Four Chords and a Gun at the Bootleg Theater, which relates the stories of when The Ramones worked with Phil Spector on recording their End of the Century album, is scary.
Now the story of anyone working with Phil Spector, (legendary music producer of “Be My Baby,” “Stand By Me,” and “My Sweet Lord,” now convicted murderer) who was notorious for pulling guns on people, should have an element of fear about it, but that’s not why Four Chords and a Gun is scary.
No, it’s scary for the amazing dead-on performance of the cast, who recreate the personas they’re portraying with such accuracy that it seems, at times, like you’re watching actual film footage of them.
The Ramones, were a seminal punk band which was far more successful in the influence it had on other bands than in achieving any real commercial success for themselves.
While only one of their 16 albums ever made it to gold before they disbanded in 1996, today they are recognized as having been trailblazers in the fusing of punk and rock; Rolling Stone magazine considers them one of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” while Spin magazine lists them as the greatest band, second only to the Beatles.
Set between 1978 and 1980 Four Chords and a Gun touches on some of the impediments which contributed to keeping the band from attaining the commercial success they sought; the personality clashes and betrayals, the drug abuse.
There is little focus on the world that they occupied, with the scenes limited to backstage at the famous dive club CBGB, where they performed, the apartments of two band members and Spector’s sprawling mansion, the “Beige Castle” in *Alhambra, all depicted by David Offner’s spin-board set and the placement of a sparse amount of dressing.
There is little emphasis on the physical world, and this is fitting as the world we are meant to occupy is not ours but that of the Ramones.
And occupy it they do:
Matthew Patrick Davis as the OCD fragile Joey Ramone, Michael Daniel Cassady as the former hustler Dee Dee Ramone, James Pumphrey as the alcoholic drummer Marky Ramone and Johnathan McClain as the political conservative tyrant of the group Johnny Ramone all achieve an equivalency with their roles that is light years beyond mere imitation or characterization. Which is a testament both to their talents and Lauren Wilde’s excellent wigs (because let’s face it, the hair was a big part of the Ramones).
The world, the real world, is on stage only in the presence of Linda Daniele played by Arden Myrin. Myrin does an excellent job in conveying the seductive forces that existed and threatened the band’s unity as the Ramones’ Yoko Ono.
First time playwright John Ross Bowie admits to three things in the program, to once playing in the punk band Egghead, to having involved the cast in the working of the piece and to having been a Ramones fan since he was 14.
All of which have, no doubt, served in making Four Chords and a Gun the solid play that it is.
There are no insights here on the nature of the creative act, but there are insights into the lives of four awkward social misfits who found a world where they fit in; on stage making music with each other.
There is a bittersweet aspect to the piece which director Jessica Hanna brings to the forefront, thereby succeeding in connecting the Ramones’ story to those who may have never heard of them, and allowing this tale of these talented, if broken, souls to be appreciated; not as a freak show, but a very human saga.
The core of the play is centered on the band’s brief collaboration with producer Phil Spector (Josh Brener), renowned for having worked with such greats as the Beatles and his “wall of sound” approach to engineering.
With Spector’s appearance, Dracula-like in his cape, Brener captures the look, if not the derangement, of the man, who even then displayed the psychopathic behavior that would lead to a life sentence on charges of murder.
The play does not attempt to delve into the events, but rather takes on the mode of reporting them. However, those events are captivating in the same way as a car crash.
Whether intentionally or not, Bowie does allow for a probing of the interesting dynamics between the misfits who don’t fit in and the misfit who has made a great success of himself.
What separates the Spectors from the Ramones of the world? Why does one have a mansion and the other sleeps on friend’s couches?
The answer seems to be, at least as far as the play is concerned, duplicity.
Spector lies to everyone, about everything, especially to himself.
The Ramones, even in their betrayal of each other, do so with a candor that approaches the concrete.
Perhaps that commitment to honesty was the cause of their failure.
And perhaps that was the secret of their music.
There is a quote by Gene Simmons of KISS about The Ramones:
We think of the Ramones as a classic, iconic band. They have one gold record to their name. They never played arenas; couldn’t sell them out. It was a failed band. It doesn’t mean they weren’t great. It means the masses didn’t care.
Well, John Ross Bowie certainly does, and he does an excellent job in helping the rest of us understand why we should.
♦ ♦ ♦
*The initial recording session was in Gold Star Recording Studios in Hollywood.
NOTE: Pictured in Featured Photo: (l – r) Matthew Patrick Davis, Johnathan McClain, Michael Daniel Cassady, James Pumphrey (Photo by Kim Zsebe – Courtesy of Bootleg Theater)
Four Chords and a Gun is on at the Bootleg Theater Thru 8/14
With a special Benefit matinee, Sunday, July 31at 2pm.
Raffle tickets available and you don’t need to be present to win:
Click HERE for complete information.
VENUE: Bootleg Theater
2220 Beverly Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, 90057