“Four Chords and a Gun” is John Ross Bowie’s version of a legendary (or at least deeply weird) moment in rock n roll history – the making of “End of the Century,” the 1980 album by the punk rock band the Ramones, which was produced by the legendary (deeply weird) Phil Spector, an extremely odd pairing that has inspired Rashomon-like accounts of conflict.
Bowie’s play has been kicking around since its debut at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater in 2016. Now Bootleg’s founder Jessica Hanna has directed it as the latest Zoom reading for Play-PerView, available on demand through June 30. Like most Play-PerView productions I’ve seen, it is smartly cast, and indeed, it’s the six-member cast that initially makes “Four Chords and a Gun” so enjoyable, starting with seeing Justin Kirk (“Love!Valour!Compassion”; “Weeds”; “Angels in America”) wearing a black moptop and snarling as Johnny Ramone. But the actors’ largely amusing portraits of idiosyncratic characters turn out to be insufficient to compensate for the flaws in the play, and even end up feeling part of the problem.
“This is a memory play,” Marky Ramone (Brendon Hunt) tells us near the outset. “But they’re not all my memories, and some of it is total bullshit, but a lot of it is really, really true.” One thing that’s true is Marky’s priceless Queens accent. The Ramones were outcast kids who met as students in Forest Hills High School in Queens, each taking the stage name Ramone because that’s the fake name Paul McCartney used when he checked into hotels.
When we first meet them, it is 1978 and the Ramones have just finished a gig, ecstatic over the reaction (“a room full of people who understand us…It’s like reverse high school.”) Their only regret was that they only played 28 songs in an hour; they could have gone even faster.
This sets up the comic contrast with Phil Spector (Ben Feldman), the exasperatingly perfectionist producer, a control freak who flies them to his mansion in L.A., where he has a recording studio, and makes them listen to tapes for endless hours, and repeat a single chord hundreds of times.
The band members’ reaction is mixed. Joey is in awe. “If he can do something for us, if he can do something for us the way he did something for the Beatles? Or John Lennon? Almost every band that taught me how to sing, he produced.” Marky is sick of hearing about the Beatles. “The fuck is so rock and roll about a sitar?….If we’re supposed to be taking Rock and Roll back to its roots then the Beatles shoulda taken a lesson from us… ” Johnny outright refuses Phil’s orders – which prompts Phil to take out a gun to force him to obey, which may or may not have actually happened.
The plot of “Four Chords and a Gun,” which consists of two main conflicts – The Ramones vs. Phil Spector, and Joey vs. Johnny over a girl – feels to be less of a priority for the playwright than the apparently well-researched biographical tidbits that are extensively threaded throughout.
Joey Ramone, born Jeffrey Ross Hyman, was lead vocalist and frontman of the band, and is also more or less the central focus of the play, or at least the most sympathetic character. It helps that he’s portrayed by Bobby Conte Thornton, the heartthrob who debuted on Broadway in “A Bronx Tale The Musical,” and is in the cast of the forthcoming Broadway revival of “Company.” Still, Bowie goes to town with Joey’s eccentricities. He is a hoarder, never throwing anything out, and always needing to write things down, saving the strips of paper in case they wind up as lyrics. He never takes off his boots. He doesn’t like to go out, preferring to stay home and watch “Get Smart.” This annoys his girlfriend Linda (Lena Hall, Tony-winner for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, this time playing the straight role.) “What is the point of going out with a rock star if you never actually go out?” she says. It becomes harder to share in the playwright’s evident delight at Joey’s weirdness, when we learn that Joey has spent time in mental institutions.
But Joey fares better than the other characters, who are mostly reduced to caricature.
Marky sleeps a lot, gets drunk, and does “Chicken Beak Boy” (an impersonation of a chicken) to cheer up his bandmates.
Johnny is truly rotten. He voted for Nixon, and says things like “I am unique and I am a legend and I am always right.”
Dee Dee (Michael Cassady) is little more than a dope and a drug addict. He occasionally tries to get healthy, at one point saying: “Just beers and Quaaludes. I’m clean besides that.” He works on the side as a male hustler to support his heroin habit.
Making Dee Dee comic relief, and apparently playing his drug dependence for laughs, started to strike me not just as mean-spirited, but as misguided. What is the point of this play? How can biographical facts, even those that may be true, really get at the lives of these influential musicians, if you don’t delve into their music? Yet there are only the briefest snippets from their best-known songs, none lasting more than a few seconds, piped in between each scene (presumably the playwright couldn’t get the rights to the music.) Although the play focuses on the recording of an album, there are no scenes in the recording studio (only before or after), and I recall just one song, “Danny Says,” even being discussed at any length.
Could “Four Chords and a Gun” appeal to hardcore Ramone fans, despite this large omission? Who knows? Without the music, I’m tempted to think that a better comedy, or at least one with more integrity, could have come out of an imaginative reworking of the Ramones’ story, without using their names, although I suppose that would have been less marketable.
For me, one of the best things about “Four Chords and a Gun” is that it inspired me to hunt up The Ramones on YouTube.