701 First Avenue, Minneapolis. 27 July, 1986
As a teenager, I attended Cretin High School. I know what you’re thinking; what an unfortunate name for a school. After all, the dictionary defines Cretin, as;
“cre·tin | \ ˈkrē-tᵊn a stupid, obtuse or mentally defective person: CLOD, LOUT”
But, the origin of the school name is not what you think. It turns out Cretin was named after Bishop Joseph Cretin, the first Catholic Bishop of St. Paul, Minnesota. It might be an unfortunate last name as well, but I digress.
In the late 1970s when I attended, it was an all-male, Christian, military academy. If that sounds like a lot to navigate, well, it was. High school years are hard enough in a normal environment. When you take the opposite sex out of the picture, throw Church doctrine into the mix, and dress it all up in a military uniform with all its attendant regulations, it gives those awkward years a difficult twist, indeed. It makes co-ed public school look like a walk in the park.
Yet, despite the shared name, I’d never really heard the song Cretin Hop by The Ramones until early in the 1980s, a few years after I graduated from Cretin High. My brother Paul was into the Minneapolis/St. Paul punk scene at the time, complete with ripped jeans, jack boots and spiked hair. He loaned me his album Rocket To Russia, which, ironically enough, opens with Cretin Hop. I was into alternative radio at the time and looking for anything outside the mainstream. The Ramones certainly fit the bill.
The LP, with not a song over three minutes, featured angsty lyrics and the classic three-chord buzzsaw guitar riffs the band was known for. For me, it was an enlightenment; a refreshing change from Top 40 and FM radio. Their knack for writing edgy songs like Teenage Lobotomy and We’re a Happy Family was a humorous poke at growing up, and a snub of the nuclear family ideals. The Ramones music was in your face, and they didn’t much care what people thought.
“You know that song, Cretin Hop, Jim?” Paul asked, after I’d taped his album for my own collection.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“It was actually inspired by Cretin Avenue. [A street a mile and a half from Cretin High]. Turns out, when The Ramones were touring here, one of them saw the sign for Cretin Avenue, and they thought it was so funny they wrote a song about it.”
“Wow, that’s hilarious. What a thing to be famous for,” I replied.
Of course, the irony of having graduated from Cretin a handful of years prior was not lost on me, either. The fact that a New York phenomena might use a little bit of Upper Midwest geography to inspire a punk song was actually kind of flattering in an unflattering way in this case.
Months later, at the peak of my interest in The Ramones in 1986, Paul mentioned that they were coming to First Avenue in Minneapolis and asked if I would be interested in attending. First Avenue was the coolest venue going at the time, thanks in large part to Prince and the chart-busting popularity of Purple Rain. The opportunity to see a band known for their high-energy, ear-splittingly raucous shows in that fantastic venue was too good to pass up. Paul bought two tickets for $8.00 each. We were booked!
The show did not disappoint. They led off with Eat That Rat, a song I was unfamiliar with, but one that set the tone for the night. Next up was Teenage Lobotomy, a favorite of mine. Then, almost non-stop, one song blended into the next, most of them thumping with a thousand beats a minute. My brother and I stood near the bar area, away from the frenetic crowd in the mosh pit. Lead singer Joey Ramone was a constant, leaning into the mic stand in his classic rock pose as the place jumped, much of the crowd doing their own personal Cretin Hop for the full two-plus hours.
Very late in the set, the band crashed into the frantic notes of Cretin Hop, thereby putting an exclamation point on my musical punk pilgrimage. On top of seeing the black leather, denim and sunglass-clad quartet hammer out axe-grinding tunes for two hours, they sang the song I’d most come to hear. And while it is well known that The Ramones will never be known for their deeply thought-provoking or poetic lyrics, they sure put on a hell of a show. There’s something to be said for unabandoned, juvenile fun.
It was a phenomenal night, and now that I’d finally seen them: 4,5,6,7, this Cretin could go to heaven!
Stereo Story #608