Guest Columnist #68 - Sera Bilezikyan: Joey

Rockabilly in the Morning, Reflections on the Death of Joey Ramone
Sera Bilezikyan

     I was 15. 1 wore layers of tattered clothing to fight off the cold chill of a New York City winter, and to hide. To neutralize my appearance. To disguise the emerging woman-like figure, to fight the imminent actualization of the loss of all forms of innocence from a provincial northern suburb of the sprawling pre-yuppified megalopolis. To hide my roots, to create an air of infinite possibility about me - the elusive look of a lost child, a rag doll, coming from absolutely nowhere and, looking downwards, shoulders hunched forwards, to no future. Standing next to my green-haired best friend, a few believable alibis fed to my stem, protective parents who understood love in that old- fashioned, intransient, deep-rooted definition which could never be appreciated by one at the age where breaking free was the only goal
     We had made the 26-mile trek into the city to see D-Generation (if you weren't floating around the weak-pulsed subculture of the New York City punk scene in the early 90's, the premier hair band of the region ... ) open for none other than The Ramones. As ridiculous as it sounds, that night changed my life. Although most of their music had been written when I was learning how to walk - and the heyday of not only the Ramones but the old-school punk scene in general had long since passed - there was nowhere else I could imagine wanting to be at that time. I was lonely. I was alienated. Years later, I am a political economy student dissecting Marx and learning how it was that the word alienation even became a part of our everyday language. Detachment from the roots of labor, the dehumanization of the world. It speaks to me know, although I could have defined it in a million of my own words back then if anyone had been there to listen.
     I had long stringy dyed black hair which I wore into my face because I didn't have the self-confidence for a punk rock shaved head. I snarled at people and I hated everything. Drinking scared me which cut me off from most of the other punks, along with my neediness, my fascination with books, my fear of danger which was also my unknown desire of it. Alcohol didn't give me the numbness and the hazy barrier between me and the world that it seemed to give everyone else. It made it all too real. It brought into clear focus everything around me - a world which I didn't understand, the desire to want to know love - the symbolic element for all I felt the world had denied me.
     When Joey sang to me, I felt in stereo surround for the first time that I was not really alone. That he had been there too. The intense loneliness and the subsequent anger. I stared out windows in diners hoping to nia3,be see a rainbow in a gasoline puddle. I was fascinated by the fluorescent pink and orange sunsets collapsing over the polluted Hudson. The slow crawl of evening commute traffic on Route 100. I thought the smell of chlorine was the smell of cleanliness. The sterile purity of an artificial environment had made me crave sweat, grime, the smell of those who refuse. Those who carry with them the eyes - the residue - the sexy tired smell of having once broken free.
     That night in New York City was like an offering of hope to me - a glimpse that pure joy did exist and I was a glorious part of it all. Dancing, slamming into other bodies aching from exhaustion, overwhelmed, I was feeling alive for the very first time. That night, somehow, trudging back north to the ungentle rock of an empty nighttime commuter train, life would be different. I swore this and I knew it.
    Every moment of my adolescence that was spent in noisy garages, smoky basements, and uncomfortably but ecstatically sitting atop crates of records at shows at Rockin' Rex Record Store in Yonkers, NY - ears ringing - eyes shining - with the look of having found an escape route, albeit temporary, albeit necessary, was a moment which helped me look towards the future. To defy the pretty girls and snotty politics of my hometown. The pious catholic residue of my neighborhood. The boredom of being alone and unsatisfied. Finding an identity allowed me a past and, tentatively, a future. Punk clothes and makeup allowed me to redefine prettiness while fighting with the weapon of ugliness everywhere I went: redirected, and proudly.
     Years later, after my love affair with the Ramones ended after countless shows, an escape from the suburbs, and having done my time as a St. Mark's Place gutterpunk and watched the city gentrify with the speed of a dying relationship, I still find myself remembering. Every comer which carries a memory, a moment frozen in time and treasured forever behind my eyes, even after I have left New York for good. But everything that my life is now - writing, radical politics, activism, traveling - I must remember the root of where it all came from. A search for love. A desire to rebel, to react, to reclaim. My life as it is today all stems from another time, another place. It was punk which exposed me to this most basic idea, that there was another way to live. That I was not alone in this.
     I had recently read an interview with Joey Ramone in the Village Voice before one of their last tours. The woman who wrote it sounded a lot like me: the Ramones had indeed been a defining force in her own life. At the end of the interview, she tells him, blinking back tears, that she had been overweight in high school. The ultimate misfit, freak, defiance of society which had not yet turned around with a nod of underground acceptance.  And that was enough, for Joey to say, comfortingly, I know - by tipping his rose-colored sunglasses and nodding understanding with his seldom-seen dark brown eyes. The feeling of having once been an outsider. The memory of sadness, the creation from emptiness.
     I saw Joey myself on the street in the East Village not long after that. At about 7 pm when any city becomes dead from the day but ready to strike out into the night. He put me at ease: his dark hair and coloring so commonplace in New York where being Italian, Jewish, Puerto Rican (in my case, Armenian) is still prevalent enough to cast a thorn in the side of blond, blue eyed societal expectations. I don't know if I caught his eyes beyond those sunglasses, hunched over his tall lanky frame and leather jacket walking towards me - 5 years after I had seen him in person for the first time. Now decked out in the glitz-free garb I wear today - hair short, clothes more practical and less defining. My skin is open, unmasked, unmade-up to the world. I no longer walk with the scared intimidation of a lost teenager. I had long since traded in my fishnet stockings and Germs T-Shirts, but I was still a punk in the way that I did not know what else to be.
     I flashed him a huge smile, showing fluorinated-water teeth and the awkwardness which comes along with the poise, the impression of someone who cannot quite forget that they were once invisible. Did he nod or merely fall, hunched forward, into his walk? Did he know, understand, notice, or even care? That day too was years ago now. It makes me feel as if I have lived a million lives since, then. Been a million places. But I am still just one person. For honestly, aside from the occasional reminiscing now and again, I have barely given the Ramones a second thought in years. Until I heard on Rockabilly Radio this morning that Joey Ramone had died. All morning, I've been sitting here awash in Joey tributes and Ramones songs, memories, and realizations.
     Whatever punk even means anymore, I'm not here to say. Is it the lingering memories in bad tattoos and a hunger for infectious music? Is it the desire to belong somewhere, to fight all that denies us, defies us, and dehumanizes our own worlds? All I know is that, in the sum of the experience of my life - for every moment we have slipped willingly between the cracks and created something perpendicular, resembling life to the millionth degree, my roots are still strong. Even now, even here, my immediate goal is to remember: It taught me that you are not alone. That it will get better. That perhaps if there is a secret to life it is this search for more, and the eventual unsung buried treasures of finding that which gives you no choice but to go out and make something happen. The world is only before you, and you have found a secret joy in stretching the boundaries in all directions, and fighting every norm, standard, and institution like a soldier of desire.
          And it will remember you.