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Nicholas Rombes, the Detroit-based author of a new Ramones book, found a whole new world when a high school girlfriend played him the band's Pleasant Dreams LP. Like many of us, he discovered the band's world of horror movies, comic books and junk culture that was surprisingly sophisticated behind its facade of stupidity.
Rombes grew up in a polite, socially conservative Toledo suburb called Waterville. When he heard "The KKK Took My Baby Away" at that girlfriend's house, he says the song's offhanded use of such offensive terminology stunned and intrigued him.
"That shocked me at the time," Rombes says. "Waterville was such a conservative town not politically, but in the kinds of things you could talk about."
And Rombes' reaction was the classic "a-ha" moment all rock fans have at some point in their teens. "It attracted me, and it scared me at the same time," he says in a recent phone interview. "To this day, I'm not sure about that whole scene's stance toward fascism."
It's an experience that shows up in his book about the Ramones' self-titled debut album, when he makes this astute observation: "The sense of disequilibrium and unease that's generated by moments like this is perhaps something that we ought to preserve, rather than justify or explain away, which is why arguments that punk (or the Ramones) used Nazi imagery or reference for mere shock value, or to draw attention to their outsider status, seem lame."
Rombes is an associate professor of English at University of Detroit Mercy. He teaches creative nonfiction writing, film and cultural studies, early American literature.
Ramones the book is an installment in Continuum's 33-1/3 series of pocket-sized paperbacks about bellwether rock 'n' roll albums from Exile on Main Street to ABBA Gold. (Don McLeese's volume on the MC5's Kick Out the Jams was reviewed in this space last time).
With a $9.95 list price and clocking in at a little more than 100 pages, you might expect a throwaway hack job. But Rombes' book is filled with history and analysis, making for an entertainingly dense and highfalutin read befitting his position in the academy.
"If the album can be said to be 'about' anything, then it is about noise. That's why standard rock-crit discussions of the lyrics or the personalities of the band members are ultimately dead ends," Rombes writes.
Instead, he deals with the cultural milieu that spawned the Ramones before dissecting the album itself. One of Rombes' most insightful arguments is that the rise of rock criticism (fueled in part by Detroit's own Creem magazine) made possible the rise of punk. "There was a moment in the 1970s ... when rock criticism aspired to greatness, adopting a combative, skeptical stance that embodied the music it covered," he writes.
"What they brought to their reviews and essays was something unheard of in writing about pop music up to that time: a sense of theory, of distance, of danger, of critique a broader sense of the place of popular music in culture," Rombes writes. "And they brought to their writing a sense of adventure and a willingness to make connections between punk and art and politics in ways that always risked being dismissed as too intellectual, too obscure, too uninterested in the mechanics of the music."
But that kind of writing covers a lot of ground from Lester Bangs' Boy Howdy heights to the banal bullshit of bloggers and Blender. It's a pitfall that Rombes acknowledges.
"The first-person reportage of writers like Bangs and Marcus and Meltzer, in the Jack Kerouac tradition, opened the door in rock criticism for the wholesale elevation of the personal to the public, a diary-entry journalism, which is great if you happen to be a good writer, but nothing short of horrible if you don't," Rombes writes.
Rombes acknowledges that the danger of overthinking was there. "I kind of had in my mind for the reader of the book someone who would resist it," he says.
Rombes holds a Ph.D. from Penn State University, where he specialized in early American literature and film studies. So it makes sense that another thread through the book is the connection between punk cinema and punk music. Along those same lines, Rombes edited the brand-new book New Punk Cinema (Edinburgh University Press), which is a collection of scholarly writings on films like Requiem for a Dream, the Blair Witch Project and Gummo.
The Beat Reader is a column about music books. Brian J. Bowe is editor of Creem magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.