Whistling past the graveyard, Jim Algie discovers where old punks go to be reborn
Lek Sukanyal, the central character in Jim Algie’s novella “On the Night Joey Ramone Died”, used to be a punk rocker. Now he polishes tone-deaf teen pop stars trying to use radio airplay as a stepping stone to the easy lucre of soap-opera fame. You’re already feeling sorry for the guy when an old band-mate calls with the news that Joey Ramone has succumbed to cancer. Our brat Lek – who’s doing his best to fit into mature, mundane society – is getting beat on with a baseball bat.
“Not a good sign when your musical heroes start dying of diseases instead of overdoses,” Lek remarks, a bit too casually considering this is the demise of his deity. Joey Ramone was 49 when he dropped the mic in a New York hospital in 2001. Lek vividly remembers being young enough to consider 49 ancient. Now he’s 43.
Lek’s gloom is piling on. His rep as a songwriter-producer is ebbing. He’s rehabbed and recently divorced and uneasy with his past. He’s an Isaan rebel who’s become wealthy, and now he’s enchained to the Bangkok elite, a proud low-life cowed in hi-so hell.
On his slick new website (JimAlgie.club), the author recalls his own days slamming on the stage with Canadian power-pop and rockabilly-punk outfits and says he’s resisted every reunion invitation. He “would prefer not to be out there past his punk prime”. He long ago turned his hand to writing prose and has earned plenty of acclaim for his earlier books “Bizarre Thailand” and “The Phantom Lover”, carving out a niche for himself that shuns definition but tends to the freakish and macabre.
There’s a wicked good nightmare towards the end of “Joey”, but here the macabre is replaced with the morose. The book will resonate with rock fans of a certain post-Beatles age, those for whom disco was stillborn, let alone stayed alive, and the stadium rock of the mid-’70s was sagging under its own unsustainable weight.
But there’s less about punk’s glory days or even the Ramones than the title might suggest. Joey’s sweet, benevolent voice is indeed heard – in the form of his reply to Lek’s teenage fan letter, in which he encourages him to form a band and get the music out. Joey admits he doesn’t know where Thailand is and perhaps should have “paid more attention in geology class. Ha ha.” Rock ’n’ roll high school, indeed.
In mood and context, Algie is this time going for something very different from his earlier work. And he’s produced his most honest and heartfelt writing to date, reminiscent of Dylan Thomas tempering that “rage against the dying of the light” with gut-stirring poignancy.
There are many references to the bands of the ’70s, but the whole point is that that was a long time ago and nothing ever stays the same. In place of a paean to punk, this is a celebration of all music’s power to heal and unify.
An aggravating session in the studio, and then Joey’s premature death, leave Lek rigid with “remorse in the rear-view mirror”, regretting both past and present and absent a future that refuses to show itself in song. “He’d wasted his life on the most juvenile of careers.” One of his more recent tunes bears the title “Memory Lane is a Dead End”.
While Lek’s ex-wife never appears in person, his son Dee Dee is there to embody his failures as a family man. Dee Dee, named for the Ramones bassist, had a horrible childhood in the mayhem of rock life and has ended up angry and spiteful. Father and son’s efforts to make peace are among the book’s best and truest passages.
Arriving with testimonial blurbs already in place from surviving members of the Ramones, the Buzzcocks and the Damned, “On the Night Joey Ramone Died” is split in two – Side A and Side B, record-album style. The first part ends with Lek reconciling like a gracious champion with the young teen idol-in-the-making whose singing voice he’d harshly ridiculed.
Three years later the second part begins and he’s blown backwards again upon meeting a young Norwegian “mercurial pixie” whose back story matches his own for excess and self-harm. Edana, with her chaotic mix of worry and exuberance, becomes his new muse, one of the “Genocide Girls and Boys” of Side B’s subtitle.
Lek, “sweating qualms and question marks”, follows her back into the darkness, relapsing into intoxicants and all the mood swings they set in motion. His unruly behaviour brings the cops around, but they too are fans and criminal charges aren’t even considered.
The writing in “Joey” is solid throughout, easy on the senses and often heart-warming, but the drawn-out self-contemplation tends to outlast its usefulness to the story’s intent. The dialogue is at times wooden and the endless name-checking of recording artists, from the other Dylan to Dinosaur Junior, gets wearisome. The frequent conversational detours about famous bands and songs too often interrupt the stream of what is otherwise a very moving tale.
Nevertheless, Algie is an increasingly confident and adept writer. Self-doubt and insecurity are “the voices of treason”, Lek tells Edana, as they together seek “a life preserver in a sea of tears”.
“Half the problem with ageing,” Lek proclaims, is “far too much reasoning and not enough action.” In pushing his talents further with every new title, Algie is taking bold action and finding every reason to succeed.
On the Night
Joey Ramone Died
By Jim Algie
Magic Bullet Press, 2016
Available at Amazon, US$2.99 Kindle edition (Bt107)