Walk down East 2nd Street off of Bowery, and you’ll pass by Albert’s Garden, a small community garden midway up the block.
If you happen to visit on a day when the gates are open, head inside and you’ll find a beautiful little East Village oasis maintained by local volunteers.
But for something particularly special, hang a left when you enter and walk down the path to its end.
At first glance, the blank brick wall in front of you might seem entirely unremarkable when compared with the beauty of the surroundings. But had you been here on a particular day in early 1976…
…you would have seen four long-haired punks in leather jackets and ripped jeans posing for the album that would forever change rock’n’roll.
New York City has changed tremendously since the brothers from Queens first picked up guitars in 1974 to write songs about bored gluesniffers and murderous male prostitutes. Hell, if Jackie and Judy are still around, they probably wouldn’t even recognize it. But if you look closely, you can still find traces from their early days. Let’s take a closer look.
Though they’ll forever be synonymous with the area around Bowery/St. Marks, this is the actual world that birthed The Ramones: Forest Hills, Queens…
1) Birchwood Towers – 66th Road & Yellowstone Blvd, Forest Hills, Queens
Our tour begins at Birchwood Towers in Forest Hills. Once home to both Joey Ramone (at the time, living with his mother and brother) and Johnny Ramone, the Birchwood complex consists of three highrises.
Each tower has its own name: oddly, the Bel Air, the Toledo, and the Kyoto.
Joey’s thoughts on his upbringing here can be found in the song “Beat on the Brat” from their self-titled first album:
“[Forest Hills] was a middle-class neighborhood with a lot of rich, snooty women, who had horrible spoiled brat kids. There was a playground [at Birchwood, wedged between the buildings] with women sitting around and a kid screaming, a spoiled, horrible kid just running rampant with no discipline whatsoever. The kind of kid you just want to kill. You know, ‘beat on the brat with a baseball bat’ just came out. I just wanted to kill him.”
2) Forest Hills High School – 67-01 110th Street, Forest Hills, Queens
All four founding Ramones members – Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee – attended the picturesque Forest Hills High School, where they found themselves pegged as outcasts.
Johnny and Tommy bonded over a shared love of music like the Stooges that was “aimed at weirdos.” Joey was “around.” They’d meet Dee Dee later.
3) Thorneycroft Apartments – 66th Road at 99th Street, Forest Hills, Queens
Located just a block from Birchwood Towers (you can see them in the background) is the Thorneycroft Apartment complex (since renamed).
Head through grounds (or go around back)…
…and you’ll come to an open lot surrounded by a chainlink fence.
This bare-bones courtyard was a summer hangout spot for the future Ramones. Times were especially turbulent then – one childhood friend recalls looking out the window and seeing Johnny punch a kid’s dad in the nose.
3) Art Garden – A few doors down from 98-81 Queens Blvd, Forest Hills, Queens
By early 1974, the Ramones had their monickers, instruments, and a rehearsal space in the basement of Joey’s mom’s art gallery, Art Garden, on Queens Boulevard (she’d often find Joey and Dee Dee passed out in the gallery when opening each morning).
But where exactly was the Art Garden? Everyone remembers it as having been “right next to” or “adjacent to” the defunct Trylon movie theater at 98-81 Queens Boulevard (seen above). But the exact address seems to have been lost to time (a store owner I spoke with seemed to think it was in one of the storefronts east of the theater).
Wherever it was, The Ramones began fermenting into the band they’d become in a basement somewhere on this block. As Joey’s brother Mickey remembers, “I walked into the Art Garden and heard something rumbling in the basement. The door to the basement…was on the floor in the back of the gallery. When I pulled it up, the sound came rushing up out of the hole – the sound that would soon make history.”
4) Joey Ramone Place – East 2nd @ Bowery, NW Corner – Manhattan
We now jump boroughs to arrive in Manhattan at the corner of East 2nd and Bowery…
…home to the most stolen street sign in New York City: Joey Ramone Place (I’m guessing the weird bend is from a recent failed attempt). The location perfectly marks the epicenter of the Ramones’ explosion into rock history, as we’ll soon see…
5) 6 East 2nd Street – Manhattan
Just a few buildings in from Joey Ramone Place, 6 East 2nd Street was home to the loft apartment of Arturo Vega, the Ramones’ creative director, art director, lighting director, historian, confidante – the list goes on and on. As Dee Dee recalled, “Arturo Vega was like the Ramones’ evil mom. A mean Latin queen that tried to pass himself off as French. Although he was really Johnny’s friend, initially he let Joey and me crash in his loft and it was sort of like home for a while.”
Vega, said to have attended all but two of the 2,200 live shows the Ramones put on from 1974 – 1996, is most famous for designing the Ramones’ eagle logo. He died in 2013; passing by the entrance to the apartment today, I noticed a memorial pasted on the door. A retrospective of his work is currently open to the public at nearby at 6 East 1st Street through April 25.
6) Former CBGB (now John Varvatos) – 315 Bowery – Manhattan
Also less than a stone’s throw from Joey Ramone Place is the corpse of CBGB, where the Ramones debuted their first public show on August 16, 1974, one of the few places that would feature their style of underground weirdness. They’d go on to play 73 more shows by the end of that year alone, quickly becoming synonymous with the venue.
The club closed in 2006 following a much publicized rent dispute. Today, it’s a John Varvatos store.
My visit today was my first time back since my last punk show there nearly 15 years ago. You know that feeling you get at a funeral when you view the body and, no matter how good a job the undertaker did, there’s just something really, really not right about the whole thing? That’s how I felt looking at the framed posters on the walls, the stickers on the ducts, the graffiti…
To be clear, I’m glad Varvatos has preserved the space as a tribute to its roots, far preferable to it being gutted as would probably happen with any other tenant. I just don’t particularly want to look at it.
7) Extra Place (alley behind CBGB) – Manhattan
While you’re at the former CBGB’s, swing around to the back alley, known as Extra Place.
Find the rear entrance to CBGB’s…
…and you’re at the spot where the cover to the Ramones third album, Rocket to Russia, was shot. Back then, it was a gritty, dangerous alley; today, there’s a lobster shack.
8) Albert’s Garden – East 2nd Street btw. Bowery & 2nd Avenue – Manhattan
Finally, as mentioned above, be sure to stop by Albert’s Garden to take a glimpse at one of the most famous brick walls in rock history (you know Johnny’s flipping you off, right?).
And so concludes the first chapter in the Ramones turbulent career.
While I wish I could finish this piece by extolling the fame and fortune that would meet the Ramones after their first record release, the band never found mainstream success during its existence. Meanwhile, band in-fighting led to numerous line-up changes over the years and a rift between Joey and Johnny that never healed. All four original band members are now dead, which is shocking when you consider how many bands that pre-date the Ramones are still touring. It’s only in the last five or ten years that Ramones t-shirts have suddenly become as ubiquitous as any classic rock band from the 70s, courtesy of Urban Outfitters.
A personal note: punk rock shows ruined concerts for me, and I hold the Ramones responsible. I first started listening to punk rock at 12 years old, and I swear there is simply nothing – nothing – on this planet as much fun as being at a good punk show, where the entire room is literally pulsating with energy as kids pogo and mosh and push and shove and careen into each other and then, and just when someone hits the ground and it looks like they’re going to be trampled to death, everyone grabs them and yanks them back to their feet so they can join back in on the fun.
The idea of going to a concert simply to observe a band play, where the general audience response tends to be nodding one’s head while taking a video to post on Facebook, is so utterly disheartening that I can’t bring myself to do it, even for bands I love (and don’t get me started on those concerts where you have to sit down).
Ultimately, I blame the Ramones for starting it all. And I thank them.
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