For anyone who grew up in 1970s suburbia, the Ramones were the losers you knew in high school. The jocks didn’t like them, the girls didn’t date them and the principal didn’t give them a break. They were the guys who sat around in auto shop talking about horse power, or hung out in the parking lot smoking cigarettes and getting high off model airplane glue. They kept to themselves mostly, but if you were cool to them, they were cool to you. No one thought that they’d ever amount to anything, figuring they were just a bunch of unmotivated burnouts destined to work for minimum wage or end up in jail. Well, those guys fooled everyone and became one of the greatest fucking bands the world has ever seen, and Johnny Ramone was their leader.
Hunched over his trademark Mosrite guitar, with a rubber wrist and three chords to his name, John Cummings became a rock and roll legend. He’d never admit it, but he motivated more ‘70s kids to pick up guitars than Ace Frehley. In the process of torching his fret board at the speed of light, he anchored the band that created an entire musical genre on its own. Forget the Sex Pistols, punk rock started with the Ramones, and will continue to be identified with the Ramones, while John will always be the preeminent punk guitarist. The Ramones weren’t exceedingly evolved musically; they sung about basic stuff that disenfranchised kids experienced on a daily basis. Their songs were funny, sophomoric and catchy as hell, and behind that unmistakable Ramones’ sound was John, standing stage left, blowing out everyone’s eardrums.
One would think that such an important figure in the annals of music history would have carried himself with an aura consistent with his lofty stature. Not John, as he was the same on stage and off; looks-wise and attitude-wise he never wavered, just a regular guy in jeans and a leather jacket playing his guitar as fast as possible. His style was as unique as Townshend’s or Hendrix’, but he’ll never be mentioned in the same sentence with them. John probably preferred it that way.
John had a reputation of being the task master within the group, as if that were a bad thing. Can you imagine riding herd on the Ramones? Joey and Dee Dee would have been handfuls on their own, but together? The fact that the band survived as long as it did was due in large part to John not taking shit from anyone. Was he a hard ass? Probably, but without him, the Ramones would never have lasted a minute. And all the time he was in the band that epitomized chaos, he was laying down an incredibly diverse collection of riffs. On the surface his playing didn’t appear sophisticated, but he had more range than people gave him credit for. Compare the jacked up thrash of “Teenage Lobotomy” and “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” with the melodic groove of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and you’ll see what I mean. For the most part though, John played hard, quick and tight, a minimalist with a six string who rung more out of his axe than most. If you’re in the mood for some sonic self abuse, crank up “Cretin Hop” and let John knock you around a little bit.
I bumped into John some years back down at the Mercury Lounge in New York City. We were taking in one of Wayne Kramer’s annual East Coast solo gigs. The crowd was SRO, and there was John in the rear, same haircut, same motorcycle jacket, just another fan. After the set I went up to him and shared a few words. “You an MC5 fan?” he asked. “Yeah, and the Ramones too,” I replied. John nodded casually, signed a card for me, then blended back into the crowd. He may have been a legend, but he was still one of us, enjoying the show and digging Brother Wayne.
John had been sick for a while, so his passing wasn’t all that unexpected. Still, it’s a tough loss for his friends and fans because of the harsh finality it represents. He never made a ton of money like he should have, but he did make it into the Hall of Fame, whatever that’s worth. For over two decades he created a body of work that influenced scores of bands, and will probably outlive all of us. And he did it as just a regular guy with a guitar; no pretense, no bullshit, just dedication and a passion for rock and roll. The scope of John’s greatness can be measured in relatively simple terms: Of the countless guitarists who have followed in his footsteps, how many have mastered the Johnny Ramone style or sound? Not a single one
Sometime when you’re feeling sentimental, glance through your high school yearbook from all those years ago. You’ll probably remember the prom queen and the all-star from the varsity football team, maybe even a couple of teachers. Then you’ll come across the page with candid photos and see a bunch of losers in torn jeans and leather jackets hanging around a beat up ‘69 Chevelle. Take a close look at the guy on the left…
Who’d have thought that burnout kid would grow up to be the legendary Johnny Ramone?
Damn, I miss him already…