Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Legendary Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone passed away at his home in Los Angeles on September 15 at the age of 55 after a long battle with prostate cancer. He died just three days after the big Ramones 30th anniversary tribute show at the Avalon in Hollywood, where Ramones-lovers like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, X, and Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder all did their best to punk up the place. Unfortunately, Johnny hadn't been feeling well enough to attend. But show host Rob Zombie phoned him from the stage and had the capacity crowd shout out the old "Hey ho, let's go!" chant from "Blitzkrieg Bop" for Johnny to hear. And I know that had to warm his little leather-clad heart!
Born John Cummings, he grew up getting into trouble in the Forest Hills section of Queens. After spending a portion of his youth going to military school and then later working as a steam-fitter, Johnny never even picked up a guitar until he was in his twenties. But as a founding member of the Ramonesalong with Joey, Tommy and Dee Deehis primitive, yet powerful, blitzkrieg style would come to personify the sound of punk rock.
At this stage of the game, little needs to be said about the importance of the Ramones in the history of rock 'n' roll. Their influence can be heard everywhere, and they're still providing inspiration for every snot-nosed little punk who decides to pick up a guitar and head out to the garage. By focusing on the fundamentals and creating short, fast, loudand most importantly, simplesongs that were impossible to resist, they almost single-handedly reminded folks what rock 'n' roll was all about at a time when its essence seemed all but lost and forgotten.
That's why the Ramones' role as the original founding fathers of punk is so unquestioned today. And that's a fact that certainly brought Johnny a great deal of comfort in his latter days. After so many years of feeling that the band had been somewhat overlooked, particularly by their own countrymen here in America, it was deeply gratifying and somewhat surprising for him to see the esteem that the Ramones had come to be held in after their retirement from the scene. In fact, it's pretty tough to find anybody these days who doesn't claim to be a Ramones fan. Johnny once took note of this and asked, "Where were all these people when we were still around?"
Johnny himself was a unique and interesting character that many people had trouble figuring out. But essentially, he was a true contrarian. He just loved going against the grainand then watching people react. Whether he'd admit it or not, he just loved tweaking people in his own peculiar way. In other words, he was a real punk! I'd always thought that, in many ways, he really was the perfect embodiment of that word.
Others have told stories of how Johnny was the kind of kid who'd find an old television set in the trash and take it up to the top of a building just so that he could drop it off and scare the shit out of people down below. And that really serves as a great metaphor for what Johnnyand by extension, the Ramoneswere all about. He and the Ramones took great delight in dropping a sonic bomb that left people shell-shocked and, particularly in the early days, uncertain how to react. He really took a certain kind of child-like joy in getting a rise out of people, whether it was by churning out the sonic assault of his music, unabashedly espousing his rather unorthodox conservative politics, or finding any other way he could to stir up a little trouble or confusion.
Johnny always enjoyed telling the story of how the Ramones pissed in the Sex Pistols' beer during the 1977 encounter between the two transatlantic branches of the punk rock tribe. He also once told me with particular glee the story of how he'd punched out former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren backstage in L.A. one night and then had to be restrained from hitting him over the head with Dee Dee's bass.
Even in his final days, Johnny managed to find unique ways to amuse himself and confound others. He told me when he was admitted to the hospital a few months before his death that he started receiving calls from so many people who'd located him there that he realized he was going to have to register under another name. So he decided to use the name "Johnny Magoo," simply so he could snicker to himself every time someone entered the room and referred to him as "Mr. Magoo." For anyone who knew him, it's easy to imagine just how thoroughly amused he was every time he got to hear that.
Johnny's unique personality, brutal honesty, and seeming lack of diplomacy and sentimentality, didn't always rub everybody the right way, but he seemed fairly willing to accept that as the price of doing business. Most people, particularly those who make a career in any form of show business, usually want to be loved by everyone, but Johnny was far more concerned with being true to who he was and what he believed. One thing he could never be accused of being was a hypocrite.
When the Ramones documentary End of the Century was coming out, Johnny observed, "It's really true-to-life. It'd be nice if someone had a kind word to say about me in it. But it's really good!" In the film, Johnny mentions how he didn't really talk to former band mate Joey when he was dying because, since the two really hadn't been speaking to each other for years, it would seem hypocritical to suddenly decide to talk to him at that point.
I was a little startled when Johnny once asked me my impression of what people thought about him. Knowing how much he valued honesty, I told him that a lot of people I talked to thought he was a little difficult and a bit of a pain in the ass. He had no trouble at all accepting that. Never one for small talk or the kind of cheap flattery that folks in show business like to throw around, he admitted that he never had much use for hanging around places like CBGB's "talking to drunks and junkies."
Unlike many of his compatriots who came out of that same scene, Johnny was never a drunk or a junkie, and he could be as sharp as a tack about many things. The guy never missed a trick. He remembered dates of individual Ramones shows going back for decades. He remembered dates of rock shows he'd attended as a kid. He remembered dates of memorable baseball games. And when I once mentioned a friend of mine who'd very briefly worked with the band many moons ago, he immediately recalled, "Yeah, that guy always had a beer in his hand!"
It was this sort of quality that helped give rise to his reputation as the "punk rock drill sergeant." Johnny was the one who kept everything together, kept things under control, kept the trainsand the Ramonesrunning on time. Johnny knew exactly how long the Ramones' set was supposed to runwith no breaks or annoying stage banter to get in the way. When new lightning-fast drummer Richie Ramone joined the band, Johnny noted to the Clash's Joe Strummer that their set was now a couple of minutes shorter than it had been. Strummer didn't know quite what to say, since he was amazed that anyone would even have any idea how long their set was in the first place.
One thing that was always important to Johnny was the Ramones' relationship with their fans. He never ceased to be amazed by the impact that he could have just by spending a little time with a fan. He once told me, "It was such a good feeling knowing that if I talked to them for one minute, they seemed to be so excited. And I thought, 'Wow, this is just great that I’m able to make their day just by being nice to them.'" And he eagerly added, "Anytime anyone ever wanted to talk about baseball, I was always happy to talk to them."
Besides music, there's no doubt that Johnny's other great passion in life was the grand old gamethat's right, baseball. He once even claimed, "Hey, I wanted to be a baseball player. I just fell into this." It was a mutual love of baseball that allowed me to make it into Johnny's good graces. No matter who you were, if you liked baseball, you were all right by Johnny.
I don't think a day went by that Johnny didn't spend a significant portion of his waking moments thinking about his beloved Yankees. Even after retiring to southern California, he never missed the opportunity to watch all the Yankee games he could thanks to the wonders of satellite television. And even in the last conversation I had with Johnny just a couple of weeks before he died, when he knew his days were fairly numbered, he seemed far more concerned with the plight of one of the Yankees' highest-paid players who'd been struggling with a variety of ailments lately than he did with his own predicament.
When I'd first met Johnny many years earlier and asked him what he did to kill time while out on the road, he told me that he'd write letters to baseball players requesting autographed 8x10 pictures. At first, I thought he might be jokingit didn't seem like a very "rock 'n' roll" thing to do! But it turned out he had one of the largest such collections in the country, with more than 5,000 signed photographs.
At one point, I had the bright idea to introduce Johnny to the general manager of the Oakland A's, who was considered the reigning genius of baseball executives, and who also happened to be a huge Ramones fan! Johnny couldn't have been happier to spend a day out at the ballpark talking about his favorite subject with a real baseball insider. And he made sure to bring along plenty of signed Ramones memorabilia to show his gratitude. He also made sure he got a signed team ball out of the deal too! Johnny loved being out at the ballpark. And it was always interesting to see his reaction when that old familiar "Hey ho, let's go." chant from "Blitzkrieg Bop" would occasionally come roaring out through the P.A. system.
Johnny had a few other obsessions he was passionate about as well. He loved old horror moviesand just about anything else that had the power to make people squirm for that matter. He was a dedicated collector of old horror movie posters. And in addition to his "baseball room," he also had a "horror room" in his house that was decorated in red and black and filled with all sorts of interesting artifacts like human skeletons, shrunken heads, serial killer paintings, Manson memorabilia, and various other items designed to get a rise out of people, along with a wall full of his favorite horror movies, of course.
Another room full of collectibles was the "Elvis room," which was filled with artifacts related to one of Johnny's greatest musical idolsmany of them contributed by Johnny's good friend, Lisa Marie Presleyincluding rare items like a signed champagne bottle from Elvis and Priscilla's wedding. But the real jewel of the collection was the jukebox containing every Elvis single ever recorded, arrayed in perfect chronological order.
Many of those who were closest to Johnny over the past few years, and whom he was surrounded by when he died, were those who shared his greatest passionsmusicians like Eddie Vedder and Pete Yorn, who not only shared his love of America's pastime but had even participated in fantasy baseball leagues with him; and people like Rob Zombie who shared his love of horror movies and all things macabre. Many of these folkslike Vedder, Yorn, Zombie, as well as other friends of Johnny's like Rooney's Robert Carmine and former Sex Pistol Steve Joneswere eager to participate in the Ramones 30th anniversary tribute to show their appreciation for what Johnny and the Ramones had contributed to the spirit of rock & roll.
But no matter how invincible the Ramones might have seemed, in the end, Johnny realized he wasn't too tough to die after all. Even if the people around him didn't want to accept it, he was fully aware that the end was in sight and, with his typical lack of sentimentality, had stoically accepted his fate. He'd apparently put in a special request to Robert Carmine to perform the Ramones song "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" at the show. And, oddly enough, it almost turned out that wayJohnny died just three days later. But one thing that will certainly never die is the contribution that Johnny and the Ramones made to keeping the spirit of rock & roll alive and burning in the hearts of young and old punks everywhere. Johnny may be gone…but the barre chords linger on!
Photo by Robert Matheu