It’s one of the world’s great truisms that proper artists don’t make any money until after they’re dead, but that doesn’t make the whole process any less depressing or disheartening. In many ways, the Ramones are the perfect example of this phenomenon — they slave away in relative obscurity for decades, getting decent reviews but never making any money, while a legion of imitators goes on to cash in on the music the band basically invented. They eventually break up, and three of the four original members die young. And then, all of a sudden, Ramones T-shirts are everywhere, streets are named after the band, best-of compilations are released, Hall of Fame inductions are forthcoming, retrospective praise is bandied lavishly… and the posthumous releases begin.
This week sees the release of something called …Ya Know?, which is billed as Joey Ramone’s second solo record. Considering that the first, Don’t Worry About Me, came out a decade ago — in 2002, to be precise, a year after the singer’s death — it’s hard to hold out particularly high hopes for this, and indeed, on first listen, it doesn’t sound great. Apparently some of these tracks have been kicking around for nearly 40 years (the songs on the album “were written between 1977 and 2000,” according to the information we got), and considering that the Ramones released pretty much everything they ever wrote, it’s hard to believe this is anything but a barrel-scraping exercise.
In fairness, …Ya Know isn’t nearly as gratuitously bad as some of the other releases in the pantheon of the music industry’s tawdriest posthumous money-making exercises. The producers enlisted to cobble together the tracks — Ed Stasium and Jean Bouvoir — have both worked with the Ramones in the past, and the guest musicians (which include Joey’s brother) no doubt have their hearts in the right place. And if the release makes a bit of cash for Joey’s family, it’s probably not an altogether bad thing.
If anything, the more depressing thing about the whole exercise is realizing how thoroughly the nostalgia industry has co-opted the halcyon days of New York punk. This is inevitable, to an extent — it’s the nature of subcultures that they eventually get devoured by the mainstream and regurgitated as palatable shadows of their former selves, of course, but nevertheless, it’s never a pleasant process to which to bear witness. You can argue that no one should begrudge some belated exposure for artists who were largely commercially ignored during their creative heyday. After all, if at least some of the kids buying Ramones t-shirts end up questioning who this band whose logo they’re wearing so proudly actually were, and perhaps buying a couple of records, then something good will come of the whole sorry affair.
This is true to an extent. The problem with the nostalgia industry, though, is that it’s inherently reactionary, and that’s never the sign of a healthy culture. There’s a weird idolization of the past that’s been creeping its way into contemporary musical culture for at least the last 25 years, since the baby boomers hit middle age, stopped buying records and started reminiscing about how great the ’60s were. At its inception, for all that it was grounded in what had gone before (the delta blues, basically), rock ‘n’ roll was an iconoclastic art from. Punk certainly was. Admittedly, there was always something silly about the latter’s year-zero fundamentalism, but rejecting the past to try to create something new is something that every generation does, and it’s a healthy process.
Prepackaged rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia is the antithesis of this idea. It’s an industry that has no interest in contemporary culture, only repackaging and profiting off the past — which is something that, for all its apparent good intentions, is exactly what …Ya Know? is doing, using the fact that many people only get interested in artists once they’re gone to sell a collection of demos that really could just have remained unreleased.
The other thing with …Ya Know? and the slew of similar deluxe editions (usually reissues of albums that have existed quite happily in non-deluxe form for years) is that the content is usually secondary to the idea of album as consumer object. In the case of …Ya Know?, you can order a deluxe version for $54.99, which comes with — hilariously — a Joey Ramone Place street sign. You can see the target market — people who want to purchase a little bit of the Ramones’ belated cultural caché, having most likely missed out on it the first time around.
And that’s the key point — the nostalgia industry, by its very nature, has no interest in contemporary culture, and very little interest in actual content. No doubt in 20 years’ time you’ll be able to buy a deluxe edition of, say, Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam that comes with a pot of actual 2007-style strawberry jam, by which time the band will have long since broken up and Panda Bear will be raising 14 children and Geologist will be working as a real geologist. It’s easy to guess who’ll be buying it: not the people who purchased the record when it came out the first time.
And so, ultimately, we should be asking whether the world really needs a posthumous Joey Ramone album. With all respect to the man himself and the well-intentioned people involved in the project, as far as we’re concerned, the answer’s no. If you want to hear Joey at his best, get a few Ramones records — or even just the best-of — and then go forth and find something exciting and new. We’re sure he’d approve.