I was 13 years old and lying in bed trying to go to sleep. As a kid I suffered from ongiong insomnia, and even though ordered to bed at 8 or 9PM, I rarely slept before midnight. In this particular case, with my big brother home from college, I was especially keyed up.
I knew that my brother and father were downstairs in the living room, talking. I didn’t know that they were talking about this new musical fad, punk rock. I didn’t know that my brother was an early adopter of the style—not in terms of fashion, but in terms of valuing the music’s DIY aesthetic and straightforward approach. I didn’t know that he was standing next to the record player and dropping the needle on punk rock’s Exhibit A.
All I knew was that when the opening buzzsaw chords of “Blitzkrieg Bop” surged through the floorboards beneath my bed, I was physically hurled from that bed and downstairs within seconds. I have no recollection of the descent; I remember only lying in bed, being jolted by that sonic assault, then standing in the living room, staring openmouthed at where my father sat with an amused expression on his face and my suddenly-even-cooler brother stood holding the cover of the first Ramones album.
My love affair with the Ramones stayed strong for the next several years. I bought their albums as soon as they came out; had my high school yearbook photo taken while wearing a Ramones shirt; the lyrics to “Teenage Lobotomy” were my quote in that same yearbook. Not until I got to college, where my musical tastes expanded to include prog, metal, reggae, British folk, even a little hip-hop and classical music, did my ardor for the Ramones start to fade. Even so, it never died completely; it was merely added to an ever-widening pool of musical experience that incuded, but was not defined by, punk rock.
I mention all this as a way of saying that Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone is very much a fan’s book. Maybe this is obvious—who else but a fan would want to read a rock biography?—but that seems worth mentioning, here. Johnny was always my favorite Ramone, as I was always partial to the guitar player in any band, but he was also a prickly character. Straightforward and blunt, yes, which makes for some entertaining reading here, but also rather blinkered at times. It helps to approach this book with a certain degree of openheartedness—a feeling that, one senses, Johnny himself was not especially prone to.
When Johnny died of prostate cancer in 2004, he was compiling this autobiography, a loose assemblage of family background, band history, tour notes and miscellaneous musings about society and his place in it. His death cut the project short, but his friend John Cafiero has seen it through, compiling and editing Johnny’s notes and writings. Commando is the result. Direct, ascerbic, occasionally thoughtful or breathtakingly thoughtless, it’s a quick, riveting read.
It’s also a nicely assembled package, with plenty of behind-the-scenes photos and an appendix of miscellaneous lists and notes from Johnny, including assessments of every Ramones album. If not exactly essential for Ramones fans, it offers plenty of nuggets, nonetheless.
The tone is breezy and conversational. I don’t know whether Cafiero worked from written notes or from tapes, but Johnny’s voice and the cadences of his speech are evident throughout: “The early songs, well, what would we write about—girls? We didn’t really have any. We weren’t artists or anything, so we wrote about simple things we could relate to. We thought Communists and Nazis were funny. We thought sniffing glue was funny too, but we didn’t even know that people were still doing it.”
Johnny covers the expected territory: growing up in New York, his teenage “juvenile delinquent” years, his working-class background. His friend Tom Erdelyi (later Tommy Ramone) pressured him to start a band, but it wasn’t until he was laid off from his construction job that Johnny bought a guitar, a $50 Mosrite: “I liked Mosrites because not many people played them. I got the cheap one. The Ventures and Sonic Smith from the MC5 both used a Mosrite. Those were pretty good references. It was blue.”
Johnny didn’t know how to play, which stalled the band’s gestation somewhat. Ditto the fact that drummer Joey couldn’t keep a beat. Not until Joey was moved up front to sing and Tom Erdelyi was pressured into learning drums—he’d never held a drumstick before—did the band start to coalesce.
Even then, Johnny’s relationships with his bandmates were fraught. He says frustratingly little about this, good or bad, but what he does say makes his feelings clear. About Joey he comments, “He was actually the most difficult person I have ever dealt with in my life.” About Dee Dee: “I liked him, really, but I think he just liked to be difficult.” The only band member who escapes criticism is Tommy.
It’s entertaining to read revisionist rock history these days, with journalists earnestly gushing about how punk rock blew the lid off the musical establishment and shattered the status quo and so forth. Memo to music writers under the age of 30: I was there. It didn’t happen that way. These records didn’t get on the radio, at least not in Connecticut and Ohio, where I was listening. Maybe in LA they did, or New York.
Punk rock was a joke to the overwhelming majority of listeners, who continued buying albums by Molly Hatchet and Pink Floyd, The Marshall Tucker Band and Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen and AC/DC—and a zillion others just like them. (Loverboy, anyone? Donny Iris? Rush? Styx? Heart? Judas Priest? Journey?) Some of those bands were good, a lot of them were lousy, but all of them were infinitely more successful at the time than the Ramones, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Dictators, The Dead Boys or The Heartbreakers (the Johnny Thunders version, not Tom Petty’s).
Commando brings these struggles home. Johnny was preoccupied with money for much of his career, for the simple fact that there wasn’t much of it. For a long time the band members paid themselves a salary of $150 per week. This slowly grew in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but never reached the stratospheric levels of many rock acts—including acts that cited the Ramones as an influence. According to Johnny, the band actually earned more money after breaking up than it ever did while touring and releasing albums.
Johnny’s no saint, and some flaws glare through the laconic voice of the author here. His claim that the roots of rock ‘n’ roll have little to do with black musicians is questionable to say the least, and his right-wing stance can be grating. “I’m all for capital punishment,” he tells us following an incident in which he is assaulted and hospitalized. “I think it should be televised. I think they should make it a pay-per-view event and give the money to the victims’ families.” Not surprisingly, Johnny is mum on the subject of such punishments when discussing his own history of assault and robbery as a teenager, including episodes in which he assaulted elderly women, wrenching their arms and stealing their handbags.
Despite this, Commando is an entertaining book. It reads something like a Ramones song itself: it starts up fast right away, buzzes through several verses, then ends. The book’s final chapter, in which Johnny details his battle with cancer, is genuinely moving. There’s something creepy about the deaths of the original band members: Joey in 2001, Dee Dee in 2002, Johnny in 2004. This is less than 30 years after first getting together as a band. Imagine if all the Beatles except Ringo had died before 1990.
Fans of the band will like this book. Fans of Johnny will love it. Haters will dismiss it, calling the band cartoony or overrated. And you know something? Johnny wouldn’t care. He loved his fans and his family, but had little time for anyone else.