I awoke this morning to the news that guitarist Johnny Ramone had passed away, ending a five-year battle with prostate cancer. This leaves Tommy Ramone, drummer, as the last remaining living member of the original Ramones lineup. I think that the news is doubly shocking because the other members of the group, vocalist Joey and bassist Dee Dee died in such a sort space of time. Not long after receiving entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the group is gone, not just from concert venues and recording projects, but from this life.
The Ramones arrived in my life at a time when I was being smothered by middle-American middle class complacency and at the moment I was most ripe for rebellion: high school. My circle of friends got caught up in the sweep of punk rock. The Sex Pistols first attracted notice because of their outright rebellious attitude, but they were not all that accessible to us in the U.S. and frankly, their album left something to be desired. The Clash was a more viable alternative, and we grew to love them, but they were a very serious group with a serious political agenda. Something more was needed, something fun. Next came the beginning of a lifelong infatuation with Elvis Costello, and certainly he provided the right amount of bravado, disgust, amusement, and overall musical excitement we were seeking. But when the Ramones’ first two albums arrived at one of my friends’ doorsteps via music club order, it was clear that here was the very thing we had been searching for. The Ramones offered rebellion, but they didn’t work all that hard at it. They just were that way. The band’s camaraderie, signified by all members assuming the last name of ‘Ramone’ was a sign of belonging to a group of outcasts by birthright. Because you either ‘got’ the Ramones or you didn’t. It was either horrifying that the group sang about sniffing glue, teenage labotomies, and beating on the brat with a baseball bat, or it was gloriously funny. The Ramones existed in a world of comic book logic, where the rules were turned upside down or simply ignored.
Johnny was the guitar guy, the one charged with creating the buzzsaw blanket that brilliantly supported Joey’s crooner and sixties girl group-influenced vocal inflections and the lyrics that became common language to many. Legs apart, guitar hanging low, head down, his eyes seldom visible from beneath his bangs, Johnny seemed like he didn’t gave a shit whether there was an audience out there or not, which may have been a product of the group’s collective stage fright. Though most Ramones songs, especially in the early years, utilized very few chords, Johnny concentrated on delivering his sonic onslaught as though he were playing a symphony. In fact, he was: the Ramones live were a truly awesome sonic experience. Providing a wall of sound as impressive as anything Phil Spector ever imagined, Johnny didn’t act like some kind of guitar hero. He just got out there and DID IT, night after night, album after album. Oh, yeah, and Johnny didn’t really play solos. Any guitar interludes were brief and usually chordally based. The important thing was to get in there and play the damn song, and play it hard. Any frills, any lack of economy, would only detract from the audience’s experience of the song.
Few other bands have had the nerve to take such a minimalist aesthetic to its logical conclusion, and no one else did it for twenty years. At first, the Ramones were a joke to many, even those who enjoyed the first couple of albums. It seemed inevitable that sooner or later the band would have to branch out, write more abstract material, add horns, something. But it didn’t really happen. The sole outlier in the Ramones discography, in that respect, is the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century, which featured a cover of Spector’s “Baby I Love You” with a string section backing Joey Ramone’s vocals. Johnny didn’t approve of this and he didn’t play on the track. The story of Spector holding the band hostage with a gun is well known and, in light of more recent events in Spector’s life, prescient. But the real story of the album lies elsewhere, in tracks where the veteran producer showed that he clearly understood and could bolster the group’s sound-most notably Johnny’s guitar work. In fact, other than the novelty of hearing the Ramones sound sometimes expanded with horns and strings (and that is on relatively few tracks) Johnny’s guitar is the star here. Listen especially to the gorgeous, heart-breaking “Danny Says,” a song about the humdrum of life on the road. It begins quietly with some gentle guitar backing, building to a jet engine hum of grandeur seldom equaled on vinyl. On other tracks, like “Rock & Roll Radio,” “Chinese Rocks,” “The Return of Jackie and Judie” and the fantastic “Rock and Roll High School” Johnny’s guitar is brought forth with shades and subtleties that many probably never realized was there. It can likely be said with complete honesty that Johnny was one of the best punk rock guitarists-clearly he gave consideration to what he was doing that many others playing in the genre never did.
The Ramones didn’t see a lot of money for most of their time as a band. Though they toured relentlessly, there didn’t seem to be a lot of income. Johnny helped the band to become more financially stable, if not exactly affluent, by maximizing what they had and economizing. He insisted that the group drive from shows in New York to Boston nonstop instead of staying in a hotel overnight. He insisted that the group receive more money for their performances, and slowly things did improve. In many ways, the world caught up with the Ramones, realizing that the concept they had wasn’t so alien. Towards the end of their career, the band was playing their tunes faster and harder onstage than they had on their controversial first couple of albums, reflecting the fact that those albums sounded more and more like a normal part of the musical landscape. Johnny is seen as difficult, a badass, angry. He was not the lovable goof that Joey was, nor the self-destructive crazy punk that Dee Dee was. He was conservative, in both lifestyle and politics, and probably the most easily misunderstood member of the band. He was, nonetheless, absolutely essential to the group. There could be no Ramones without Johnny or Joey. They had difficulties in their relationship that are well documented but they were the yin and yang without which the group could not have been the influential act that they ultimately became. That’s how it is in the most influential bands-both sides must be represented: Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Roberston and Helm, Reed and Cale. The group survived multiple drummers and even the replacement of Dee Dee, but the loss of Johnny would have been completely unthinkable. Gary Kurfirst, who became the band’s manager in 1980, saw that Johnny was largely responsible for maintaining the band’s work ethic: “Johnny was the glue. They would work for three months straight, come home for two weeks and take one day off, then he made them go into rehearsal so they wouldn’t lose their chops. I asked him how they could do that and he said it was like a basketball team, ‘you have to practice or you lose it.’ That was Johnny.”
Most importantly, Johnny was truly appreciative towards Ramones fans, and was known for signing autographs for pretty much anyone who would ask. He said that he wanted to treat fans the way that he would like to be treated, and what more could one ask of a celebrity? Though the 2,263 concerts that the band played during its run from 1976 to 1995 were grueling, Johnny looked at it as a job, and not a bad one at that. “It was a job, and I was just doing my job.” “There are people who really have to work for a living, they work in coal mines, they sweep streets, they collect garbage,” he told writer Steve Miller, with whom he was working on his memoirs. “It was taxing on the mind because of all the travel and there were certain pressures, but it was nothing like real work that most people do. I was very lucky.” So were those of us who ‘got’ the Ramones and attended their shows through the years.