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Johnny Ramone Looks Back At The Ramones

During the past two years, guitarist Johnny Ramone faced the deaths of two friends he spent 22 years making music with. The experience gave him a hyper-consciousness of mortality and a quick, hard lesson of life: Live now, enjoy each day and each of your loved ones.

"I'm just trying to relax, trying to be happy that I am around each day," Johnny said in a recent phone interview. "Two members of the band have died, and so you get a weird feeling — you feel like, 'Wow I'm still here and I'm really fortunate to be here.' I try to enjoy each day and relax. That's what I wanna do, I'm retired."

Well, sort of. In between dinners with his wife, films with friends, a few chores around his L.A. spread and swimming (so long as the California sun permits), Johnny Ramone rounded up some of his closest friends, along with a stranger or two, and put together a truly unique Ramones tribute compilation. We're a Happy Family — A Tribute to The Ramones (Sony/Columbia), available Feb. 11, will benefit New York City's Lymphoma Research Foundation.

The album features a stellar lineup. "Everybody's like, 'Wow, I can't believe the lineup you've got,'" Ramone said. "And now that I look at it I go, 'Yeah, I guess so.' I wasn't even thinking about it at all. I was just trying to get people I knew. I look at it and I go, 'Wow, I guess I'm really lucky I got these people.'"

"These people" being Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Offspring, Metallica, U2, Garbage, The Pretenders, Green Day, Tom Waits and many others. The collection offers 15 completely idiosyncratic takes on classic Ramones songs. "Kiss did a tremendous version — they did everything The Ramones did, then they improved on it," Ramone said, commenting on Kiss' rendition of "Rock and Roll Radio." It's a bold statement that's difficult for many Ramones fans to swallow.

The process of getting the folks to contribute sounded as leisurely as retirement. Ramone said he wanted musicians that "had some connection with The Ramones in some way. I'm friends with Kirk [Hammett, guitarist] from Metallica. U2 had mentioned The Ramones many times. They were doing a Ramones song on tour, so we approached them.

"We've known Chrissie Hynde since the first time we toured England in '76, so we got The Pretenders," he continued. "Green Day — I had always seen them as Ramones fans, same as Offspring. Everyone fell right in place. And then we got Tom Waits and Garbage.

"We covered a Tom Waits song on our last [studio] album [1995's Adios Amigos]. Now Tom Waits is covering us," he added with a laugh.

"I insisted I get my friend's band Rooney on it," Ramone said. "I felt like, you have all these great big bands on it and I wanted to have one unknown band that was going to be having a record coming out around the same time, and thought it would be not all about big bands."

Singer/songwriter Pete Yorn was one of the few contributors Ramone didn't know before coordinating the tribute. "They sent me over a CD of Pete Yorn," he said. "I listened to it and I liked it, and I called him up, and now I'm friends with Pete and that's more important than anything."

Why Is It Always This Way?

Throughout the interview, Johnny Ramone spoke humbly of his luck, his friends, the tribute and, of course, the band — the gods, the fathers, one of the founders of punk. His tone, his Queens-riddled accent, his volume all exude a shrugging of the shoulders, a no-big-deal outlook and a been-there personality to respect, honor, and adore. Of course, it's where he's been that's made him who he is.

"Everything you do in your life makes you who you are," he explained. "Life's strange when you start thinking about it. Each turn you make ... you get to a corner, you make a right or a left, it changes your life. Those decisions that you make have an impact on everything."

When Johnny turned away from construction work in 1974 in favor of the guitar in the window, his path was chosen. "I was perfectly content being a construction worker," he said. "And all of a sudden I got laid off one day after five years of not missing one day of work. And I bought a guitar, or there'd be no Ramones.

"It was something I wanted to do ever since I was 5 or 6 years old," he said. "I saw Elvis on TV. That's the life I wanted — to be a baseball player or a rock 'n' roll star. I had both of those dreams, and I never really did anything towards doing any of it. I pretty much watched shows and listened to rock 'n' roll music, but I never tried to do any of it, 'cause I thought that's just fantasy."

A fantasy turned reality when, after a year of rearranging lineups and writing songs that would soon go down in history, the band played CBGB's in August of '75. "At first, nothing at all, nothing — we had no expectations at all," Ramone recalled. "[Then] our expectations changed. All of a sudden, by the summer of '75, now we think we're really good, now we have high expectations.

"We went from thinking, 'All right, it'd be nice to do a record and just go back to work, and we're not really gonna have any fans,'" he continued. Going from this humble tone to sarcasm, he continued, "By the summer of '75 our expectations are to become the biggest band in the world, now we think we're good, we believe it now, and music's gonna change."

Sheena Is A Punk Rocker

It certainly did. It's just that it didn't happen as quickly as The Ramones had hoped. "We got to England in '76, and we met the Sex Pistols and The Clash and The Damned," said Johnny. "And we think, 'OK, this is exactly what we're looking for. These bands are gonna start up, music is gonna change, these bands will dominate the airwaves and we're gonna have real rock 'n' roll.' And it didn't happen.

"When you don't sell any records, not compared to what other people sell, you feel like, 'Ah, no one cares,'" he admitted, in a tone so honest as to make any punk fan gasp at the thought of The Ramones feeling insignificant.

True, The Ramones didn't throw the entire world into a massive, chaotic frenzy like The Beatles did a decade earlier. But, as is evident with most pioneers, good things come to those who wait, even long after the trail's been blazed. "We kept expecting it in the '70s and then we saw that it didn't happen," Ramone said. "We said, 'All right, that's it.' And then all of a sudden it emerged in the '90s. Nirvana was the first one to break through and we said, 'Well, finally.' You know, the world would've been a better place if this would've all happened a little sooner."

Finally, the band could hear numerous groups they'd influenced on the radio. "All of a sudden these bands came out like, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day and Offspring," Ramone said. "We all of a sudden thought, 'Wow, I guess we're appreciated and we didn't know through the whole time.'"

He paused to reflect on The Ramones' '70s state of mind, then continued, "We were so isolated in our own world, just playing, and we never felt any appreciation other than just from Ramones fans. But then all of a sudden it came [from] millions. Now you feel like, 'Wow, I guess people did care.' And when you get people to play on the tribute record you go, 'Wow, these people, how nice they are by doing this.' So, I guess people did care."

The Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just three months before bassist Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose in March 2002, and about a year after Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in April 2001. The legendary band is being remembered exactly as Johnny would have hoped: "As one of the best American rock 'n' roll bands," he said matter-of-factly. "For 22 years we worked hard. We had, it seems to be, this massive influence on other bands — more than you could ever hope for, 'cause as a band you just hope you do something that's good. You don't expect to influence anyone.

"It's been a weird ride," he continued. "I mean, you start off and all you hope to do is an album and go back and find a job. And all of sudden you do it for 22 years, you get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's not at all what I expected."

Do You Wanna Dance?

Johnny talked again and again of the importance of The Ramones' fans during the interview. "Everything you have you owe to your fans, and they were always very loyal fans. And they stayed loyal to The Ramones for a long period of time," he said. "I felt like they were all misfits like I was. Somehow it felt like, live, the only thing they loved were The Ramones. And they were so crazy — they were just a good bunch.

"Whenever possible I would be out there talking to them and after a certain period of time, in the dressing room after the show, whoever was standing there waiting that wanted to come back — 'Just let them back,'" he explained. "Always try to sign everything I could for the fans, everything was about them. All I wanted to do was keep them happy.... They don't get your records and you have nothing. You could sit there being a musical genius and you have nothing."

We're A Happy Family

Must've been the fans that kept them going. After all, The Ramones endured more than two decades of conflicts amongst themselves. By the time the band broke up, drummer Tommy Ramone and bassist Dee Dee had left and been replaced. Only Joey and Johnny were there for the whole ride, and they often butted heads. "I dunno if we had fun together," Ramone said. "Most of the time, at least a couple of us were not talking. In 1982, no one talked to each other. We still played shows, so it was hard, but there were good times too.

"It's hard getting along and keeping a band together for that long when not everyone is the same," he continued. "Not everyone sees what they're doing the same or the importance of what they're doing the same. Some people might feel like they're doing something very important and somebody might not. I didn't feel like I was doing anything very important. I felt like I'm just an entertainer, this isn't very important, I'm not very important, I'm just playing for entertainment. And somebody else could sit there thinking they're a genius."

Laughing he added, "So everyone looks at it differently.

"Commercial success, they always wanted that," he said, grunting. "That was always a problem. We have to have commercial success. You get pressure from the record company. I try to look at it that I'm happy being a cult band, we have our following, let's just keep our following happy. I'm not worried about this. I'm not gonna try to compromise myself, because I just hate to compromise, and I hate for any record company or anyone telling me what to do with my life.

"So, I'm a pain in the ass to a lot of people," he concluded, snickering.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Johnny hardly picks the guitar up anymore these days. He talks about it the way some shrug off death — in a matter-of-fact, nothing-I-can-do-about-it manner. "The first year I was missing [playing guitar]," he said. "Now I don't even miss it. There's no Ramones, so where am I gonna go play? If I play anything, somehow it starts to sound like The Ramones. If I play on someone else's songs, it sounds like The Ramones. It's the style that I have that somehow makes everything else sound like The Ramones."

And so Johnny Ramone has hung up his guitar. He said he has no plans to write songs or to record. "The only really fun thing was playing for Ramones fans," He said. "That was the fun part — getting up onstage and playing for Ramones fans ... they were terrific every night." — Jenny Tatone [Thursday, Feb. 6, 2003]

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