The Curse Of The Ramones
40 years later: The feuds, failures and breakdowns of the band that launched punk rock
OnÂ stage, 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 color, 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,Â 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 honor 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. TheÂ 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 restivenessÂ 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 civilized an art form. Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.
“We thought we were a teeny-bopper band,” says Johnny, “and songs about Vietnam vets becoming male prostitutes and killing people were normal.”
Drummer Tommy Ramone ”“ who was the catalyst in pulling the band together and in molding its musical aesthetic ”“ largely kept his backstory and hurt to himself. He was born as TamÃ¡s ErdÃ©lyi (later Anglicized into Thomas Erdelyi) in Budapest, Hungary, in January 1949. His familyÂ 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, pummeling 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 behavior 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 neighborhood . . . 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 aÂ drunken nut job, prone to emotional outbursts.”Â His parents fought brutally. “TheirÂ lives were complete chaos,” he wrote, “andÂ they blamed it all on me.” Dee Dee was alreadyÂ taking narcotics in his early teens.Â “I couldn’t see a future for myself. . . . ThenÂ I heard the BeatlesÂ for the first time. I gotÂ my first transistor radio, a Beatle haircutÂ and a Beatle suit. . . . Rock ’n’ roll [gave] meÂ a sense of my own identity.” When Dee DeeÂ was about 15, his mother left his father,Â moving him and his sister to Forest Hills.Â “I can see now how it was only natural thatÂ I would gravitate toward Tommy, Joey, andÂ Johnny Ramone,” he wrote. “They were theÂ obvious creeps of the neighborhood. . . . NoÂ one would have ever pegged any of us asÂ candidates for any kind of success in life.”
Tommy, though, did. He urged JohnnyÂ and Dee Dee to form a band. He’d helpÂ them find their sound and direction; he’dÂ worked as an audio engineer at RecordÂ Plant on sessions with Jimi Hendrix andÂ John McLaughlin. Johnny resisted. He’dÂ become practical-minded. “I want to beÂ normal,” he’d tell Tommy. Also, he had seenÂ plenty of rock & roll live ”“ the Beatles, theÂ Stones, Hendrix, the Doors ”“ and had becomeÂ preoccupied with Led Zeppelin. “IÂ liked violent bands,” he said. “I hated hippiesÂ and never liked that peace-and-loveÂ shit.”Â Johnny told Tommy he couldn’t playÂ guitar like any of those other musicians.
Then Johnny saw the New York Dolls,Â featuring singer David Johansen and guitaristÂ Johnny Thunders. The Dolls hadÂ taken the license that David Bowie andÂ the glitter movement had implied, andÂ brought a new trashy democratic feasibility: Anybody could make meaningfulÂ noise. “Wow, I can do this, too,” JohnnyÂ thought. “They’re great; they’re terrible,Â but just great. I can do this.” JohnnyÂ finally accepted Tommy’s suggestion. HeÂ bought a $50 Mosrite (the same guitar thatÂ MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith and members ofÂ the Ventures played). As things developed,Â Dee Dee played bass, Johnny guitar; andÂ a friend of theirs and Tommy’s joined onÂ drums: Jeffrey Hyman.
Hyman, who became Joey Ramone, hadÂ hardships his whole life. He was born withÂ a teratoma ”“ a rare tumor that sometimesÂ contains hair, teeth and bone ”“ the size ofÂ a baseball, attached to his spine. DoctorsÂ removed the growth when Hyman was aÂ few weeks old, but it’s possible the ordealÂ affected him in later years, contributing toÂ his tendency to infections and bad bloodÂ circulation throughout his life. His parentsÂ divorced as he was approaching adolescence.Â His father, Noel Hyman, ran aÂ trucking company; his mother, Charlotte,Â ran an art gallery. Noel had a bad temperÂ ”“ he once picked up Joey and threwÂ him across a room into a wall. Joey’s lankyÂ height and shy personality also made himÂ a target for bullies. He wore dark glassesÂ everywhere ”“ even to school. “I startedÂ to spend a lot of time in the dean’s office,”Â he told Everett True. “I was a misfit,Â an outcast, a loner. . . . The greasers were alwaysÂ looking to kick my ass. They’d travelÂ in packs with fucking chains and thoseÂ convertibles. They were trying to kill you.Â Johnny was like a greaser [for a while]. HeÂ was a hard guy.”
When he was in his teens, Joey beganÂ behaving oddly ”“ climbing in and out ofÂ bed repeatedly before he was ready forÂ sleep, leaving food out of the refrigeratorÂ at night, becoming hostile with his motherÂ when she asked him why he was actingÂ strangely. Once, he pulled a knife on her.Â He started to hear voices, and could burstÂ into inexplicable anger. In 1972, he voluntarilyÂ entered St. Vincent’s Hospital forÂ an evaluation and was kept for a month.Â There, doctors diagnosed him as paranoidÂ schizophrenic, “with minimal brain damage.”Â Another psychiatrist had told Joey’sÂ mother, “He’ll most likely be a vegetable.”Â Not long after, his mother moved intoÂ a smaller apartment in the same buildingÂ but didn’t take him along; instead, he sleptÂ on the floor of her gallery.
But by then, Joey had found his pathÂ out of a life of cutoff prospects and mentalÂ limitation. “Rock & roll was my salvation,”Â he said in 1999. Another time, he said, “IÂ remember being turned on to the BeachÂ Boys, hearing ”˜Surfin’ U.S.A.’ But the BeatlesÂ really did it to me. Later on, the StoogesÂ were a band that helped me in those darkÂ periods ”“ just get out the aggression.” AsÂ a teen, he rented a high-hat, and tappedÂ along to the rhythms of the Beatles andÂ Gary Lewis and the Playboys. Joey laterÂ discovered the epoch-changing music ofÂ David Bowie ”“ which offered a new kindÂ of identity and pride to nonconformists.Â Joey started bands and joined a glam-rockÂ group called Sniper as lead singer, wearingÂ a tailor-made, skintight outfit and callingÂ himself Je Starship. He had alreadyÂ left Sniper when, in early 1974, Dee DeeÂ asked him to join him and Johnny in theirÂ new band. When Johnny first met Joey, heÂ thought Joey “was just a spaced-out hippie,”Â according to the singer’s little brother,Â Mickey Leigh, in his memoir, I Slept WithÂ Joey Ramone.
The new bandmates began practicingÂ in Johnny’s apartment; they determinedÂ early on that they should come up withÂ a new song every time they met. At oneÂ of those early sessions, they discussedÂ what to call themselves. “Dee Dee got theÂ name ”˜the Ramones’ from Paul McCartney,”Â Tommy said. “McCartney would callÂ himself Paul Ramon when he checkedÂ into hotels and didn’t want to be noticed.Â I liked it because I thoughtÂ it was ridiculous. The Ramones?Â That’s absurd! WeÂ all started calling ourselvesÂ Ramones because itÂ was just a fun thing to do.Â There were times we wereÂ pretty lighthearted whenÂ we were putting this together.”
It would take severalÂ months to figure out whatÂ would work. Dee Dee had troubleÂ playing and singing at theÂ same time, and Joey wasn’t anyÂ good on the drums. Tommy suggestedÂ moving Joey to lead vocalist, front and centerÂ of the band. “Joey was not my idea ofÂ a singer,” Johnny said, “and I kept tellingÂ Tommy that. I said, ”˜I want a good-lookin’Â guy in front.’ ” Dee Dee didn’t see it thatÂ way. “Joey was a perfect singer,” he said. “IÂ wanted to get somebody real freaky, andÂ Joey was really weird-lookin’, man, whichÂ was great for the Ramones. I think it looksÂ better to have a singer that looks all fuckedÂ up than to have one that’s tryin’ to be Mr.Â Sex Symbol or something.” Later, JohnnyÂ agreed: “It was all Tommy, and it turnedÂ out to be a good move.”
The Ramones also figured out whatÂ wouldn’t work: Johnny didn’t want theirÂ sound to derive from the obvious past ”“Â not from the turbulent bands that had inspiredÂ them in recent years, such as theÂ Stooges, MC5 and the New York Dolls.Â “What we did,” said Johnny, “was take outÂ everything that we didn’t like about rock &Â roll and use the rest, so there would be noÂ blues infl uence, no long guitar solos, nothingÂ that would get in the way of the songs.”Â In the place of the rock frills was doo-wop,Â girl groups, bubblegum ”“ they all lovedÂ the Bay City Rollers ”“ and the surf rock ofÂ Brian Wilson and Jan and Dean, which informedÂ many of the melodies, a tuneful undertowÂ to the cacophony.
“Johnny crossed the line,” said Joey after Johnny stole his girlfriend. “He destroyed the band and the relationship right there.”
When Tommy joined the band as drummerÂ ”“ as the story goes, none of the drummersÂ they auditioned could play withoutÂ bombast and flourishes ”“ the Ramones’Â sound came together. “I wanted to lockÂ in with the guitar,” he told Mojo in 2011.Â “Most people assume that the bass andÂ drums lock in together. . . . But I lockedÂ in with Johnny, and Dee Dee’s bass wasÂ the underpinning of it all.” The effect wasÂ primitive but also avant-garde: harmonicÂ ideas stacked on a rapid-fire momentum.Â “We used block chording as a melodic device,Â and the harmonics resulting from theÂ distortion of the amplifiers created countermelodies,”Tommy told Timothy WhiteÂ in Rolling Stone. “We used the wall ofÂ sound as a melodic rather than a riff form;Â it was like a song within a song, created byÂ a block of chords droning.”
The Ramones played their first publicÂ show in August 1974 at New York’s CBGBÂ ”“ at least half a dozen songs in roughly 17Â minutes. CBGB, a small, dank and narrowÂ bar in Manhattan’s Bowery ”“ long seen as aÂ disreputable area, with cheap lodging andÂ homeless alcoholics on the street ”“ wouldÂ become the vital center of New York’s cutting-Â edge new-music scene. The owner,Â Hilly Kristal, thought the Ramones’ firstÂ appearance didn’t bode well. “They wereÂ the most un-together band I’d ever heard,”Â he wrote later. “They kept starting andÂ stopping ”“ equipment breaking down ”“Â and yelling at each other.” As he’d also recall,Â “They’d play for 40 minutes. And 20 ofÂ them would just be the band yelling at eachÂ other.” But they became a good draw, andÂ Kristal featured them on his stage dozensÂ of times in the next few years.
By early 1975, the Ramones had honedÂ their presentation. Thanks to their goalÂ of a new song every practice, they wereÂ developing a large repertoire of originalÂ material. All the members had adoptedÂ leather jackets like Johnny’s and wore tornÂ jeans; they looked more like a gang thanÂ a band. Also, they didn’t fuck around onstageÂ anymore ”“ no talking among themselves,Â no guitar tuning, no pauses. Johnny and Tommy found that lock the drummer had described; Johnny played downstrokeÂ chord strums in eighth-note rhythms atÂ full volume; it sounded like a force that hadÂ always existed, and couldn’t be held back.
People began to take notice. InfluentialÂ columnist Lisa Robinson told music execÂ Danny Fields, “You’ll love this band.” WhenÂ Fields, who had signed the Stooges andÂ MC5, caught them at CBGB, he thought,Â ”˜This is overwhelming. What more do youÂ need?’ I loved them within the first fiveÂ seconds, from the minute they started toÂ play. I couldn’t stop and think.” After theÂ show, Fields offered to manage them, and won the band a contract with Sire Records.Â Johnny felt that he and the group wereÂ ready. “By the summer of ’75,” he told roadÂ manager Monte Melnick, in On the RoadÂ With the Ramones, “I started to take it seriously.Â I felt that we were better than everyoneÂ else. . . . In the New York scene, theÂ only band I looked at as any sort of competitionÂ was the Heartbreakers [led by JohnnyÂ Thunders]. I remember seeing a clip ofÂ Led Zeppelin, they were playing in ’75 atÂ Madison Square Garden, and I thought,Â ”˜Oh, God, theseÂ guys areÂ such shit.’ ”
The Ramones’ AprilÂ 1976 debut album, Ramones,Â with its black and-white photo on theÂ cover, defined punk rock.Â The term “punk” had beenÂ around for many years,Â usually with distasteful orÂ threatening connotations.Â A punk was a coward or a snitch or a snivelingÂ villain. Sometimes it was used to signifyÂ male homosexuality; Beat author WilliamÂ Burroughs said, “I always thought aÂ punk was someone who took it up the ass.”Â By 1975, punk came to describe a handfulÂ of emerging rock & roll artists, such asÂ Patti Smith, who sang about people outsideÂ of society. Critics Dave Marsh and LesterÂ Bangs began using the term “punk rock” toÂ describe a dissonance and spirit that hadÂ owed in a continuum from the mid-1960s,Â including several of the American garagerockÂ bands that appeared on Lenny Kaye’sÂ Nuggets collection. You could also hearÂ that spirit in English bands, such as theÂ Stones and early Kinks. In the late 1960s,Â Detroit’s Stooges and MC5, and New York’sÂ Velvet Underground, took that dissonanceÂ further, musically and lyrically. But beginningÂ with the Ramones, punk came to representÂ an aesthetic and a subculture. Actually,Â the opening song alone, “BlitzkriegÂ Bop,” did the job: noisy guitars, insistentÂ rhythms and hurried vocals pronouncingÂ a young generation piling into the backÂ seat for a ride down deadman’s curve, withÂ trouble ahead and behind.
Some took Ramones as threatening, withÂ songs about beating brats, sniffing glue,Â gunning your enemy in the back, a GreenÂ Beret male prostitute, slashing a trick toÂ prove he’s no sissy. “We started off justÂ wanting to be a bubblegum group,” saidÂ Johnny. “We looked at the Bay City RollersÂ as our competition. But we were so weird.Â Singing about ”˜53rd and 3rd,’ about someÂ guy coming back from Vietnam and becomingÂ a male prostitute and killing people?Â This is what we thought was normal.”Â There was also the problem that the bandÂ flirted with Nazi imagery: “I’m a shockÂ trooper in a stupor, yes I am/I’m a NaziÂ schatze, y’know/I fight for Fatherland,”Â they sang in an early version of “Today YourÂ Love, Tomorrow the World.” According toÂ Melnick, after hearing the lines, SeymourÂ Stein, the head of Sire Records, recoiled.Â “You can’t do that,” he said. “You can’t singÂ about Nazis! I’m Jewish and so are all theÂ people at the record company.” The band ”“Â half of whom, Joey and Tommy, were JewishÂ ”“ complied, up to a point. Said Johnny,Â “We never thought anything of the originalÂ line. We were being naive, though. If we
had been bigger, there would have been aÂ bigger deal made of it by the press.”
Plenty of rock tastemakers hated everythingÂ about Ramones. Most AmericanÂ radio refused to play the music (one DJÂ described hurling the album “across theÂ room”). The most succinct kiss-off reviewÂ described Ramones as “the sound of 10,000Â toilets flushing.” The band was undeterred.Â “We weren’t going to let anything knock us
down,” Joey told Rolling Stone’s DavidÂ Fricke in 1999. “There was always somethingÂ thrown at us. It was always that way.”
By the time of their U.K. tour in 1976,Â word of their sound and style had spreadÂ before them. Johnny disliked England, especiallyÂ the audiences who spat on bandsÂ as a sign of punk a ection. But he foundÂ time to give some famous advice to theÂ Clash, who were nervous they were under-Â rehearsed: “We’re lousy, we can’t play,”
Johnny reportedly told Joe Strummer. “IfÂ you wait until you can play, you’ll be tooÂ old to get up there.” The Ramones set theÂ standard for a new, democratic aesthetic.Â “We wanted to save rock and roll,” JohnnyÂ wrote in Commando. “We weren’t against anybody… I thought the Ramones, the Sex Pistols , and the Clash were all going toÂ become the major groups, like the BeatlesÂ and the Rolling Stones, and it would be aÂ better world.” Later, Johnny worried thatÂ the Sex Pistols’ infamous doings ”“ swearingÂ on British TV; playing riotous shows onÂ their 1978 U.S. tour and then self-imploding;Â bassist Sid Vicious’ subsequent arrestÂ for murdering girlfriend Nancy Spungen ”“Â had done the Ramones and punk rock seriousÂ damage, making it reprehensible ratherÂ than merely revolutionary.
Tommy Erdelyi remained with the RamonesÂ for two more albums, Leave HomeÂ and Rocket to Russia (both 1977). TheyÂ were of a piece with the first album ”“ theyÂ extended the sound somewhat, but kept theÂ same dense texture. Notably, some songsÂ were about mental illness; “Gimme GimmeÂ Shock Treatment” and “Teenage Lobotomy”
(and later “I Wanna Be Sedated”)Â seemed to be drawn from things that JoeyÂ and Dee Dee had witnessed or experienced.Â “I think we were all tryingÂ to get as mentallyÂ unsound as possible,”Â said Tommy. ForÂ him, life in constantÂ close quarters with theÂ band had become tooÂ much. The RamonesÂ toured steadily ”“ playingÂ something likeÂ 150 shows some years,Â spending hours andÂ days going from cityÂ to city in a van, oftenÂ finding fault with one another and eruptingÂ into fi ghts. Once, at the Sunset MarquisÂ hotel in Los Angeles, Johnny and Tommy
got into a fierce argument. “This is myÂ band,” Johnny yelled, “and I am the star ofÂ this band, not you! What are you gonna doÂ about it?” Tommy later said, “They were alwaysÂ paranoid I would take over, which IÂ had no intention of doing.”
Tommy played his last show with the RamonesÂ in May 1978, at CBGB. Johnny triedÂ to get him to stay. He wouldn’t, but he remainedÂ to produce one more album, RoadÂ to Ruin (1978), with Ed Stasium. DrummerÂ Marc Bell, who had played with theÂ Voidoids and other downtown bands, replacedÂ Tommy under the name Marky Ramone.Â Road to Ruin was a masterpiece ”“Â the fourth in a row by a band that had burstÂ out of nowhere. It was also the last greatÂ album the Ramones would ever make.
In the early 1980s ”“ half aÂ decade into their career ”“ theÂ Ramones’ story fractured in allÂ respects. Their music hadn’tÂ yielded the mass audience thatÂ they’d expected. “I don’t feel desperate,Â not yet,” Johnny said, “although I don’t feelÂ like waiting another two years to get big.”Â 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 hourÂ or more, until Johnny got fed up. HeÂ 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?” TheÂ 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-Spectorize” 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 relationshipÂ 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) rapÂ 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 Â¡Adios Amigos! (1995). He was the complex and addled essential spirit at the center 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 hospitalized 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, theÂ 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 1988, 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, andÂ 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’sÂ 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, doctorsÂ 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 sameÂ 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.Â 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.”