Ramone memoir reveals charming, grumpy punk genius
Johnny Ramone, guitarist for seminal punk band the Ramones, pioneered a fast, no-nonsense sound that made him one of the most influential guitarists of all time.
Commando: the Autobiography of Johnny Ramone, released nearly eight years after Ramone, born John Cummings, died of prostate cancer at age 55, reads like a Ramones song: short and to the point, but with plenty of color to keep things interesting.
The book, recently published by Abrams Image, was written from a series of interviews Ramone gave in the final years of his life for the purposes of a memoir.
“He wanted to have his last words because he knew he was dying and he was always kind of a misunderstood character,” Ramone’s wife, Linda Cummings Ramone, said in an interview.
Linda enlisted author and former Black Flag singer, Henry Rollins, as well as her manager, John Cafiero, to put together the 176-page book, which is peppered with photos and collected memorabilia.
The result is a raw telling of Ramone’s life story, from a blue collar New York upbringing playing baseball and roughing up neighbourhood kids, to early Ramones gigs with Blondie and The Talking Heads at punk-rock bastion venue CBGBs.
It also sheds light on the ongoing tensions that took place within the band, and his more than 20-year romance with Linda, who once dated his former friend and bandmate Joey Ramone.
“When I left Joey to go with Johnny, it was intense, because nobody wanted the band to break up. The band was always first,” Linda said.
“Joey and Johnny didn’t talk. Did I have something to do with it? Well, yeah, of course, a bit, but musically Joey and Johnny were growing apart. That was more the tension in the band,” she added, citing a 1994 Christmas card shown in the book that Joey sent Johnny, a gesture Linda said showed how those tensions had thawed toward the end.
Other parts of the book detail Ramone’s thoughts on his famously brash personality, his sometimes meticulous nature and musical inspirations.
While Ramone described himself in the book as an angry person for much of his life, beginning as “the terror of the neighbourhood,” he also lets on that his favourite place on earth was Disney World, and when he listened to music, chances were he was listening to Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, or Elvis.
He was also a fastidious saver and was planning for retirement even before the first Ramones show in 1974. Following the band’s last performance, in 1996 at the Hollywood Palace, the Ramones were making more money than when they were together, having established fans around the world.
One of those fans was Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett. He said he first heard the Ramones in 1977 when he was 14 years old and Ramones standards Sheena is Punk Rocker, Rockaway Beach, and Blitzkrieg Bop all played on the radio within a week.
“I was hooked,” he told Reuters, adding that Ramones had an enormous impact on the way he plays guitar.
Hammett first met Ramone in 1986 at a comic book convention and the two later became close friends. He said he asked Ramone why it was he always down-picked, rather than strumming the guitar in a typical up-and-down style. Ramone, who was self-taught, said it was just to keep time.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, something as simple as that was the basis of his style that went on to create the basis of punk rock and heavy metal’.”
Other fans and friends included Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, seen in Commando wearing the wig Ramone had made when he was receiving radiation treatment, and Lisa Marie Presley, who ensured Ramone was the best man at her wedding to Nicolas Cage.
Presley told Reuters in an interview that Ramone, who had an Elvis-themed room in his house long before she took him to visit Graceland, played a major role in her life.
“He had a paternal thing with me. He was looking out for me,” she said in an interview, describing Ramone as “grumpy, but charming.”
Much of Commando shows Ramone living and breathing his band, which took its name from a pseudonym, Ramon, that Paul McCartney once used.
Even after the band called it quits, it was not until singer Joey Ramone, born Jeff Hyman, died of lymphoma in 2001, that Johnny Ramone, No. 16 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 100 greatest guitarists of all time, really knew it was over.
Bassist Dee Dee Ramone, born Douglas Colvin, died the following year of a heroin overdose. That was around the time when Johnny Ramone, who was himself battling the cancer that would take his life, was working on what would become Commando.
Helped by the little black books that he filled throughout his career with the details of every Ramones show – all 2 263 of them – Ramone opened up the past, from punching out Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, to the challenge of working with gun-totting producer Phil Spector, to touring the world.
“It’s exactly how Johnny would want it,” said Linda. “It’s like a Ramones show. Boom, boom, boom.”