When Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky Ramone started working with eccentric record producer Phil Spector in May of 1979 on End of the Century, social rules were obviously a lot different than they are now.
Mental health for one thing isn’t simply sloughed off as someone being “crazy” and marginalized to the fringes of society. Also, just because you’re an individual who may have had accomplishments in the past, this does not give carte blanche to be abusive towards others. No matter how many times you may have been called a genius.
These are just two warring factors which come to a head in the play Four Chords and a Gun, running until April 28th at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre. It was written by John Ross Bowie, best known to many as Sheldon’s nemesis Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. He got into the Ramones as a 13-year-old via a cassette copy of their debut album, and subsequently “listened to a lot of punk, went to a lot of punk shows, never had a mohawk or anything but I perhaps had a certain anti-authoritarian stance that I might still have traces of…but I’m also a father of two with a lawn to maintain so there’s an argument to me that I’ve sold out.”
Mr. Bowie is far from being a sellout, poser or any other derogatory term self-righteous music and/or theatre critics can hurl at him. Together with Toronto-based director Richard Ouzounian, he has created something which endeavours to put a human face on a band that were often seen as cartoonesque no matter how revolutionary their 2-minute rock outbursts founded in pop melodies were in the ’70s. Phil Spector certainly saw this, and sold the by-products of the CBGB scene a dream where they would become bigger than KISS or anyone else of the era. More than anything else, the Ramones wanted to be taken seriously as artists, and thought they were getting the better end of the deal through associating with Spector.
“Everything that happened during the recording of End of the Century is the stuff of good drama,” Bowie teases. “There’s heartbreak, betrayal, addiction, and I wanted to be true to that. There are a lot of volatile characters, and sometimes volatile characters can be very funny to watch and sometimes they can be very scary to watch, and I tried to honour both of those aspects. There is a darkness underneath the John Holstrom-illustrated cartoons that we think of when we think of the Ramones, the comic versions of them on the record sleeve of Rocket to Russia.” Bowie neatly summarizes his play as a “relationship between art and work, between perspiration and inspiration.”
From what I saw on opening night the sparse, six-actor cast do a great job scraping more than just the surface of what the Ramones presented themselves as on stage for 23 consecutive years. They were real people, each of them with real severe issues such as Joey’s obsessive-compulsive disorder which was frequently in conflict with Johnny’s short fuse anger. The guitarist stealing the towering yet timid singer’s girlfriend Linda didn’t help matters, as one can imagine. Spector knew this too, conniving against the group members and pitting them versus one another for a result which in the end didn’t make him any less poor but didn’t make the Ramones any more famous than they already were either.
If you’re looking to learn about Spector’s vaunted “Wall of Sound” technique or how four music miscreants apparently knew the magic formula to catchy, bubblegum-ish song composition, Four Chords and a Gun isn’t that production. It does however provide a window into if the man who claimed responsibility for “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” could have shot and killed Lana Clarkson; ironically, it has been exactly ten years since Spector was found guilty of committing this very crime.
Not sure if I would give it 1-2-3-4 stars, but definitely ROCKmended for anyone who likes character stories with depth, in addition to a punk twist. If you’ve seen any advertising for Four Chords and a Gun you’ll hopefully know going in that it isn’t a (expletive deleted) musical, although patrons are treated to a short-but-sweet concert of Ramones favourites following the performance. Cover band vocalist Reid MacMaster can’t be much older than when the Ramones finally said “We’re Outta Here” in 1996, but his sincere delivery when I saw him speaks volumes to their influence as innovators all these years later.