Even as a teen hanging out on street corners in Queens, Donna Gaines was doing research for her career in sociology. But then four guys from Queens, The Ramones, turned her world upside down and she was never the same.
Generations of fans have found their path through the unifying power of The Ramones, a band which for them has become a de facto higher power. One such fan is Rockaway Beach native Dr. Donna Gaines, whose new book on the band, Why The Ramones Matter (University of Texas Press) explores the group’s legacy through the dual lenses of her doctorate in sociology and her experiences as a lifelong fan.
As a wild-child who cultivated the fine art of hanging out on Queens street corners, Gaines responded to the punk manifesto proposed by The Ramones, the band’s 1976 debut album, with a full-throated Gabba Gabba Hey! Inspired by her time as a teen “making the scene” she went on to earn a doctorate in sociology and to write for Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Salon and other publications. She also cultivated a friendship with several members of The Ramones. Her first book, Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids, published in 1991, was hailed as a seminal book on youth culture. On a recent afternoon, Gaines sat down to talk with PKM about all things punk, Ramones and their sociological legacies.
PKM: I’m sure it must have been a lot of fun for you as a fan to get to write the book on your beloved band. What was that like for you?
Donna Gaines: It was humbling because there were things that I discovered about how important they were to me and to the fans at a much more serious level than I had anticipated. It was hard writing about them because I loved them and I knew them and they represented something important to me. Part of it was very thrilling because I got to spend time with them and it’s just a little complicated when they’re people that you knew and loved and you knew what they meant to you, not only as a fan but as a regular person, and somebody from Queens when you think about that regional connection. It was the good, the bad and the ugly.
PKM: Did the Ramones ever do anything to shake your faith in them?
Donna Gaines: They didn’t do anything; they made a decision and I think there was a schism within the band. Johnny just really wanted to stay true to the original mission. Keep it the way it always was because he felt to do anything to digress from that would be to betray the faith of the fans. The Ramones were of all the bands that we know the less likely to do it. Now certainly Dee Dee and Joey were creatively restless and maybe they would have wanted to do different things but let’s just say that the longer they were at it the more they reaffirmed my faith. I was less than faithful to my Ramones because somewhere around the early ‘90s, I heard Metallica and sort of went… even before that I got into hardcore, and thrash and Metallica took over my life for many years. But the thing was, through Motorhead, the Ramones in Motorhead and the relationship between Kirk Hammett and Johnny, it really wasn’t that bad of a betrayal because Joey and I used to listen to AC/DC together so my slutting around with other music genres wasn’t as unforgivable. But that band (The Ramones) never betrayed anybody and that to me was the remarkable thing about them. They really made a point of being true and being righteous until their death. To this day, CJ keeps the faith and Marky’s out there playing and Richie’s out there playing.
PKM: You make the point that The Ramones helped a lot of their fans grow into stable members of society despite being socially outcast misfits. Did you go through that transition yourself?
Donna Gaines: One of the reasons The Ramones mean so much to me is because we’re all from Queens, we were all people—a lot of the people from the seminal scene were the people—who hung out on street corners who were a little bit dangerous, maybe slightly criminal, good-bad but not evil. I think I fell in love with sociology when I was around 20, and it became my rock & roll and it was my calling. Just being on street corners when you’re young and cultivating the fine art of hanging out, when you study sociological research methods and theories you realize, I was a deviant, I was in a huge subculture, I was marginal, I was a labeled child. You start to understand your whole life in terms of sociology and you realize this was never personal, this was just the way the society creates my identity for me. So I embraced it in the same way I think that all punks and metal heads and hip hop kids do, which is ‘hey, I’m proud to be guilty and I never had to change, I just made it work for me’. I never had to become somebody I’m not: I’m still a goofball. I’m still the same as I ever was except I’m healthier and happier and I don’t define myself by other people. And certainly The Ramones ended up being The Ramones and they gave that to all their fans, that status and I think this is so true of what we would call oppositional music subcultures.
The other part of it is, this fine art of hanging out, making the scene, all of that is participant observation research. If I was hanging out at a club because my boyfriend had a band, and The Ramones were hanging out there too and we changed our names and our haircuts and our clothes to be part of that subculture, cut our hair to be a part of a scene, I was doing sociology even though it was my real life. I don’t think I’ll ever not be doing sociology, it’s just sort of being aware and I think that was the gift in my life, that I found a way to be a whole person.
If you look at people like Joey and Dee Dee the way they were labeled in high school, to become Dee Dee Ramone and to become Joey Ramone, that’s to become self-actualized; to become who you really are and to be acclaimed for it and not have to sell out and hate who you used to be that is it and I’ve dedicated my life, more so in my writing and my teaching to help young people to see they can do that too, and you don’t have to be so rich and so smart.
PKM: It seems like social isolation is causing a lot of trouble among teens today. Do you see another punk-esque movement on the horizon to bring teens into society like The Ramones did for you?
Donna Gaines: I think it’s happening all the time. Certainly hip hop opened up a lot of careers for kids in design and certainly through music. Every kid grows up wanting to be their idols. I think everything is organized differently. I think people are so splintered. I don’t even really know, I’m so many generations removed from it. Even my students, I teach in a state university in New York where the students are adults, their kids are 20. So I’m really removed from it unless there’s an issue where I feel young people require advocacy. As far as the music scene to unify people, I’m sure there’s stuff that’s going on underground because whenever mainstream music is boring there’s always something oppositional stirring, that’s just the way it is. It’s different, too, because the market is different, people can self-invent, take DIY to a much higher level through Youtube and Soundcloud and Vimeo and all the different social media venues that they have. If there is stuff underground, it can get itself out there a little bit better than Tommy [Ramone] walking around the East Village with the flyers.
PKM: Has anything changed since you published Teenage Wasteland?
Donna Gaines: When I wrote Teenage Wasteland, in the late 1980’s, I never imagined that things would get worse for young people. In the years after the Bergenfield suicide pact, as Gen X aged out into adulthood, reports of bullying, school shootings, date rape, racially-motivated street violence against kids of color, LGBT youth, dominate the news. Gen X are now middle-aged, harder hit by addiction, suicide, joblessness, disinvestment and automation. As the baby bust, a generation coming of age in the shadow of the baby boomers, Gen X has paid a price for being a smaller demographic, more powerless, voiceless, in a changing global economy. Yet many have done well, resilient and determined, successful in spite of structural obstacles and societal neglect.
I had high hopes for Millennial youth as a larger demographic, but it’s a very different America. With crushing student debt, choking corporatization, and diminishing economic opportunities, the American Dream falls increasingly out of reach. But maybe there’s a new dream coming into view. I’m inspired by a growing social awareness, collective responsibility, “wokeness” and creativity we see among all young people—innovating, farming, healing, crafting new social movements, and active political engagement.
I dedicated Why The Ramones Matter “to the Greater Glory of God, The Ramones, and The Generations Rising.” The RamonesWorld Empire of fans are connected across boundaries of nation-states, race, religion, gender and politics. They’re energized, motivated by curiosity, kindness, generosity, meaning, and community. There’s so much goodness out there. The Ramones dedicated themselves to “the kids,” to their fans and oppositional music subcultures such as punk, hip hop and metal will continue to unify people. I’ll always put my faith in young people as the harbingers of change. Like The Ramones, I believe in miracles, I believe in a better world for you & me.
PKM: Did the band members’ confrontational relationship contribute to their creative process or hold them back?
Donna Gaines: I think it contributed to it. I always believed the chemistry was so psychotic between them, they were all such strong individuals that were volatile and by nature being so creative, that really caused some dynamic tension and some of the bad blood. I had opportunities to write books about The Ramones before this and I just never wanted to pursue it because I knew if I did a bio with one person that two other people would hate me and vice versa and I just didn’t want that kind of drama in my life. But this came up at a time when all the bios have been written and this isn’t really about them; it’s about their legacy. But the hatred I think wore on people’s nerves. You had people who were major trauma survivors with major mental health issues and addiction challenges and so just what do you think is going to happen when you put those people together? If they’re talented and disciplined and motivated and sincere, you’re going to get gold. So many of the great bands just fell into heroin and you never saw them again.
PKM: How do you reconcile Johnny’s fascination with Nazis with their anti- authoritarian songs?
Donna Gaines: I don’t think they had anything to do with one another. Johnny and Dee Dee were fascinated with Nazi stuff in the same way we were fascinated with Charles Manson when we were teenagers. For Dee Dee, it was a deeper thing because that was his mother’s childhood. His mother was a little kid growing up in Nazi Germany. He writes in his autobiography the rivers turning red with blood and she had to see that, and you know the father was an American Army guy. So that was part of his history: how do Americans and Germans reconcile all that stuff in the next generation. I think that Nazi stuff was just how can we be bad ass and say fuck you. Even Tommy, his family were Holocaust victims, his parents were refugees from Hungary where anti-Semitism is alive and happy today and I think there was something even for him to say instead of being so afraid of this I can just say fuck you and wear an iron cross and I’m alive and they’re not.
The anti-authoritarianism, that’s punk, that’s all of them. And even though we know Johnny was a Republican, I’m sure he would have loved Trump, I think he would have loved his sense of humor because it’s real sicko Queens, whatever you think of the guy he’s just got a really regional sensibility that Johnny would have been super amused by. But Johnny was a real anti-authoritarian at the same time that he was himself pretty controlling; it’s not unusual. My dad was a drummer and he was an army guy. There are just people out there that are more complex than one side or the other. I think they were the most disciplined band than any band you can think of. If you listen to that first album everything is perfect, everything is regimented. So they were kind of paramilitary which requires authoritarianism which Tommy, when he left Johnny picked up that mantle. So imagine that band without Johnny. But also imagine Johnny without Dee Dee and Joey being so creative. You can’t. Those things coexist and they’re not reconcilable. I think that stuff coexisted in Dee Dee’s psyche, in Johnny’s. I think a lot of it is show too, like how can we look as tough as possible so you won’t fuck with us and destroy us. That’s the contradictions of punk right there: anti-authoritarian yet playing around with these symbols.
PKM: Did punk have a more lasting impact in the U.K. than the U.S.? It seems like maybe it caught on a little bit more over there than over here.
Donna Gaines: I think people have said that and certainly the best books that have been written have come from there. England is really smaller, back then there was an influence of the Jamaican bands through The Clash. But the clothing, I think we would give the clothing to the U.K. but we’ll keep the spirit of it. For them it was more economic, with the dole queues and the unemployment. For us, I think, it was more ‘70s economic decline and boredom and it’s two very different societies. It’s hard to answer that without my next dissertation. I think the punks got more press there, they got more airplay and they were more homogenized as far as their influences, so we’ll give them the style, we’ll give them the look, although the Ramones look is classic. That’s American, that came from Brando and the Hell’s Angels.
PKM: Which Ramone seemed your most kindred spirit?
Donna Gaines: As an artist, as a Ramone I always said Dee Dee was my Ramone, but Joey was certainly, anyone who knew Joey knows he’s their brother and their soulmate even if they never met him. Joey was the closest to my spirit. But C.J. could be family too because I live on Long Island where his family is from. He came to my school last year and did a presentation for my students on advocate parents, who are parents of kids with special needs, who have to stand up for their kids. And he’s just such a stand-up guy, so he’s my bro too. And you know I just had great respect and love for all the others. I guess I’m Dee Dee’s army and Joey’s sister or something. Maybe C.J.’s too. I don’t know, it’s a hard one. My favorite songs, I guess I have about five of them. “Born to Die in Berlin”, which is so Dee Dee, and I guess it’s a bit of a Heartbreaker’s song.
But you know “Commando” is another favorite song and Joey’s stuff is so heartfelt, it just tears your heart out.
So they can do no wrong. To me, they’re perfect no matter what. They’re just icons. People pray to them, people light votive candles with their pictures on them and go to their grave sites. They really were more than a musical band, they were a lot more than even my friends or the progenitors of punk.