January 17, 2005

A year’s end goodbye: Johnny and the Gipper

By: Ivan G. Osorio

It’s an obligatory ritual each year’s end–news organizations roll out the parade of notables departed over the past 12 months. This year, as in most, the list consists mostly of individuals who, besides fame and having passed away in the same year, have little in common with one another. For two of them, however, there’s a connection deeper than meets the eye.

It is somehow fitting that punk rock progenitor Johnny Ramone died only a few months after conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Since Johnny’s passing, there has been a litany of obituaries that mention his conservative politics and open admiration for the late president as some sort of oddity.

That this shouldn’t be odd has been already well explained by others (including Steve Beard in National Review Online and Andrew Cline in The American Spectator). Punk rock, after all, was a largely reactionary phenomenon, a backlash against rock’s early-’70s descent into pretension and self-indulgence (but that’s a topic for another article).

Yet it wasn’t only political beliefs that Johnny Ramone had in common with Reagan. Each played a central role in a major movement once considered on the fringe.

Every movement needs a founding myth–not myth as in a belief in fantastical stories, but as in an easily retold narrative that tells us how we got where we are today, helping us make sense of the current situation. Interestingly, the oft-retold narratives of punk rock and the modern conservative movement follow a somewhat parallel story line. They go like this.

First, there is the Fall from Grace.

The Old Republic, choked by FDR’s odious New Deal, gives way to a decades-long left-liberal dominance in politics. Conservatives who advocate limited government are derided as anachronistic survivors of a time that we’re better to have left behind.

Rock ‘n’ roll, the first art form centered on youth, grows old and sclerotic by the 1970s. The chaotic excitement of The Blackboard Jungle gives way to the self-destructive decadence of Woodstock and Altamont; where there was once Buddy Holly, there was now Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Though darkness descends, a remnant of true believers thrives.

Amidst a hostile political atmosphere and an ascendant welfare state, a small reduct of conservative intellectuals and activists keep the flame of freedom alive. But they’re few and dismissed by “respectable” opinion; Barry Goldwater was written off as a dangerous warmonger.

In an area marked by rock-opera excess and singer-songwriter smarminess, a few groups–the Stooges, New York Dolls, and Dictators–quixotically cling to the idea that rock is supposed to be about fun and danger and not about some higher purpose. Yet they remain confined to a few dingy clubs.

Redemption. The remnant finds a champion and finally fights back against the forces of darkness.

In 1976, conservatives, smarting from the Nixon years of wage and price controls and government expansion–Amtrak, EPA–unite behind a new champion, a California governor willing to challenge his own party’s sitting president. Ronald Reagan’s efforts fails that year, but four years later, he realizes the goal that was so out of reach for Barry Goldwater–the White House.

That same year, the Ramones release their eponymous first album, giving the back-to-basics rock ‘n’ roll revival–dubbed “punk” around this time, thanks to Punk, the magazine that chronicled it–a new flag to rally around. Ramones was unlike any else that had come before it. No one played as fast or wrote (complete!) songs as short. And no album since has inspired so many people to start their own bands, launching an entire movement.

And, finally, a look back in appreciation.

Once derided as a right-wing nut, Ronald Reagan lived to see the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union–two things his detractors said couldn’t happen. He received a hero’s goodbye from the country he loved, and even old adversaries paid him tribute.

After a career of incessant touring, commercial frustration, and various indignities–an early gig opening for Johnny Winter resulted in the band being pelted with garbage–the Ramones went out on top of the world, with a guest star-studded final concert, induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and a critically acclaimed film documentary of their career.

Is this parallel a bit of a stretch? Maybe, but not so much so if you consider that political conservatism is actually revolutionary–conserving the Washington status quo is hardly a conservative goal–while the Ramones were reactionaries against 1960s utopianism. And just try to imagine modern conservatism without Reagan. Or punk rock without the Ramones.

The Ramones documentary movie, End of the Century, features an interview in which Johnny, asked if he was always a Republican, says, “Yeah; I was a Nixon man in ’60,” and ends with his now-famous Hall of Fame induction speech: “God bless President Bush. God bless America.” I like to imagine them looking down approvingly on the night of November 2. As we bid goodbye to 2004, I offer them a final toast–to Johnny and the Gipper.

Ivan Osorio is a writer in Arlington, Va.