These vagabond shoes are singing them blues

When it comes to song titles that nail something squarely on the head, a circa-1982 song by Fear, “New York’s Alright If You Like Saxophones,” comes pretty damn close. Yeah, sure, the rest of the song—i.e., the lyrics—comprises what’s pretty much your garden-variety rant: xenophobia, homophobia, all-around phobia for phobia’s sake. (Um, the band’s name was “Fear,” right?)

But the song’s title hinted at a certain musical ethos you don’t often stumble across out here in Merle Haggard country, unless you’re making those pilgrimages down to Yoshi’s on a regular basis. You see, most of Northern California is a guitar-slinger’s kind of place, and saxophones, well, they’re sooo Manhattan.

Although many have tried, clubs that exclusively book jazz don’t seem capable of making a go of it in Sacramento, at least not on a continuing basis. Those of us who like the stuff have to go elsewhere to satisfy that saxophone jones. And those of us whose tastes run more toward the genre’s outer fringes—as opposed to the more commercially palatable Marsalis-style Brooks Brothers retro-bop or business-jazz models—are pretty much S.O.L. in the River City. Skronk-ramento, this town ain’t.

However, a recent evening at the Palms Playhouse in Davis that featured Tony Passarell’s 4tet opening for John Tchicai’s Infinitesimal Flash quartet provided the kind of old-school Knitting Factory buzz not seen in these parts too often. Especially at the end of the show, when Passarell joined Tchicai and Frances Wong onstage with saxes and the 4tet’s Gerry Pineda hauled his standup bass to join Flash bassist Adam Lane and drummer Mat Marucci for a freestyle blowdown that sprayed musical Jackson Pollock all over an already delighted audience.

As for New York music that does not feature saxophones, the five boroughs just lost one of their coolest exponents of four-on-the-floor noise. Joey Ramone died at a way-too-young 49, from lymphoma.

It’s easy to sit back and take for granted what the Ramones did for rock ’n’ roll, because so many bands have come along since, a few of them making millions of bucks in the process by aping the Ramones’ stripped-down formula. Put into a 1976 context, the Ramones’ two-minute wham-bam template was a welcome antidote to what was getting passed off as “rock” at the time. They were sonic reducers who punctured a dead musical form’s bloated carcass, stripped off the flesh for the monkeys to eat and made the skeleton dance. They made music that didn’t suck, at a time when just about everything else did.

A couple of weeks ago I saw the Groovie Ghoulies. They ruled. So, while every other scribe is writing Joey’s obit, saying there’d be no Green Day or Nirvana, lemme give it a local spin: Without the Ramones, there would be no Groovie Ghoulies. And for that, Jeffrey Hyman aka Joey Ramone, we thank you.

Even if you never played sax. Hey, there’s enough of those guys in your hometown already.