#106: Ramones, "Rocket to Russia" (1977)

106 Rocket to Russia.jpg

Rocket to Russia, the Ramones’ third studio album, was released by Sire Records in 1977. At that time, my parents were newly married, over a decade younger than I am now, and living in Iowa City. Their work schedules were breakneck and their school debt high, but every Friday night they took themselves on a date for McFishwiches. Rocket to Russia was officially released in November, however “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” came out as a single earlier that summer, so folks were primed. My parents probably heard the song on the radio, mixed with cicadas and sleeplessness. That summer was the first big wave of punk bands signing with major labels in the U.S., meaning it was also the first lurch from punk-as-lifestyle to punk-as-costume. But these things happen, and often they have no effect on how much I listen to certain songs (or don’t).

I’m not sure if my parents ever heard Rocket to Russia beginning-to-end. I can ask them if I want to. I did watch Rocky and Bullwinkle with my mother, and was ashamed to realize that Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale were products of nuclear threat and American fear (though this didn’t stop me from wanting Natasha’s eye makeup).

I first heard “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” when I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in Seattle in 2001. I remember I had patchy green hair, though of course that has nothing to do with my hearing, and a friend sewed my favorite shirt, which he designed to look like a plastic garbage bag. I liked “Sheena” because it starts when Joey says, “Go!” I often brought it to bump during final sweep at my closing shifts in the Barnes and Noble music section, after which everyone went to the bar and I walked home through the park with my Walkman, because I was seventeen. At night my hair finally looked like everything else did, so I imagined the hot pink text of that Ramones album cover, and I wasn’t foolish to think it helped me get home safely.

In 1977, the average income in the U.S. was $15,000, though of course many people made less and many, vastly more. Elvis died on his toilet, the New York City Blackout lasted a day and an hour, Bubbalicious and Star Wars debuted, and the first West Coast Computer Faire happened. American peanut farmers were given acreage allotments and poundage quotas. The Torrijos-Carter treaty was signed, Roots aired, and the French government used a guillotine for the last time. It is easy for me to think that if I’d been Mairead in 1977 I would have been in New York, moth-to-flame, wearing knuckle rings because of the Son of Sam (not the Green River Killer, like I actually did). But another truth is that the wealth of my parents’ weekly fast food date, consistent in both time and oil, helps me imagine this most clearly. It’s not the only way to get to a city, but it’s mine.

I loved Rocket to Russia because its tempos matched the ones in my late-teenage brain, its rhymes were familiar (“Ramona / phone her”), and the band had dumped Phil Spector. Plus Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy looked like they would just let me chill. They were always leaning, not ogling, which meant they were True Weirdos. They asked questions (“Do You Wanna Dance?”) and shot straight (“I Can’t Give You Anything”). They wanted folks to keep up or go away. My body looked like theirs, and after attending Catholic school for eight years I knew that having a uniform (in the Ramones’ case: shag, stripes, shades, jeans) usually meant your brain was free to get mystically freaky. Next to the Sex Pistols, who made their recording debut that same year, the Ramones looked like monks. Indeed, Joey blamed the Sex Pistols for Rocket to Russia’s lower-than-expected sales, even though that album was one of the Ramones’ highest-grossing ever. I think it sounds best on cassette.

The Royal Tenenbaums came out in 2001, as did Hedwig and the Angry Inch (see: “Sugar Daddy”), so one day after therapy I rode the bus to J.C. Penney and bought a pair of black Converse high-tops. I bought them special with my own paycheck, as my own sugar daddy. I was trying for alchemy by adding one galaxy to another: Hedwig and Margot Tenenbaum. Rockets and Russia. Therapy and a bus pass. Four people (2+2) who established one same last name so critics would have to call them by their established first names (note: “established” is different than “invented”).

I liked Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy because they sang specifically about wanting to die, but in 1977, none of them had. In 2001, I laced and sprayed my new shoes (admittedly, Cons do not need spray, but I was learning to take care), and bounced in my head: “Hey hey hey why is it always this way?” I still don’t know, but as I listened to the Ramones I taught myself to see hot pink and keep walking.

—Mairead Case