Thursday, September 16, 2004

What the public didn’t know about Johnny Ramone, the guitar player for the Ramones who died Wednesday of prostate cancer, is that he cared.

Despite an image that embodied disaffection — from the permanent uniform of leather jackets, T-shirts, jeans and sneakers to the maximum-wattage tunes about commies and mental illness — Johnny cared about the people he might have inadvertently hurt along the way to creating music history.

“I didn’t ever want to do anything to hurt anyone,” he told me as we gathered notes for his memoirs, which we began work on in April. “I was always doing the best with what I had.”

As an introduction to the book, Johnny dictated with precision several sentences that it seemed he had been holding in for some time: “I want you Ramones fans to understand that I would not play the way I play if I were not the person I am, and the Ramones would never have been the band it was without that…. There is anger in the way I play, and that comes through because that’s often the way I am.”

It seemed to be an apology of sorts, as if the person that he had been did not square with the person he grew into, who was a faithful husband, and, by all accounts, a true friend.

Professionally, he was the truest of originators.

Rolling Stone last year named Johnny the 16th-best guitar player in history for the militaristic, aggressive, rapid-fire chording that was a Ramones song.

The Ramones blitzed a music industry that was plagued by long-winded, self-indulgent acts such as Genesis and Yes and outdated arena bands such as Led Zeppelin.

“We left out everything in rock ‘n’ roll that we didn’t like and kept what was left,” Johnny said. “We didn’t like the blues, long guitar solos or any form of overindulgence.”

Born John Cummings on Oct. 8, 1948, in Westbury, N.Y., he attended Staunton Military Academy in Staunton, Va., and then the Peekskill Military Academy in New York. He graduated in 1966 from Forest Hills High School.

He formed the Ramones with three friends from high school — Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey — in early 1974. By the summer of 1975, the band had a following in a freshly minted music scene centered in a tiny professional drinking bar called CBGB at 315 Bowery in Manhattan.

Johnny envisioned the punk scene as a movement that would rival the British invasion. In most eyes, his four-chords-of-glory formula laid the foundation for the music that prevails today in the form of Green Day, the Foo Fighters and New York rock revivalists such as the Strokes.

In Johnny’s eyes, the hoped-for breakthrough never materialized during the band’s 22-year career, which ended in 1996.

“There were bands that were influenced by us,” he said. “And we wanted that, but it never achieved the success that I thought it could. There were no hits. It was a hitless wave.” But it secured his place in history.

The band was greater than the sum of its parts, as most good ones are, and Johnny’s part extended beyond music. He was the grown-up in the dysfunctional Ramones family: He imposed the discipline and vigilantly watched over the band’s finances.

Johnny would hate for his legacy to be “whitewashed,” a word he frequently used with obvious contempt.

To some, Johnny was a nasty, difficult person. Many have said as much; it’s out there among the books and articles and video collections. Some of it is true. Some of it isn’t.

Johnny and Joey became bitterly estranged when Joey’s girlfriend, Linda, left him for Johnny, whom she would marry in 1994. The bandmates stopped speaking to each other, though they went on playing together for years, an emotional cold war fully documented in “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” the Ramones documentary opening locally today.

Viewers of the documentary may be shocked by the iciness with which Johnny talked about Joey, even after the latter’s 2001 death from cancer. Johnny experienced no deathbed conversion on this score. It wouldn’t have been in character.

Yet, his personal feelings never contaminated his professional evaluation of Joey.

“When Joey died, I knew that was really the end of the Ramones, because Joey was irreplaceable,” Johnny told me.

From my vantage point, Johnny was never brusque, never impatient, even in the throes of his illness. As we worked, he was at times strident and opinionated. Other times, he was tired, worn out by the sickness.

He soldiered on with daily phone calls and several meetings at his Los Angeles home. Sometimes he talked of baseball and his beloved Yankees. Sometimes he ranted about liberals.

He never forgot for a moment how lucky he, a former construction worker, was to play music as a profession.

“There are people who really have to work for a living. They work in coal mines, they sweep streets, they collect garbage,” he said. “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.”

The Ramones were what counted for Johnny, more than himself, and bigger to him than any other entity in his universe, save for his wife, Linda.

Johnny loved that unit more than he loved himself.

The fans were his reward, the people who made it worth all his while. Johnny signed endlessly for anyone who requested.

Johnny and I sat in his living room one afternoon in August, several weeks after he had narrowly escaped death via an infection related to his illness. He was tired, and we were about to wrap up a day of book talk, which he engaged in eagerly.

But his mind, ever sharp, homed in on what is the substance of the parting chapter in the book, one in which he describes his fight with the cancer first diagnosed in 1997.

“We all have time limits, and mine came a little early,” he said to me, quietly, his eyes closing.

“But I’ve had a great life no matter how it turns out now. I’ve had the best wife, Linda, that I could ever hope to find, and I’ve had such great friends that really care about me and would do anything they could for me.”

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