by John Holmstrom
Photo by Roberta Bayley
Johnny Ramone, 55, passed away on Wednesday, September 15 at 3:03 p.m. at his home in Los Angeles, California. He died just a few days after the Ramones' 30th Anniversary concert in Los Angeles, which was organized in part by Johnny himself.
Johnny, whose birth name was John Cummings, had been hospitalized in June at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for cancer treatment. He was attended by friends and family at the end... which was not totally unexpected because of Marky Ramone's comments to a music-related Website a few months before.
Johnny went out on his shield - as a true Ramone. He survived on sheer will power in his final days, doing publicity for the "End of the Century" Ramones documentary, working on a Ramones coffee table book and organizing the 30th Anniversary events.
But, Johnny got a bad rap.
Johnny got a bad rap for being a Republican. As if being in a rock and roll band means you MUST OBEY certain rules and vote and think about politics in a certain, accepted, left-wing manner? Sorry. Johnny never took any crap and didn't believe in bullshit, so he was not shy about being a Republican. A lot of people who knew him suspected that this might have been more posture than politics, but Johnny never let on that his views were anything but sincere.
Johnny got a bad rap for being the drill sergeant of the Ramones. Thanks to the recent documentary End of the Century a lot of people are beginning to appreciate his role in the band. I think it might have dawned on a lot of fans that without Johnny, the Ramones might have become Dee Dee King's rap group or something, or maybe a pop band (if Joey were in charge), hiring Phil Spector to produce another record. It was Johnny who recognized that the Ramones had to be the Ramones, for better or worse. And in hindsight, it was for the better.
Johnny got a bad rap for being a "bad musician." Thing is, he approached rock and roll in a totally different way than previous musicians and deserves credit for reinventing the electric guitar - and creating the punk sound. He played guitar the way Mondrian or Jackson Pollock approached painting. Just because those artists weren't your average photo-representational craftspeople doesn't mean that they were lousy artists. And since Johnny wasn't your average guitar player he shouldn'tt be judged by the same standards as guitarists for bands like Foghat, Twisted Sister or Yes.
There were people who thought that the Ramones could have used a lead guitar player. Or an keyboard player. Or a bongo player. (Include me in all three.) But I was (probably) wrong, and Johnny was (I hate to admit it) right. He kept the Ramones pure. Even if it was pure vanilla, his revelation in the early 1980s that the Ramones should never change so that they could remain the first, best and greatest punk rock band of all time was the right call. So if you appreciate the Ramones legacy - credit Johnny for keeping it alive since everyone else in the band hated it.
Johnny created a whole new way to play guitar. Most "musicians" would shred their fingers to the bone if they attempted it. And even though he didn't write music, too often Johnny's creative contributions to the Ramones have been overlooked.
Johnny had a lot to do with creating, instigating and reinforcing the Ramones' image - like their record cover concepts. I worked closely with Johnny on both the Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin album covers. People often credit me as if I came up with the ideas but it was all Johnny Ramone. He described the concept for the back cover of Rocket to Russia better than if he had drawn it himself. And the Road to Ruin cover was based on a sketch sent to them by a fan. Johnny asked me to recommend a commercial artist (who turned down the job), then it bounced around between a few more illustrators and then Johnny turned to me, because no one else understood what he wanted. Johnny and I had an understanding. We both understood what punk rock was all about. And this included how it should sound, and how it should look.
I always felt like it was some kind of summit when we talked. When I would talk with Joey, he'd suggest ideas for the magazine, help us get publicity and cooperate with our photo comics. But when I talked with Johnny, it was about the philosophical approach the Ramones should take for their music, about the image of the band. Joey always seemed satisfied to let Johnny run things like that - he'd never even question me after I'd have a hour-long conversation with Johnny about what the Sex Pistols meant for the future of punk rock, or whether the latest Ramones record was up to their standard. Joey cared about the next Ramones record. Johnny always thought about the big picture.
Johnny got a bad rap for taking himself too seriously - as if he was some humorless jerk because he never smiled for the cameras. In fact, Johnny had a great sense of humor. He was not the fascist bastard he was made out to be. He was open-minded and ready to consider any viewpoint. I enjoyed bantering with him on Ramones' road trips. We laughed a lot! He was very intelligent, open-minded and insightful. And since we were both baseball fans back then, we had a lot of common ground. But whenever a camera was around, the Ramones would adopt the "Ramones look," and stare straight ahead. Stern looks. Serious looks. Even while they wrote some of the funniest lyrics in the histroy of rock and roll music. But of course, that was all part of the joke, wasn't it?
Johnny kept the Ramones together. He never got involved with drugs (like most of the other Ramones). So after Tommy Ramone (who was the disciplinarian early on), left the band it was up to Johnny to keep Joey and Dee Dee in line. At least this is how Johnny saw it. It's not easy to be the boss. It's a difficult thing to force other people to accept your point of view and make things happen. It's much easier to stand back and let someone else take the chances and make the difficult decisions.
To Johnny (and to Joey), the Ramones were the most important thing in the world. Those two had a fanatical belief about the band that kept them together and touring and recording throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even when some critics thought they should have taken a break, and even though the two of them hated each other. But they never hated each other so much that it affected the bottom line. They always did their jobs. They were always Ramones first.
I'd often chide them, and ask Johnny, "Why don't you do the same thing all other rock groups do and announce that you're breaking up, that this is your farewell tour, sell out every place you play, then come back five years later and do it all over again?" Johnny wouldn't hear of it. He would not even joke about it. Neither would Joey. They were not into showbiz bullshit when it came to the Ramones. They both intended to be truthful and honest with all Ramones fans. They were not into the kind of subterfuge that the Rolling Stones, Elton John, David Bowie and so many other rock acts indulged in. So they toured and toured and toured until they broke up and never got back together again after they broke up. And this was the bond that united Johnny and Joey - even thought they hated each other so much on a personal level that they stopped speaking to each other. The band was more important than personal bullshit between them. The Ramones were the most important thing in the world to them.
What's ironic is that fate wouldn't let them reunite after their "Farewell Tour." Cancer took Joey away in 2001, drugs took Dee Dee (or vice versa) in 2002 and then cancer, again, took Johnny. So Johnny's promise that the Ramones would never get back together again for any reason ever became a sad legacy.
So yeah, as much as you or I might love the Ramones? Johnny and Joey loved the Ramones more than any of us could even comprehend. They wanted the Ramones legacy to be pure. Sure, the rest of us love the Ramones. And we will all miss Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee very much. And we all wish we could see them together, just one, last time.
But fate had different plans, and fate, ironically, went along with Johnny.
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