Johnny Ramone: Rebel in a rebel’s world
For 100 nights a year over three decades, punk-rock guiterrorist Johnny Ramone stood with his head down, face in an intense scowl of concentration, legs shoulder-width apart, hammering at his blue Mosrite with a blurry right hand. The cacophony was pure bliss, a white noise ringing that punched holes in all that was peaceful, shards of the power chords busting into little aural stars, like the lights you see when you smack your head, only in your ears.
It was such good, loud pain.
Johnny dropped his job as a construction worker in 1974 and held down stage right for 22 years as the guitarist for the most influential rock band of the last 30 years. The Ramones fertilized the punk-rock scene first in their hometown of New York City, then in England. Eventually — who knew? — that sound would form the chassis for what the corporate rock industry later dubbed “alternative” and, eventually, infiltrated top 40.
He was a rebel in a rebel’s world, though. Johnny Ramone was a fiercely Republican-voting, NRA-supporting musician in a milieu that is remarkable for its embrace of all things left.
Johnny went worldwide public with his partisanship in 2002, when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the microphone to give props to the people who made it all possible, he offered his own version of a Michael Moore moment.
“God bless President Bush, and God bless America,” he said, clad in his trademark T-shirt, ripped blue jeans and leather jacket.
“I said that to counter those other speeches at the other awards,” Mr. Ramone says in a phone interview. “Republicans let this happen over and over, and there is never anyone to stick up for them. They spend too much time defending themselves.”
Johnny Ramone is at an easy point in his life, where “Blitzkrieg Bop” can be heard at sporting events as rev music and where the Ramones are widely cited as one of the most influential bands in the history of rock ‘n’ roll.
They never had a hit single, and none of their 14 original studio albums ever went gold. The Ramones did it because they loved it and had something to say.
“It was a job, and I was just doing my job,” Mr. Ramone says now.
The Ramones were so far ahead of their time that Johnny Ramone makes more money each year, thanks to Ramones tunes used in advertisements, discerning record buyers paying their debt to history and the increasing number of Ramones reissues.
“I’m just honored that people still like us and people are still nice to me,” he says, 55 years old and very retired in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Linda, and their three cats.
He sold his guitars and amps when the Ramones finally got out of the van after 2,263 live shows.
L.A. is 3,000 miles from Queens, N.Y., where he was raised as John Cummings, but he is never far from his legacy. People still know him when they see him, even though he disputes his own celebrity.
“I really can’t believe that my career has gone like it has,” he says. “I don’t need much more money, and I thought that when I retired that nobody would want to talk to me anymore. Then I did, and people still want to talk to me.” He pals around with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, tooling about in his black Cadillac DeVille, “a good American car,” Johnny says proudly.
He is an avid film buff, and he watches two flicks a day — sci-fi, horror or anything intense — and his private collection numbers 4,000.
He reads mostly books on film and baseball. He still buys music, “old rock ‘n’ roll, ‘50s is my favorite,” he says. “I also get some early ‘70s stuff, punk stuff, but I think I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel now.” He won’t play any Ramones, but Linda does.
“Constantly,” he says, with a weary resignation.
“Yeah, the first five albums,” she says. The two click on politics though.
“I grew up a Republican,” she says. “My family was the only Italian family in Queens that voted for Nixon instead of Kennedy.”
Johnny was driven right by a youthful revulsion against, um, face-ism. “It was in 1960, the Nixon-Kennedy election,” he says, recalling his first inclination toward the right. He was an only child of Irish heritage in a working-class neighborhood. Families on his block voted left, pro-union. “People around me were saying, ‘Oh, Kennedy’s so handsome,’ and I thought, ‘Well, if these people are going to vote for someone based on how he looks, I don’t want to be party to that.’”
For his news now, he hits the Drudge Report and Newsmax.com, Fox News’ “Hannity and Colmes,” and “The O’Reilly Factor.” He listens daily to Rush Limbaugh and Michael Medved. In L.A., people spend a lot of time in their cars, and he uses that time to educate himself, he says.
His list of favorite Republicans should humble the Republican National Committee, or at least get him invited to a GOP fund-raiser: Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Charlton Heston, [actor and close friend] Vincent Gallo, Ted Nugent, Messrs. Limbaugh and Hannity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Wayne and Tom DeLay.
He relishes agitating his left-wing peers — and has since the band started in 1974.
“Oh yeah, they really get upset,” Johnny says. “I remember in 1979 doing an interview for Creem magazine with [famed rock and roll scribe, now deceased] Lester Bangs and telling him that Ronald Reagan will be the next president. He was really mad that I liked Reagan, who was the greatest president of my lifetime. So I turned it around on him and asked to see his commie card. In fact, ever after that, I would ask him for his card. I think he had one, really.”
The other day, when Stray Cats bassist Slim Jim Phantom was complaining about his tax bill, Johnny reminded him that the charges would be higher if President Bush hadn’t gotten his tax cuts passed. “I told him he needs to vote Republican to keep his taxes lower … and donate to President Bush’s campaign,” he says.
“I try to make a dent in people when I can,” he says. “I figure people drift toward liberalism at a young age, and I always hope that they change when they see how the world really is.”
He has found few allies in show business, but one stands out as a fellow renegade and conservative: Mr. Gallo, an actor, director and musician. “What’s radical about saying you are for the poor?” Mr. Gallo, 41, demands. “Johnny Ramone has never been like that. He is incredibly authentic as both a musician and a person. I respect him not because we agree on a lot of things but because he is an individual.” They bonded over [former New York Yankees star pitcher] Ron Guidry, cinema and politics.
Not that Mr. Ramone’s friends must pass an ideological litmus test. He still holds ideological hopes for the relentlessly liberal Mr. Vedder. When the Pearl Jam singer impaled a mask of Mr. Bush and slammed it to the stage at a Denver concert on the heels of the Iraq invasion last April, Johnny Ramone let him know that he thought it was a stupid move.
“I got serious with him and told him that he was alienating people,” Johnny says. “And I got him to see the point.” When Johnny Ramone tells you something is uncool, well, it is.
Harnessing chaos, humor and danger, the Ramones created the template of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that was punk rock.
Even then, though, Johnny’s conservative side showed. When the band wanted to record “Chinese Rocks,” a song co-written by bassist Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny disapproved of the reference to a strain of dope that was prevalent at the time.
Ditto when the other guys in the band came up with “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” a tune disparaging Johnny’s beloved Mr. Reagan. (Sample lyric: “You’re a politician / Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”) Both times, he lost. After all, a band is a democracy.
“But I really enjoyed upsetting them,” Johnny says of his former bandmates. “They called me the Rush Limbaugh of rock ‘n’ roll one time in a Village Voice interview. But, hey, they were just old hippies.” Two are dead now: Singer Joey succumbed to cancer in 2001 and Dee Dee to a heroin overdose in 2002. Longtime (but not original) Ramones drummer Marky still plays around in the underground scene.
Like so many other right-wingers. who are fed up with the media establishment, Johnny tunes in to the radio every day for some roiling rhetoric and to the Web for some news that doesn’t seem to make the local newspaper.
“Hey,” he says, perusing Newsmax.com as he speaks on the phone, “what’s going on with these illegal aliens now?”