Remembering Johnny Ramone
As a kid, kicking around Queens, Johnny Cummings wanted to be either a baseball hero or a rock 'n' roll star. He didn't care which, and he didn't think either would come true anyway. He was wrong, and the world is a better place because of it.
Johnny Cummings, known for four decades as Johnny Ramone, passed away last Thursday;
he was 55. He never expected to be a hero when he first picked up the guitar
one day in 1974 and decided to form a band with his friends Dee Dee and Joey.
He had no way of knowing his hyper, fast and loud style of guitar playing a Ramones trademark would have a massive influence on generations of musicians. While that sound clearly influenced hugely successful bands such as Nirvana and Green Day, literally thousands of guitarists owe a debt to Johnny Ramone.
For the 22 years that he played guitar as a Ramone, Johnny toured the world,
and dug it, many times. Together with his bandmates, he recorded 17 studio albums,
but he said it was playing for the fans that he loved. "Everything you have you
owe to your fans," Johnny told me during a phone interview two years ago. "The
only fun thing was playing for Ramones fans. Once every year or two, you had
to go into the studio and make another album. But, to me, the fun part was playing
"The Ramones fans were terrific every night," he added. "They were all misfits like I was."
Johnny sounded all-around content that day as we discussed his life, before, during and after The Ramones. On a number of occasions, he referred to himself as retired. "I'm just trying to relax, trying to enjoy each day and to be happy that I am around each day," he said. "Two members of the band have died Joey and Dee Dee in the past two years, so you get a weird feeling. You feel like, 'Wow, I'm still here. I'm really fortunate to be here.'"
Though he shed light on his heightened sense of mortality, it never dawned on me that he could be facing down his own. At the time of our conversation, he was already more than two years into a battle with prostate cancer, a battle he kept from the public for five years.
When asked what he was looking forward to, he answered, "Staying alive, being with my wife, seeing her each day, seeing my friends, nothing really, just trying to have a nice time."
Johnny lost his fight to prostate cancer on Thursday, September 18, 2004. Dee Dee (born Douglas Colvin) died of a drug overdose in 2002. Joey (born Jeff Hyman) died of lymphatic cancer in 2001.
The Ramones didn't live like rock stars. Johnny didnít care much for commercial success anyway, which caused a bit of internal band strife. "I'm a pain in the ass to a lot of people," he admitted with a laugh. "In 1982, no one (in the band) talked to each other."
But songs like "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" and "Beat on the Brat" weren't destined
for short-lived spots on the charts; they were meant to live on forever in the
hearts of music lovers around the world. They were meant to change the way the
world saw music.
The Ramones did not see instant success, and they never topped the charts. But
nearly as soon as their incredible debut album, 1976's The Ramones, was
released, other artists took notice. And when they appeared in London, the audiences
included future members of The Clash and the Sex Pistols. The group's second
album, 1977's The Ramones Leave Home, did become a hit in England. The
group's sound Joey's New York slur, Johnny's fevered buzzsaw riffs, Dee
Dee's simple, angry bass lines and Tommy's four/four drumming was unlike
anything that came before it.
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, The Ramones have influenced generation upon generation of punk and "alternative" bands.í
"How do you hope to be remembered?" I asked Johnny during our conversation. Without hesitation, he answered, "As one of the best American rock 'n' roll bands."
No problem there. Jenny Tatone [Monday, September 20, 2004]