hills High, a mile in the opposite direction. They made their name in the 1970s at CBGB, the nightclub blocks away from 98 Bowery that inspired my first curatorial endeavor, Punk Art at the Washington Project for the Arts in 1978. Many of the artists who appeared in that exhibition are part of this new exhibition about the Ramones.
Though none of the original Ramones is still living, their families and their management recognized how important this hometown anniversary tribute would be to the band's legions of fans. As Laura Raicovich (who had succeeded Tom Finkelpearl as the museum's director) began to work out a plan with the Ramones' management, it was suggested that the Queens Museum collaborate with the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. I would oversee the exhibition at the Queens Museum, which, like the Armstrong exhibition, would emphasize the relationship between visual art and music. At the Grammy Museum, director Bob Santelli would present an exhibition in line with their specialty in music history.
Early in the process, I brought in the Ramones' two longest-serving colleagues (each with a claim to the title of "fifth Ramone"): art director Arturo Vega and tour manager Monte Melnick. Vega had designed the band's logo, and directed their merchandise and stage presentation. His unexpected death, just months after we started planning the exhibition, was a serious blow. Melnick cherished his experiences with the band, and now kept twenty-two years' worth of rare Ramones memorabilia in boxes at his Queens apartment. A great portion of the exhibition comes from his collection. In the end, there were many important contributors, including relatives of each original Ramone: Joey Ramone's brother, Mickey Leigh; Johnny Ramone's widow, Linda Ramone; Tommy Ramone's longtime partner, Claudia Tienan; and Dee Dee Ramone's first wife, Vera Ramone King.
I got to work again with the crew behind Punk magazine (1976–1979), who had collaborated on the 1978 Punk Artexhibition. The museum commissioned Punk editor and cartoonist John Holmstrom to draw a map of the Ramones in New York, centered on Queens. Roberta Bayley contributed prints from her 1975 Ramones photo shoot in Punk: the famous image used on the band's first album cover, and a rare outtake of the band smiling. The magazine's "resident punk" Legs McNeil came in to scrawl the lyrics to "Pinhead" on the museum's wall, recalling his "punk manifesto" on the wall of the Washington Project for the Arts in 1978.
Another repeat from the "Punk Art" exhibition is Bettie and the Ramones, Curt Hoppe's large oil painting based on a photograph from my and Bettie Ringma's series Bettie Visits CBGB. Reviewing Hey! Ho! Let's Go! in Art News, the influential rock critic Robert Christgau singled out the painting as a "stunner":
Christgau knows well that there were always only four Ramones, but his professed confusion perfectly captures the spirit behind the painting. Bettie was there at the club with the band, and the painting has made her story a permanent part of theirs. Similarly, the exhibition itself fuses my own experiences of the Ramones with the band's continuing legacy, just as this website blends my personal memories and work with the larger history of art and music on the Lower East Side.
Thumbnail credit: Richard Hambleton / Arturo Vega, “Ramones,” acrylic on canvas, 2004. Courtesy Estate of Arturo Vega.