Johnny Ramone: Story Of A Punk Legend

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It was that power of the guitar: I walked out there knowing that we were the best.

There was nobody even close. Volume was my friend and I never wore earplugs. That would have been cheating.

After retirement came induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, victory in readers’ polls that surveyed influential bands, and even me getting ranked as the 16th top guitar player in history by Rolling Stone. But for all the success, I carried around fury and intensity during my career.

I had an image, and that image was anger. I was the one who was scowling, downcast, and I tried to make sure I looked like that when I was getting my picture taken. The Ramones were what I was, and so I was that person so many people saw on that stage.

That was both the real me, and the image me who beat up Malcolm McLaren in the tiny backstage area at the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles in 1978. It has a history of great music, from the Doors to the Stooges to the New York Dolls. McLaren was talking to my girlfriend, and all of a sudden I decided I didn’t want her talking to him anymore, so I told her to come over to where I was standing a few feet away. I heard McLaren ask her: “What’s his problem?”. So I went over to him and said: “What’s my problem?”, and I punched him in the head. He went down, but I wasn’t done. I went over and grabbed Dee Dee’s bass to finish the job – but people intervened and hustled McLaren out of there.

The rage started with adolescence and never fully left. I would walk off the stage with that anger going, although it eased when I retired in 1996. While retirement seemed to soften me, the prostate cancer I was diagnosed with in 1997 did so even more. It changed me, and I don’t know that I like how. It has softened me up, and I like the old me better. I don’t even have the energy to be angry. It has sapped my confidence. I fought it as hard as I could. I figured it would win in the end, but I hate losing. Always did. I liked being angry. It energised me and made me feel strong.

When I was younger, I was ready to go off at any time. My wife, Linda, and I would go out to the Limelight in New York, and I would see people and be able to freeze them with a look. People were even too scared of me to tell me that people were scared of me. I could tell that some people were just uncomfortable around me. I never tried to make that happen; it just did. I really never felt out of control. It was just the way I lived my life. I was the neighbourhood bully. I even beat up Joey, our singer, one time, before we were in the band, back in the old neighbourhood. He was late to meet me – so I punched him. I was 21; he was 19. We were meeting up to go to a movie. There was no excuse for being late.

Once we did start playing in the band, we had fights like any gang of guys. Even onstage we fought over what songs to play. We’d yell at each other: “Fuck you”. Then walk offstage, come back and play some more. At CBGB especially, we’d start a song and an amp would malfunction, and we’d all have to stop. We’d already be excited to play, and then have to stop, so someone would yell, usually Dee Dee: “What the fuck is wrong?”. Then someone else would yell back at him to shut up. And on it went. It was an extension of what happened in rehearsal. We forced ourselves out of it when we decided we just wanted to play the songs quickly.

When we started touring, I had to smack Dee Dee a couple of times to get him into the van after stopping for gas at a roadside stop. One time I smacked him outside the Tropicana Hotel in Hollywood. He was high on something, as usual. I liked him, really, but I think he just liked to be difficult.

Marky, our second drummer, and I would go months without talking to each other over some stupid thing, like who should sign what. We were in Japan, and he had a cracked cymbal. I thought we should all sign it and sell it. He and I actually had a fight over whether the band should sign it or just him. He thought that since he was the drummer, he should be the one. I thought a fan would rather it be signed by the whole band than just Mark. We all ended up signing it and selling it.

With Joey, I’d try to like him, talk to him, then it just went bad. He was a fucking pain in the ass. So I gave up. The reality is that I was surrounded by these dysfunctional people, and I was the one who ran the business end, aside from our managers. Everybody else was a mess – in their own world. We travelled by van, and someone would want to stop every 15 minutes. So I had to tell them that we could only stop every couple of hours. Otherwise we would never have gotten to any shows.

The Ramones hinged on aggression, and balanced that with the cartoon-like fun that so many people seemed to see in us. So the anger was diffused in the public eye a lot of the time. I was so bent on making us the best band in the world, I was willing to do anything without compromising us. The first time we played CBGB, Alan Vega from Suicide came up and told us that we were the band he’d been waiting for and he couldn’t believe how great we were. I told Dee Dee: “Look, we fooled someone. Maybe we can fool other people.”

Every time we had a new fan in those early days, I’d say: “Fooled another one”. Then I realized at some point that we really were good. But what people saw had deep roots, even though it was pure rock’n’roll. What we did was take out everything that we didn’t like about rock’n’roll and use the rest, so there would be no blues influence, no long guitar solos, nothing that would get in the way of the songs. The Ramones were fun, and the more intense, the better. Our shows had violence. We had fights; we had blood. I’d have been bored crazy if crazy stuff didn’t happen.

At one point in the early 90s, I came into possession of a canister of police-issue mace, compliments of a former New York City cop. In fact, he was with us working as part of the crew at this show in Washington, DC. I figured he knew how to handle the mace, so I told him to get ready and fire it into the crowd at some point during the show. It was terrific, like a bomb went off, with everybody running and pouring beer on their faces. That was a Ramones show.

After over 20 years together, in 1996 the Ramones played their final show. In my head, though, it was never officially over until Joey died on April 15, 2001. There was no more Ramones without Joey. He was irreplaceable, no matter what a pain he was. He was actually the most difficult person I have ever dealt with in my life. I didn’t want him to die though. I wouldn’t have wanted to play without him no matter how I felt about him; we were in it together. He never quit. We broke up and he died. That was the official end of the Ramones. I wasn’t going to play without him. So when it happened, I was sad about the end of the Ramones. I thought I wouldn’t care and I did, so it was weird. I guess all of a sudden, I did miss him. But he made an impact through his life, so he’s still among us.

Dee Dee’s death in June 2002 was a real blow, more than Joey’s maybe, because Dee Dee and I had remained friends in some ways. I had no idea that he was going to die; I didn’t even know that he was still using drugs. I had seen him on Hollywood Boulevard a few days before he passed away. Here’s the most influential punk rock bassist of all time, and he died on us like that. He could be a problem, but I was really thrown by his death. He was the craziest person there is in terms of eccentricities. It doesn’t get any crazier. If you were to meet Dee Dee now, he’d be the craziest person you’re ever going to meet.

People have asked me, “What makes a punk?”. About five years after we’d retired, I was driving in Los Angeles, and somebody called out to me: “Hey, you’re driving a Cadillac. How’s that? How are you a punk if you’re driving a Cadillac?”. I said: “What the fuck are you talking about? I wrote the book on punk. I decide what’s punk. If I’m driving a Cadillac, it’s punk”. And the kid accepted that. So what determines a punk? Dee Dee was a punk. He had the look, he was a great songwriter, and he was the most influential punk rock bassist of all time. No one else even comes close.

But those last swings, Lollapalooza, the shows we did in New York at Coney Island High before that as a farewell to New York – those were so satisfying. I really got to see what we meant to people. They told me how influential we were, and I got asked: “How does it feel to be a legend?” I didn’t know quite how to answer that, and the first time I was a little shocked. Then it became a joke. I’d get a phone call at home, and a reporter would tell me

I was a legend, and I’d hang up and tell Linda: “Hey, watch it. You’re talking to a legend.” Or I would answer the phone and say: “Legend here.” I knew they were just treating Johnny Ramone like that; it wasn’t really me.

So I came to realise the impact we’d actually made much later. We were in our own little world so much that I’d never thought about it at all until the nineties, when all these other bands started telling me what an influence we were all the time. To me, the greatest American band—besides the Ramones—is the Doors. They’re my favourite American band, but I don’t know how many other groups they really influenced. So when I realise that we might have been a bigger influence on more bands than anyone, it’s surreal. There are even people wearing Ramones shirts now that don’t even know what we were about or what we sounded like.

I don’t care, though. I’m just glad that our name is still out there after all these years. We’ve been told that we changed music, that we created an entire genre, and that we mobilised kids and challenged them to get guitars and play their own music. It feels really weird to have people tell me that I influenced their lives or music. But I understand kids for going out and starting a band after seeing us. I would have done the same thing if I’d been in the audience in 1977.

Looking at it now, maybe a little less connected because I’m sick and time has kind of dwindled for me, the most important part of the Ramones legacy was that when we got up on a stage, we were the best out there. Nobody came close.

In June 2004, I developed an infection and nearly died. I wasn’t doing well for a few days there in late May, and I don’t even remember driving to the hospital. I was feeling bad. The next thing I knew, I woke up and it was June 8. I was tied to a bed, and I had tubes coming out of me. I had been unconscious the whole time, for a week. What had happened was that they had done some treatment, and it had poisoned my whole body. They told my wife that I was going to die, that I had less than a one per cent chance of living.

That’s when it became public knowledge that I had cancer, and I wasn’t even in the hospital for cancer at that point. Mark was the one who had blabbed, to rollingstone.com, that I was dying and on my deathbed. That really wasn’t his business. I called Mark after I got out of the hospital and told him: “You really have to control yourself, control what you’re saying. You’re desperate for attention”. He said he was dealing with rumours, but there were no rumours. No one knew until Mark broke the news to get his name in the press. He’d do anything to get his name in the press. He was always like that.

Mark and I always went back and forth, and it’s not my fault, it’s his. He has all these bad ideas and I tell him that we can’t just do things for a quick buck. We have to make sure the Ramones are well represented; we have to do what’s best for the Ramones. And when we do something Ramones-related, I’m in charge, not him. He just doesn’t get it. I’m all for making money, but we have to have standards. I’ve had to stop him from doing Ramones things all the time, especially since the band retired. I try to tell him that it’s not like I’m doing anything against him, but he resents it, so he spends a lot of time trying to badmouth me, every chance he gets. He did the same thing to Joey for a long time too. Then after Joey died, Mark practically went on a press junket about it. He’s always looking for any attention he can get.

It’s interesting that I have never felt that I was going to die until this last time. I’ve known that my time is limited, but I had nothing definite. If this happens again, I want them to just let me die. I won’t go through that again.

Of course, now I know. We all have time limits, and mine came a little early.

By the time you are reading this, I might not be here. But I’ve had a great life no matter how it turns out now. I think that when I lost my job back in 1974, it was God looking after me. All of a sudden I got into a band, and I had success. I’ve been very lucky and very fortunate in life. I owe everything I have to the fans. I’ve had the best wife, Linda, that I could ever hope to find, and I’ve had such great friends, who really care and would do anything they could for me.

Footnote: Johnny Ramone died on September 15, 2004.

This was first published in Classic Rock issue 169.