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Sunday, April 22, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erik Lacitis / Times staff columnist

Hard reality intrudes on a rock 'n' roll fantasy life

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Let me tell you what happened Monday morning, when the news came across about Joey Ramone, age 49. There were a bunch of guys - plus or minus a decade in that age group - and they all collectively paused and sighed for a long time. Joey was dead, and that wasn't supposed to happen. Somebody like Joey, jeesh, he's supposed to be eternally frozen in time.

He's not supposed to die. He and the Ramones are supposed to be singing again at that sweltering little venue, pounding away, hey-ho, let's go, Sheena is a punk rocker, rock, rock, Rockaway Beach, twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go, I wanna be sedated, do you remember rock 'n' roll radio?

So the news came across that Joey, born in Queens, died over the weekend of lymphatic cancer; this was one of those items that merited a few inches in the papers. Joey was the lead singer for a rock group that never even had a Top-10 hit; you have to have a perspective. There were lots more important people.

But I can 1,000 percent guarantee you that on Monday morning, a bunch of guys had themselves that good, long pause. These guys, you see them all over the place. You see them at work, maybe in that midlevel managerial position. You see them taking their kids to baseball practice. You see them sitting in front of that bank-loan officer, applying for that mortgage. You see them at Home Depot, sorting through those 2-by-4s because they promised their spouses they'd build that deck in the back yard.

When you pull up alongside them on the street, you can't hear what radio station these guys are listening to, or what CD they might have playing. These guys are driving that family car with the standard speakers, not the double-bass high-amp stuff.

Probably much of the time, these guys are listening to Dave or Dori on talk radio. But some of the time, when it's just them in the car, they put the radio on scan, and surf the radio stations.

And all of a sudden the radio locks onto a song. It could be AC/DC, it could be the Scorpions, it could be Van Halen and it could even be the Ramones. It could be one of a number of rock 'n' roll subsets. What unites them all is that they're loud, pounding and fast.

If everything is aligned just so, if it's a sunny day, if things have gone OK at work, if there are no hassles at home, if the kids' report cards aren't too bad, these guys crank up the volume control to 11.

And suddenly it's, well, maybe it's 1979 again, and the Ramones are playing at the Rainbow Tavern in the University District. The 200-capacity joint is crammed full.

Back in the early 1970s, rock 'n' roll was just about dead. There is nothing wrong with the Carpenters, Dawn, Bread, the Osmonds, John Denver or Barry Manilow - all of whom had huge hits back then - but a song like "Sunshine On My Shoulders" is not rock 'n' roll.

Into this saccharine goop came the Ramones, who, perhaps because of their middle-class New York-Nassau County background understood all too well the eternal need for American kids to know that, in the U.S. of A., you still could be a rebel.

They dressed in ripped jeans and black-leather jackets. Joey, especially, with his gawky looks and cascading hair, looked like every mother's nightmare for her teenage daughter. But Joey understood what was important. He would sing:

"Do you remember lying in bed,
"With your covers pulled over your head?
"Radio playin' so no one can see,
"We need change, we need it fast,
"Before rock's just part of the past,
"'Cause lately it all sounds the same to me."

The Ramones took the music back to its roots, playing three-chord tunes that lasted maybe two minutes. They weren't much into philosophizing. "Gabba, gabba hey!" was one of their mantras. They took the pretension out of rock 'n' roll. They were at the heart of the New York City scene that spawned what later was called punk rock. They were a huge influence on today's bands, with a group such as U2 covering Ramones tunes in concert.

But about why on Monday a bunch of guys paused for a long time: See, the thing about a rock tune is that it freezes you in time. Suddenly you're back at this U District tavern, or at Golden Gardens beach. It's a little oasis in your collective memory, before everything got too complicated.

These guys, for the 10 minutes or 20 minutes they were driving, the music could take them back.

Then the news came that Joey was dead of cancer. What can you do but sigh? The pages just keep on turning.

Bruce, stick around for a long time. We're still counting on you for the glory days.

Contact Erik Lacitis at 206-464-2237 or e-mail: elacitis@seattletimes.com.

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