Onstage, they were the personification of unity – even family. The four men dressed the same – in leather motorcycle jackets, weathered jeans, sneakers – had the same dark hair colour, shared the same last name. They seemed to think the same thoughts and breathe the same energy. They often didn’t stop between songs, not even as bassist Dee Dee Ramone barked out the mad “1-2-3-4” time signature that dictated the tempo for their next number. Guitarist Johnny Ramone and drummer Tommy Ramone would slam into breakneck unison with a power that could make audience members lean back, as if they’d been slammed in the chest. Johnny and Dee Dee played with legs astride, looking unconquerable. Between them stood lead singer Joey Ramone – gangly, with dark glasses and a hair mess that fell over his eyes, protecting him from a world that had too often been unkind – proclaiming the band’s hilarious, disturbing tales of misplacement and heartbreak. There was a pleasure and spirit, a palpable commonality, in what the Ramones were doing onstage together.
When they left the stage, that fellowship fell away. They would climb into their van and ride to a hotel or their next show in silence. Two of the members, Johnny and Joey, didn’t speak to each other for most of the band’s 22-year history. It was a bitter reality for a group that, if it didn’t invent punk, certainly codified it effectively – its stance, sound and attitude, its rebellion and rejection of popular music conventions – just as Elvis Presley had done with early rock & roll. The Ramones likely inspired more bands than anybody since the Beatles; the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Nirvana, Metallica, the Misfits, Green Day and countless others have owed much of their sound and creed to what the band made possible. The Ramones made a model that almost anybody could grab hold of: basic chords, pugnacity and a noise that could lay waste to – or awaken – anything.
But they paid a heavy cost for their achievement. Much of the music world rejected them, sometimes vehemently. Others saw them as a joke that had run its course. The Ramones never had a true hit single or album, though at heart they wrote supremely melodic music. They continued for years across indifference and impediments, but the rift between the two leading members only worsened. They’re revered now – there are statues and streets and museums that honour them – and we see people wearing their T-shirts, with their blackened presidential seal, everywhere. But all four original members are gone; none of them can take pleasure in the belated prestige. The Ramones were a band that changed the world, and then died.
The Ramones didn’t share bloodlines, but they did have the important common background of coming of age in suburbia – in Forest Hills, Queens, a predominantly Jewish middle-class stronghold that bred ennui and restiveness among its nonconformist youth. The Ramones were a few years younger than their 1950s and 1960s heroes – Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – which allowed them a broader field of musical references to draw from: bubblegum pop, early heavy metal, surf music. More important, most of the original Ramones had some sort of experience of living under dominance – sometimes disconcerting, even frightful – or simply an ineradicable sense of being the wrong person in the wrong place. “People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds,” wrote Dee Dee, “because it’s not that civilised an art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.”
Drummer Tommy Ramone – who was the catalyst in pulling the band together and in moulding its musical aesthetic – largely kept his backstory and hurt to himself. He was born as Tamás Erdélyi (later Anglicised into Thomas Erdelyi) in Budapest, Hungary, in January 1949. His family moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1950s – an eventful moment to arrive in the promised land. “[Hungary] was a very restrictive regime,” he told author Everett True, in Hey Ho Let’s Go: The Story of the Ramones. “You didn’t hear too much Western music. I remember the early stages of rock & roll, how much it excited me – even as a young kid I was into dressing cool, into wearing a certain type of shoes.” In his first year at Forest Hills High, Tommy met John Cummings – later known as Johnny Ramone, the band’s oldest member, born October 8th, 1948. Johnny was charismatic and brooding, and intended to command respect. Tommy and Johnny joined a band, Tangerine Puppets – Tommy on lead guitar, Johnny on bass – that became locally notable as much for Cummings’ volatility as for their music. One time, when the Puppets were playing “Satisfaction”, according to another band member, John noticed the class president standing in the wings. “[John] ran over to him and hit him in the balls with his guitar neck,” said the band member. “He told the kid that it was an accident, but we knew John hated this kid.” Another time, Cummings got into a fight with the band’s lead singer, pummelling him onstage until the other members pulled him off. “We all liked Johnny,” Tommy said. “That anger is pure.”
Johnny was raised to be severe. His father, a hard-drinking construction worker, once made Johnny pitch a baseball game with a broken big toe: “What did I raise – a baby?” Johnny became tough and domineering, like his father. He became scary even to himself. In his autobiography, Commando, Johnny wrote, “I had been on a streak of bad, violent behaviour for two years. I was just bad, every minute of the day.” He recalled hauling discarded TV sets to the tops of apartment buildings and dropping them near people on the street. He threw bricks through windows, simply to do it, and he also strong-armed people. “Then all of a sudden,” Johnny wrote, “one day everything changed. I was twenty. I was walking down the block, near my neighbourhood and I heard a voice. I don’t know what it was, God maybe. It asked, ‘What are you doing with your life? Is this what you are here for?’ It was a spiritual awakening. And I just immediately stopped everything. It was all clear-cut right then.”
Sometime later, delivering clothes for a dry cleaner, he met Doug Colvin, known as Dee Dee. If his autobiography, Lobotomy, is to be believed, Dee Dee’s childhood was hellish. His father, an Army master sergeant stationed in Germany, moved the family back and forth between there and the U.S. His mother, he wrote, “was a drunken nut job, prone to emotional outbursts”. His parents fought brutally. “Their lives were complete chaos,” he wrote, “and they blamed it all on me.” Dee Dee was already taking narcotics in his early teens. “I couldn’t see a future for myself. Then I heard the Beatles for the first time. I got my first transistor radio, a Beatle haircut and a Beatle suit. Rock ‘n’ roll [gave] me a sense of my own identity.” When Dee Dee was about 15, his mother left his father, moving him and his sister to Forest Hills. “I can see now how it was only natural that I would gravitate toward Tommy, Joey, and Johnny Ramone,” he wrote. “They were the obvious creeps of the neighbourhood. No one would have ever pegged any of us as candidates for any kind of success in life.”
Tommy, though, did. He urged Johnny and Dee Dee to form a band. He’d help them find their sound and direction; he’d worked as an audio engineer at Record Plant on sessions with Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin. Johnny resisted. He’d become practical-minded. “I want to be normal,” he’d tell Tommy. Also, he had seen plenty of rock & roll live – the Beatles, the Stones, Hendrix, the Doors – and had become preoccupied with Led Zeppelin. “I liked violent bands,” he said. “I hated hippies and never liked that peace-and-love shit.” Johnny told Tommy he couldn’t play guitar like any of those other musicians.
Then Johnny saw the New York Dolls, featuring singer David Johansen and guitarist Johnny Thunders. The Dolls had taken the license that David Bowie and the glitter movement had implied, and brought a new trashy democratic feasibility: Anybody could make meaningful noise. “Wow, I can do this, too,” Johnny thought. “They’re great; they’re terrible, but just great. I can do this.” Johnny finally accepted Tommy’s suggestion. He bought a $50 Mosrite (the same guitar that MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and members of the Ventures played). As things developed, Dee Dee played bass, Johnny guitar; and a friend of theirs and Tommy’s joined on drums: Jeffrey Hyman.
Hyman, who became Joey Ramone, had hardships his whole life. He was born with a teratoma – a rare tumour that sometimes contains hair, teeth and bone – the size of a baseball, attached to his spine. Doctors removed the growth when Hyman was a few weeks old, but it’s possible the ordeal affected him in later years, contributing to his tendency to infections and bad blood circulation throughout his life. His parents divorced as he was approaching adolescence. His father, Noel Hyman, ran a trucking company; his mother, Charlotte, ran an art gallery. Noel had a bad temper – he once picked up Joey and threw him across a room into a wall. Joey’s lanky height and shy personality also made him a target for bullies. He wore dark glasses everywhere – even to school. “I started to spend a lot of time in the dean’s office,” he told Everett True. “I was a misfit, an outcast, a loner. The greasers were always looking to kick my ass. They’d travel in packs with fucking chains and those convertibles. They were trying to kill you. Johnny was like a greaser [for a while]. He was a hard guy.”
“We thought we were a teeny-bopper band,” says Johnny, “and songs about Vietnam vets becoming male prostitutes and killing people were normal.”
When he was in his teens, Joey began behaving oddly – climbing in and out of bed repeatedly before he was ready for sleep, leaving food out of the refrigerator at night, becoming hostile with his mother when she asked him why he was acting strangely. Once, he pulled a knife on her. He started to hear voices, and could burst into inexplicable anger. In 1972, he voluntarily entered St. Vincent’s Hospital for an evaluation and was kept for a month. There, doctors diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic, “with minimal brain damage”. Another psychiatrist had told Joey’s mother, “He’ll most likely be a vegetable.” Not long after, his mother moved into a smaller apartment in the same building but didn’t take him along; instead, he slept on the floor of her gallery.
But by then, Joey had found his path out of a life of cutoff prospects and mental limitation. “Rock & roll was my salvation,” he said in 1999. Another time, he said, “I remember being turned on to the Beach Boys, hearing ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ But the Beatles really did it to me. Later on, the Stooges were a band that helped me in those dark periods – just get out the aggression.” As a teen, he rented a high-hat, and tapped along to the rhythms of the Beatles and Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Joey later discovered the epoch-changing music of David Bowie – which offered a new kind of identity and pride to nonconformists. Joey started bands and joined a glam-rock group called Sniper as lead singer, wearing a tailor-made, skintight outfit and calling himself Jeff Starship. He had already left Sniper when, in early 1974, Dee Dee asked him to join him and Johnny in their new band. When Johnny first met Joey, he thought Joey “was just a spaced-out hippie”, according to the singer’s little brother, Mickey Leigh, in his memoir, I Slept With Joey Ramone.
The new bandmates began practicing in Johnny’s apartment; they determined early on that they should come up with a new song every time they met. At one of those early sessions, they discussed what to call themselves. “Dee Dee got the name ‘the Ramones’ from Paul McCartney,” Tommy said. “McCartney would call himself Paul Ramon when he checked into hotels and didn’t want to be noticed. I liked it because I thought it was ridiculous. The Ramones? That’s absurd! We all started calling ourselves Ramones because it was just a fun thing to do. There were times we were pretty lighthearted when we were putting this together.”
It would take several months to figure out what would work. Dee Dee had trouble playing and singing at the same time, and Joey wasn’t any good on the drums. Tommy suggested moving Joey to lead vocalist, front and centre of the band. “Joey was not my idea of a singer,” Johnny said, “and I kept telling Tommy that. I said, ‘I want a good-lookin’ guy in front.’ ” Dee Dee didn’t see it that way. “Joey was a perfect singer,” he said. “I wanted to get somebody real freaky, and Joey was really weird-lookin’, man, which was great for the Ramones. I think it looks better to have a singer that looks all fucked up than to have one that’s tryin’ to be Mr. Sex Symbol or something.” Later, Johnny agreed: “It was all Tommy, and it turned out to be a good move.”
The Ramones also figured out what wouldn’t work: Johnny didn’t want their sound to derive from the obvious past – not from the turbulent bands that had inspired them in recent years, such as the Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls. “What we did,” said Johnny, “was take out everything that we didn’t like about rock & roll and use the rest, so there would be no blues influence, no long guitar solos, nothing that would get in the way of the songs.” In the place of the rock frills was doo-wop, girl groups, bubblegum – they all loved the Bay City Rollers – and the surf rock of Brian Wilson and Jan and Dean, which informed many of the melodies, a tuneful undertow to the cacophony.
When Tommy joined the band as drummer – as the story goes, none of the drummers they auditioned could play without bombast and flourishes – the Ramones’ sound came together. “I wanted to lock in with the guitar,” he told Mojo in 2011. “Most people assume that the bass and drums lock in together. But I locked in with Johnny, and Dee Dee’s bass was the underpinning of it all.” The effect was primitive but also avant-garde: harmonic ideas stacked on a rapid-fire momentum. “We used block chording as a melodic device, and the harmonics resulting from the distortion of the amplifiers created countermelodies,” Tommy told Timothy White in Rolling Stone. “We used the wall of sound as a melodic rather than a riff form; it was like a song within a song, created by a block of chords droning.”
“Johnny crossed the line,” said Joey after Johnny stole his girlfriend. “He destroyed the band and the relationship right there.”
The Ramones played their first public show in August 1974 at New York’s CBGB – at least half a dozen songs in roughly 17 minutes. CBGB, a small, dank and narrow bar in Manhattan’s Bowery – long seen as a disreputable area, with cheap lodging and homeless alcoholics on the street – would become the vital centre of New York’s cutting-edge new-music scene. The owner, Hilly Kristal, thought the Ramones’ first appearance didn’t bode well. “They were the most un-together band I’d ever heard,” he wrote later. “They kept starting and stopping – equipment breaking down – and yelling at each other.” As he’d also recall, “They’d play for 40 minutes. And 20 of them would just be the band yelling at each other.” But they became a good draw, and Kristal featured them on his stage dozens of times in the next few years.
By early 1975, the Ramones had honed their presentation. Thanks to their goal of a new song every practice, they were developing a large repertoire of original material. All the members had adopted leather jackets like Johnny’s and wore torn jeans; they looked more like a gang than a band. Also, they didn’t fuck around onstage anymore – no talking among themselves, no guitar tuning, no pauses. Johnny and Tommy found that lock the drummer had described; Johnny played downstroke chord strums in eighth-note rhythms at full volume; it sounded like a force that had always existed, and couldn’t be held back.
People began to take notice. Influential columnist Lisa Robinson told music exec Danny Fields, “You’ll love this band.” When Fields, who had signed the Stooges and MC5, caught them at CBGB, he thought, “ ’This is overwhelming. What more do you need?’ I loved them within the first five seconds, from the minute they started to play. I couldn’t stop and think.” After the show, Fields offered to manage them, and won the band a contract with Sire Records. Johnny felt that he and the group were ready. “By the summer of ’75,” he told road manager Monte Melnick, in On the Road With the Ramones, “I started to take it seriously. I felt that we were better than everyone else. In the New York scene, the only band I looked at as any sort of competition was the Heartbreakers [led by Johnny Thunders]. I remember seeing a clip of Led Zeppelin, they were playing in ’75 at Madison Square Garden, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, these guys are such shit.’ ”
The Ramones’ April 1976 debut album, Ramones, with its black-and-white photo on the cover, defined punk rock. The term “punk” had been around for many years, usually with distasteful or threatening connotations. A punk was a coward or a snitch or a snivelling villain. Sometimes it was used to signify male homosexuality; Beat author William Burroughs said, “I always thought a punk was someone who took it up the ass.” By 1975, punk came to describe a handful of emerging rock & roll artists, such as Patti Smith, who sang about people outside of society. Critics Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs began using the term “punk rock” to describe a dissonance and spirit that had owed in a continuum from the mid-1960s, including several of the American garage-rock bands that appeared on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets collection. You could also hear that spirit in English bands, such as the Stones and early Kinks. In the late 1960s, Detroit’s Stooges and MC5, and New York’s Velvet Underground, took that dissonance further, musically and lyrically. But beginning with the Ramones, punk came to represent an aesthetic and a subculture. Actually, the opening song alone, “Blitzkrieg Bop”, did the job: noisy guitars, insistent rhythms and hurried vocals pronouncing a young generation piling into the back seat for a ride down deadman’s curve, with trouble ahead and behind.
Some took Ramones as threatening, with songs about beating brats, sniffing glue, gunning your enemy in the back, a Green Beret male prostitute, slashing a trick to prove he’s no sissy. “We started off just wanting to be a bubblegum group,” said Johnny. “We looked at the Bay City Rollers as our competition. But we were so weird. Singing about ’53rd and 3rd’, about some guy coming back from Vietnam and becoming a male prostitute and killing people? This is what we thought was normal.” There was also the problem that the band flirted with Nazi imagery: “I’m a shock trooper in a stupor, yes I am/I’m a Nazi schatze, y’know/I fight for Fatherland,” they sang in an early version of “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World”. According to Melnick, after hearing the lines, Seymour Stein, the head of Sire Records, recoiled. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You can’t sing about Nazis! I’m Jewish and so are all the people at the record company.” The band – half of whom, Joey and Tommy, were Jewish – complied, up to a point. Said Johnny, “We never thought anything of the original line. We were being naive, though. If we had been bigger, there would have been a bigger deal made of it by the press.”
Plenty of rock tastemakers hated everything about Ramones. Most American radio refused to play the music (one DJ described hurling the album “across the room”). The most succinct kiss-off review described Ramones as “the sound of 10,000 toilets flushing”. The band was undeterred. “We weren’t going to let anything knock us down,” Joey told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1999. “There was always something thrown at us. It was always that way.”
By the time of their U.K. tour in 1976, word of their sound and style had spread before them. Johnny disliked England, especially the audiences who spat on bands as a sign of punk affection. But he found time to give some famous advice to the Clash, who were nervous they were under-rehearsed: “We’re lousy, we can’t play,” Johnny reportedly told Joe Strummer. “If you wait until you can play, you’ll be too old to get up there.” The Ramones set the standard for a new, democratic aesthetic. “We wanted to save rock and roll,” Johnny wrote in Commando. “We weren’t against anybody. I thought the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the Clash were all going to become the major groups, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and it would be a better world.” Later, Johnny worried that the Sex Pistols’ infamous doings – swearing on British TV; playing riotous shows on their 1978 U.S. tour and then self-imploding; bassist Sid Vicious’ subsequent arrest for murdering girlfriend Nancy Spungen – had done the Ramones and punk rock serious damage, making it reprehensible rather than merely revolutionary.
Tommy Erdelyi remained with the Ramones for two more albums, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia (both 1977). They were of a piece with the first album – they extended the sound somewhat, but kept the same dense texture. Notably, some songs were about mental illness; “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” and “Teenage Lobotomy” (and later “I Wanna Be Sedated”) seemed to be drawn from things that Joey and Dee Dee had witnessed or experienced. “I think we were all trying to get as mentally unsound as possible,” said Tommy. For him, life in constant close quarters with the band had become too much. The Ramones toured steadily – playing something like 150 shows some years, spending hours and days going from city to city in a van, often finding fault with one another and erupting into fights. Once, at the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles, Johnny and Tommy got into a fierce argument. “This is my band,” Johnny yelled, “and I am the star of this band, not you! What are you gonna do about it?” Tommy later said, “They were always paranoid I would take over, which I had no intention of doing.”
Tommy played his last show with the Ramones in May 1978, at CBGB. Johnny tried to get him to stay. He wouldn’t, but he remained to produce one more album, Road to Ruin (1978), with Ed Stasium. Drummer Marc Bell, who had played with the Voidoids and other downtown bands, replaced Tommy under the name Marky Ramone. Road to Ruin was a masterpiece – the fourth in a row by a band that had burst out of nowhere. It was also the last great album the Ramones would ever make.
In the early 1980s – half a decade into their career – the Ramones’ story fractured in all respects. Their music hadn’t yielded the mass audience that they’d expected. “I don’t feel desperate, not yet,” Johnny said, “although I don’t feel like waiting another two years to get big.” Relations in the band were tense, even degrading. Though Joey was seen by many as the Ramones’ frontman – congenial, commanding onstage, increasingly outspoken in interviews – it was Johnny who ran the band with an iron hand. He instituted fines if members were late or too messed up to play. He yelled, and slapped people. “We could often hear John pushing and smacking Roxy [his girlfriend] around in their hotel room,” Marky wrote in his autobiography, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg. “We would hear her stumbling, bouncing off a thin wall, and then falling onto a bed and shrieking.” Danny Fields told Mojo, “Dee Dee was terrified of Johnny, because Johnny would punch him in the face. It would always be after the show, about something like, ‘You did a B-major when you should have done a C-minor.’ I’d stand outside the dressing room. Inside you’d hear glass shattering and bodies slamming into walls.”
Johnny soon met his match in producer Phil Spector. In 1978, the Ramones were invited to star in Rock & Roll High School, a musical about rock rebellion, produced by B-movie legend Roger Corman. The title track was a hit to their fans, but it wasn’t enough for Sire, which around the same time decided that if the Ramones hoped to achieve real success they would need to change their sound. The label teamed them with the legendary Spector to oversee the band’s next LP, End of the Century. Spector had been after the Ramones for a long time. “You wanna make a good album by yourselves,” he asked them in 1977, “or a great album with me?” But in 1979, the producer was past his prime and a spooky eccentric. Early on, Spector invited the band to his mansion. “There were a lot of warning signs,” wrote Marky. “Do not enter. Do not touch gate. Beware of attack dogs. The signs looked pretty amateurish, and that made them more rather than less imposing.” Spector wore pistols, one under each arm, and kept bodyguards around. He made the band stay all night, watching the psychological horror film Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins. Dee Dee claimed that one night, the producer pulled a gun on him when he tried to leave. “He had all the quick-draw, shoot-to-kill pistol techniques,” Dee Dee recalled.
One day, Spector pushed Johnny too far. The producer demanded that the guitarist play the opening G-major chord of “Rock & Roll High School” over and over. The engineer would play the chord back and Spector stomped around the studio yelling, “Shit, piss, fuck! Shit, piss, fuck!” Then he’d demand that Johnny hit the chord again. This went on for an hour or more, until Johnny got fed up. He finally put down his guitar and said he was leaving. Spector told him he wasn’t going anywhere. Johnny replied, “What are you gonna do, Phil, shoot me?” The bandmates had a meeting with Spector and told him they could no longer work with him if he was going to keep displaying the same temperament. “Nobody was enjoying any of it,” Joey said. “We were all pissed off with his antics, high drama, and the insanity.”
Spector had boasted to the band that Century, which cost $200,000, would be its greatest album ever. Instead, it was the album that broke the Ramones’ momentum and cost them their aesthetic. Vapid arrangements prevailed where storms had once ruled. Century charted higher than any of the band’s other albums, rising to Number 44 on the Billboard 200, but Johnny regretted making it. Near the end of his life, he told Ed Stasium that he wanted to remix the album and “de-Spectorise” it. “That was his final wish,” said Stasium, “get Phil’s stuff and make it a Ramones record.”
Decades later, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder for the 2003 shooting of Lana Clarkson, and is serving a 19-years-to-life sentence in California. In Commando, Johnny wrote, “After he shot that girl, I thought, ‘I’m surprised that he didn’t shoot someone every year.’ ”
When The Ramones visited Los Angeles to record End of the Century, Joey was accompanied by his girlfriend, Linda Danielle. According to his brother Mickey Leigh, Joey had probably met Linda at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City in the Ramones’ 1977 heyday, and the two became a couple during the filming of Rock & Roll High School in Los Angeles. Joey liked her more than any other woman he’d known. After the filming ended, Linda boarded the Ramones’ van to join Joey on tour. Johnny made plain the hierarchy: He decided where people sat. Since she was with Joey, he told her, “You sit in the back.” Linda replied, “Not for long.” In Commando, Johnny recalled, “What is this, this girl answers back to me? Joey told her not to say anything, but she did anyway. I thought it was kind of funny.”
Johnny had a girlfriend at the time. Others began to notice that he and Linda would flirt or sometimes furtively disappear to meet each other. When Marky and Mickey Leigh each tried to tell Joey that Linda and Johnny were having an affair, he refused to believe them. According to Commando, Linda left Joey in the summer of 1982, and soon Johnny left Roxy. Johnny and Linda began living together in a Manhattan apartment, but Johnny worried that Joey would leave the band if he found out. “I had never really gotten along with Joey,” Johnny later wrote, “but I didn’t want to hurt him, either. We tried our best, but you can’t live a lie.”
Within a few years, Johnny and Linda were married. Linda became Linda Cummings, but she went by Linda Ramone. Joey never got over her. The sense of romantic and isolated clinging in his songs deepened, and he wrote some of his best about the lost relationship, including “The KKK Took My Baby Away” (some saw it as aimed at Johnny). Late in his life, Joey told Mojo, “Johnny crossed the line. He destroyed the relationship and the band right there.” Joey began to drink heavily and also developed a cocaine habit.
Why didn’t Joey leave the Ramones at that point? “We’re the only rock & roll band out there,” he told a friend. “Everybody else has quit, but we’re never going to quit. We’re always going to be the Ramones.”
The Ramones kept their secrets well; they would go onstage night after night for a decade and a half after the schism between Joey and Johnny. After End of the Century, Sire kept treating the band’s music as a problem that needed to be solved. The label brought in new producers for five of their next six albums: Pleasant Dreams (1981), Subterranean Jungle (1983), Animal Boy (1986), Halfway to Sanity (1987) and Brain Drain (1989). On some of these, it sounded as if the Ramones were competing with their own shadows; they played faster, harder, as if trying to catch up with many of the hardcore bands – Black Flag, Fear, Circle Jerks, Discharge, Crass, Suicidal Tendencies, among others – that were running with the Ramones’ original template of short songs and high-speed beats. In many ways, they had grown as artists. The writing went deeper, and Joey’s voice took on more character – a mean drawl in some songs, a haunted wraith in others. The one album that broke the hex was 1985’s Too Tough to Die, a triumph that saw the return of producers Tommy Ramone and Ed Stasium.
Dee Dee had always written from his own fucked-up perspective, but in songs like Too Tough‘s “Howling at the Moon”, he turned his own ruination into a human concern that looked outward (“I took the law and threw it away/Because there’s nothing wrong/It’s just for play”). The trouble was, Dee Dee’s problems proved irrepressible. He had used hard drugs since he was a child, had been diagnosed as bipolar, and often mixed mood-disorder medications with cocaine. Johnny tolerated the usage as long as it didn’t interfere with the band’s live shows – and it never did (“Dee Dee was on the road with hepatitis and could still play fine,” said Johnny). But Dee Dee grew tired of the Ramones and their fights. He sent signals that he intended to make a change. One day he showed up with spiky hair and gold chains, proclaiming a new devotion to hip-hop. He intended to make a rap album. According to Marky, Dee Dee once sat at the back of the van announcing, “I’m a Negro! I’m a Negro!” It drove Johnny crazy. “No, you’re not,” Johnny said. “You’re a fucking white guy who can’t rap.” Dee Dee in fact released a (sort of) rap album in 1988, Standing in the Spotlight, under the name Dee Dee King. The record failed in all respects; one critic reviewed it as “one of the worst recordings of all time”. In 1989, Dee Dee kept his word: He left the Ramones, catching the others, especially Johnny, off guard. “Why we didn’t stick together, I don’t know,” Dee Dee later wrote. “It’s hard to get anywhere in life, and when we did, we just threw it all away.”
Christopher Joseph Ward replaced Dee Dee on bass as CJ Ramone in 1989, and remained with the group until it split in 1996. Dee Dee continued to write for the band, contributing several notable songs to Mondo Bizarro (1992) and ¡Adios Amigos! (1995). He was the complex and addled essential spirit at the centre of the Ramones’ brilliant and damaged story. Without him, the band would not have made as much great music at any point in its life span.
What held the Ramones together was also what divided them: the partnership of Joey and Johnny. It was a necessary coalition, and a harsh one. Joey would continue to suffer from OCD throughout his life, needing to touch things repeatedly in certain ways; one time, after the band returned from England, he insisted on driving back to the airport just to retrace one step. He was prone to infections and illnesses that often hospitalised him. Johnny was impatient with it all. “I didn’t know what it was called,” he admitted. “Obviously it was some sort of mental disorder that he had to keep doing this kind of stuff, but at the same time I felt a lot of the times it was a prima-donna attitude. Half the time he’s psychosomatic. It would always be before a tour, when we’d be starting an album.” (The lack of empathy was mutual: In 1983, Johnny got into a late-night street fight with a musician he caught with Roxy, his ex, and ended up severely injured, requiring emergency brain surgery. According to Marky, Joey was ecstatic over the news.)
In the end, it was Johnny who decided how long the Ramones lasted. He settled on a final show on August 6th, 1996, at the Hollywood Palace. Before the event, the band had been invited to play a high-paying date in Argentina. Everybody wanted to make the trip except Joey, who said he had health concerns. If they waited a few months, he would maybe do it. The others took it as a refusal – especially Johnny – and resented him for it. “Joey was always sick,” said Johnny. “Anything he could get, he had.” There were moments at that final Hollywood show – the torrid “Blitzkrieg Bop”, for example – when the Ramones were as good as they had ever been. After the last song – the Dave Clark Five’s “Anyway You Want It”, with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder – the Ramones retired to their dressing room. They packed up their clothes and instruments and left separately. “I said nothing to the other guys, I just walked out – it was the way I lived my life,” recalled Johnny. “Of course, I was really feeling loss of some sort. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
Joey had good reason to decline the South America trip; in 1994, he had learned he had lymphoma in his bone marrow. His doctor assured him it had been caught before it became life-threatening, and didn’t yet require treatments. Nonetheless, said Melnick, “it was harder for him to get the stamina. It wasn’t easy to do a Ramones set, especially when you’re wearing the heavy leather jacket. And I don’t think Joey exactly felt comfortable confiding in the band with his problems, especially Johnny.”
One day, in winter 1997, Joey’s chiropractor showed up at his apartment for a treatment session, but nobody answered the door. The chiropractor opened the door. “I saw Joey lying on the floor unconscious,” he said, “with blood spilling out of his mouth.” The emergency crew judged that Joey had been lying there for a day, maybe two. Another hour, even less, he would have been dead. In the autumn of 1998, his lymphoma worsened; doctors put him on chemotherapy. Joey used his good days to work on a solo album (Don’t Worry About Me, released in 2002). By Christmas 2000, he had been doing well enough that his doctors believed his cancer might be in remission in a few months. Then, in the predawn hours of December 31st, Joey began to hear voices while at his downtown apartment: Had he closed the door properly to his chiropractor’s office the prior day? “He headed uptown to [the] office to repeat a movement,” wrote Mickey Leigh, “to push a button or turn a doorknob – and do it right this time – so he could silence the voices and move on into the next year without them challenging him.” He made the trip once, but the worries persisted. He made the trip to check the office door again. Snow had built up, the sidewalks were slippery, and Joey fell. He couldn’t get back up. He laid there some time before a female police officer found him and called an ambulance. Joey had broken his hip during the fall and required surgery, which meant there would be a temporary halt in his cancer treatment. Over the next few weeks, his condition didn’t improve. Joey’s doctor told his family that things didn’t look good.
The only member of Joey’s former band to stop by was drummer Marky Ramone. Marky called Johnny – now living in Los Angeles – the next day. “You need to visit him,” Marky said. “The window is closing.”
“Let it close,” replied John. “He’s not my friend.” On April 15th, 2001, Joey’s family and a few friends gathered at his bedside. Doctors turned off his respirator. Mickey played a song on a boombox that Joey liked, U2’s “In a Little While” (“In a little while/This hurt will hurt no more/I’ll be home, love”). By the time the song finished, Joey Ramone had closed his eyes. He was 49.
Three years later, Rolling Stone’s Charles M. Young asked Johnny if he had gone to Joey’s funeral. “No,” said Johnny. “I was in California. I wasn’t going to travel all the way to New York, but I wouldn’t have gone anyway. I wouldn’t want him coming to my funeral, and I wouldn’t want to hear from him if I were dying. I’d only want to see my friends. Let me die and leave me alone.”
During those years, belated recognition finally came around for the Ramones. In 2002, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year of eligibility. Tommy told Rolling Stone, “It mattered a lot to us because we knew we were good for the past 25 years or whatever. But it was hard to tell because we never got that much promotion and the records weren’t getting in the stores. But the fact that we were inducted on the first ballot seemed to say, ‘Oh, wow, it was real. We weren’t kidding ourselves.’ ” When Johnny, Tommy, Marky and Dee Dee went onstage to accept their Hall of Fame awards, Johnny was the first to speak. He thanked the band’s earlier management and record-label head, and added, “God bless President Bush, and God bless America.” Tommy spoke next. “Believe it or not,” he said, “we really loved each other even when we weren’t acting civil to each other. We were truly brothers.” Dee Dee said, “I’d like to congratulate myself, and thank myself, and give myself a big pat on the back. Thank you, Dee Dee. You’re very wonderful. I love you.” None of them claimed Joey’s award. It stood alone on the podium.
Eleven weeks later, Dee Dee Ramone was found in his apartment, dead of an overdose of heroin. “He was trying to stay sober toward the end but would fall off the wagon every so often,” wrote Melnick. “From my understanding,” added Dee Dee’s first wife, Vera, “he didn’t make it but a foot or two to the couch. He was bent over the top of the couch where he passed out and died. When Barbara [Dee Dee’s then-wife] came home from work, he was in that position.” Perhaps he was writing a song in his head about the experience as the dark rush moved through his mind and veins and stopped his heart. Dee Dee Colvin’s funeral was small. An inscription on his headstone read o.k. I gotta go now.
In 1997, Johnny started to have some troubles – difficulty urinating. He thought perhaps he had an enlarged prostate. It got worse. He saw a nutritionist, but nothing helped. Then he had his blood tested and a biopsy. Johnny learned he had prostate cancer. He elected for radiation treatment, and the symptoms eased a bit. “Still, the cancer clawed at me physically and in my mind,” he wrote in Commando. The cancer spread, and in June 2004, doctors told Linda Cummings her husband was going to die.
“I asked Joey how he was feeling,” said Johnny after he heard about the cancer. “‘I’m doing great,’ he said to me. ‘Why? I gave up.”
Johnny’s Commando was amazingly candid in many respects. “For all the success,” he wrote, “I carried around fury and intensity during my career. I had an image, and that image was anger. I was the one who was scowling, downcast, and I tried to make sure I looked like that when I was getting my picture taken. The Ramones were what I was, and so I was that person so many people saw on that stage. While retirement seemed to soften me, the prostate cancer I was diagnosed with in 1997 did so even more. It changed me, and I don’t know that I like how. It has softened me up, and I like the old me better. I don’t even have the energy to be angry.” At the book’s end, Johnny wrote, “It’s interesting that I have never felt that I was going to die until this last time. I’ve known that my time is limited, but I had nothing definite. If this happens again, I want them to just let me die. I won’t go through that again. Of course, now I know. We all have time limits, and mine came a little early.” On September 15th, 2004, Johnny Ramone died at his Los Angeles home, attended by his wife and some friends, at age 55. He was cremated the following January. That same month, a four-foot-tall bronze statue of the guitarist was unveiled at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery. John Cummings had paid for it himself.
On July 11th, 2014, Tommy Erdelyi – who had spent the last decade of his life quietly, playing in a bluegrass band, Uncle Monk, with his longtime girlfriend, Claudia Tiernan, died at his Queens home, of cancer of the bile duct. He was 65.
The four original Ramones had gone to the dust.
Bloodlines make bonds irrefutable. You might hate your brother for what he’s done, but you can’t undo the blood; he’s still your brother, you’re his. A makeshift family, the kind many bands construct, may seem easier to leave behind. It’s a musical partnership, a fraternity at best. But the bonds can be just as indelible, as sublime, as painful.
One thing bound Joey and Johnny Ramone in the years after the band’s breakup: a belief in the worth and endurance of what the Ramones had done. That necessitated some sort of belief in one another. As late as 1999, noted David Fricke, Joey still spoke of the Ramones as an ongoing force: “The Ramones were, and are, a great fuckin’ band. When we went out there to play, the power was intense, like going to see the Who in the Sixties. When I put the Ramones on the stereo now, we still sound great. And that will always be there. When you need a lift. When you need a fix.”
Said Johnny, “I rarely had any contact with Joey after we broke up; two or three times maybe. When we did the Anthology in-store on Broadway in New York in 1998, I asked him how he was feeling. This was after I found out he had lymphoma, which eventually killed him. ‘I’m doing great,’ he said to me. ‘Why?’ I gave up.”
Still, both men always hoped for something more. During Marky’s visit to Joey near the end of the singer’s life, Joey asked the drummer if he thought there might ever be a Ramones reunion. Not long before he died, Johnny admitted he’d had the same buried hope. “In my head,” he wrote, “it was never officially over until Joey died. There was no more Ramones without Joey. He was irreplaceable, no matter what a pain he was. He was actually the most difficult person I have ever dealt with in my life. I didn’t want him to die, though. I wouldn’t have wanted to play without him no matter how I felt about him; we were in it together. So when it happened, I was sad about the end of the Ramones. I thought I wouldn’t care and I did, so it was weird. I guess all of a sudden, I did miss him.”
Johnny never considered working in the Ramones without Joey? “No way.I would never perform without Joey. He was our singer.”
From issue #775, available now.