Johnny Ramone, founding member of the Ramones, aka the most influential punk band in history, hardly minced words or suffered fools while he was alive. So it's only natural that his recently released autobiography, Commando, reads like he spoke: quick, blunt and to the point. When he died of prostate cancer in 2004, an integral part of rock history went with him, but not before Ramone, an obsessive listmaker and collector, recorded the band's history, naming names, sh**ting on Ramones albums he didn't like and discussing his journey from Queens street punk to musical icon to retired rock star.
Linda Ramone, Johnny's widow, has been there for virtually the whole ride, first as singer Joey Ramone's girlfriend followed by a much longer stint as Johnny's wife. She continues to preserve Johnny's legacy with the Johnny Ramone Army and as overseer of the guitarist's estate. Fuse spoke with her about the book, the band's tumultuous history and why it's always cooler to be in a cult band.
How did the original idea of a book come together?
Linda Ramone: There was five years of interviews from all over, but the last couple of years when Johnny was sick and knew he was going to die, he started doing more interviews on tape recorders. We interviewed lots of Johnny’s friends and when we went to put the book together, it wasn’t sounding like Johnny to me. So we took out all the friends. I didn’t need other people talking about Johnny. I had Johnny talking about Johnny. It made the book much more powerful.
The book's tone really feels like Johnny's in the room with you
We had his closest friends saying that to me all the time. Pete Yorn and Eddie Vedder said, “I feel like I’m sitting with Johnny; like I was talking to Johnny.” That’s what Johnny wanted when he was writing the book; he wanted everybody to understand him, read the book and find out who he is.
Johnny died in 2004. Why has it taken so long for the book to come out?
It’s been eight years, but the first year Johnny passed away, I started getting sued by the corporation and all these different ex-Ramones. It was really difficult to get my half together and be on top of my game. It was just much easier to do Johnny Ramone because with the Ramones, I have a partner—Joey’s brother—and it’s not always the easiest thing to get along with a partner.
Did you want the book to be released earlier?
Not really. You know why? I always wanted Johnny to have the last say. It did take that long because the ex-wives and ex-thises; everybody started writing their book and I always knew Johnny’s book was so powerful that it…
Johnny was the only original Ramone from beginning to end who could write about the band like that. This is his band. This is Joey’s band. They were in it from beginning to end. Everyone says they didn’t get along, but they stayed in from day one to the last day. Like, what do you mean they don’t get along? They get along enough to be in the band for all those 30 years.
Was there anything revealed in those five years of interviews that Johnny thought was too personal to include in the book?
No, ‘cause Johnny didn’t hold back. Like he would say, whatever he'd say then, he would say now. He never once looked at me and went, "Linda, should I say that?” Johnny knew what Johnny was gonna say and whether you like him or not, Johnny really didn’t care at the end. He was a super loyal friend and that’s why everybody came around. We didn’t have children. We didn’t have a family. All our friends were our family.
There's a touching photo in the book of Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie and others at Johnny's grave
Yeah, the day Johnny died, he still knew exactly what was going on. Eddie was staying at the house and he said to me that morning, “I don’t want you and Eddie to go to lunch. I want you to be here.” He spoke to [friend] Lisa Marie Presley on the phone and said, “I want you to come over today and he went to sleep.” Then everybody else started piling in and sitting around him, but nobody really spoke to Johnny again. He was just asleep with all of us and then passed away. So Johnny knew he was going to pass away that day. He decided that was the day.
The Ramones - Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction
The book details your relationship with Joey and subsequent courtship with Johnny. Did you try to keep the relationship quiet in the beginning to avoid band tension?
When I left Joey, Johnny moved in right away but we always kept it quiet because I really didn’t want Joey to quit the band and neither did Johnny. That was a big issue for Joey; the fact that I left him for Johnny and Joey kind of always knew it, but we never flaunted it. Joey knew, but he was okay with it as long as we didn’t flaunt it in front of him.
Looking back, what do you think the effect was on the band dynamic?
Joey and Johnny were growing in different directions anyway musically ‘cause [1980's] End of the Century didn’t have a hit. “Baby, I Love You” was a minor hit, But it was Joey’s solo single; the Ramones aren’t even on it. Everybody went home that day. As far as Johnny is concerned, “Baby I Love You” is the worst song the Ramones ever did. [Century producer] Phil Spector really loved Joey; he would bow to him and kiss Joey’s hand.
After I left Joey, the musical differences were there. Johnny didn’t care about having a hit single any more. He realizes it’s over and Joey never does. Musically, Johnny wanted to be in a punk band the rest of his life and Joey didn’t. Nothing against Joey, but Joey was more into pop. What made the Ramones great were all the different variations of songwriting that came from Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy.
How would you describe Johnny's personality?
As Johnny would say, he was wound tightly. But he put most of his anger towards his guitar playing and that is why the Ramones sound the way they sound. Johnny was very intense and would always love to get a rise out of you. You could be like “The sky is blue today” and he would be like “Well, you know, yeah, but it got some clouds.” That was being part of the Ramones. When Tommy Ramone goes “I’m having a breakdown,” they all look at him and laugh. The Ramones made a joke out of everything, but they had to because they were on the road for so long.
Did Johnny's personality change as he got older?
The only time I saw Johnny changing was when he got sick. He got a little more easygoing. Once he retired and moved to L.A., he had his retirement money and we got our house with all these themed rooms. We have an Elvis room, a horror room, a Disney-themed bathroom and we could sit by the pool and have coffee in the morning. He really started to ease up cause he was retired. He started wearing Hawaiian shirts. He felt like a retired rock star.
After Lollapalooza , there wasn’t really much more to do. It was time for them to retire and move on. You don’t want to be a dinosaur in rock and roll and that was the whole thing with Johnny. You gotta get out of rock and roll at that point. It was fun; they had made their mark. And all the bands on the bill were so nice to them, it was a nice way to go out. Everybody was going to retire and enjoy their life and then unfortunately Johnny got sick.
Did he feel like The Ramones got the recognition they deserved?
They didn’t get the record sales and they never got played on the radio because they were way ahead of their time. Johnny wasn’t bitter about anything, because you had new bands like Green Day coming out, but all these bands were giving the Ramones credit. The Ramones got bigger because all those bands were talking about them going from where punk originally started. So the Ramones were the cult of punk and it’s always cooler to be in a cult band.
Johnny writes in the book that they made more money after they retired than when they were playing. What was his line between wanting to play small clubs and having that huge success?
Of course he wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but when you realize you're not going to, you can't be disappointed or upset about it. You just have to do the best you can and that’s how he looked at it. He is just going to play clubs and be Johnny Ramone of The Ramones. That’s how it goes.
Every guitar player would come over and say how Johnny would influence them. He would say, "You can't sit in your room the rest of your life and practice. You gotta get out there and play." Not everybody can be Jeff Beck; Jeff Beck is an amazing guitar player, but Johnny is sitting there trying to play guitar and he teaches himself to do it. He gets his own style -- his own sound -- and creates this whole new style of guitar playing for all these kids. Being one of the most influential guitar players of all time was the most important thing.
Johnny Ramone - Last Interview
What would you tell the next generation of fans about why The Ramones have remained relevant?
Because they are the coolest band; they look the coolest and they have the most amazing songs. That’s the thing about the Ramones is they have songs. So many bands don’t have great songs. They have great songs because the four of them writing together in the beginning is four unique personalities putting together a song. So you have a little bit of punk, a little bit of pop, a little bit of glitter rock. Kids love to get up and dance to it because it’s supposed to be fun.
What was the most surprising thing The Ramones listened to?
Well, Johnny listened to Frankie Lane, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra. He listened to Elvis all the time, not that that’s surprising. But he listened to a lot of older music of Dion and Joey listened to the Beach Boys. A lot of pop stuff. The 1910 Fruitgum Company, Ohio Express. They were thinking at this point that their competition was The Bay City Rollers.
Have you read any other books on The Ramones?
I glanced through them to see if anything is liable. I have my lawyer take care of that. That’s their story and they can stick with it. They weren’t in the Ramones.
How accurate are they, in your opinion?
Well, everybody has their own story and you know what? To them, it might be true, but that’s why I don’t really care what they say. Unless it’s like brutally dishonest but that’s why it’s America—freedom of speech—they can say whatever they want. All I know is Johnny is Johnny, so he’s in the band and he’s saying more of what's actually going on than anybody else in the passenger seat instead of the driver's seat.
And judging from the tone, I assume there was no ghostwriter
[Laughs] Ghostwriter is such a joke. If anyone can think for one minute that every single word doesn’t sound like Johnny Ramone, you’re crazy. The way he explains it, everything to the tee. Ghostwriter. Yeah, maybe Johnny’s ghost.
What was Johnny's mindstate after Joey died in 2001?
That’s it. The Ramones are over. He would say, "I will never play in another band without Joey." Joey was his partner; whether or not they got along all the time, it didn’t matter. The band was over when Joey died and Johnny knew that.
From the way Johnny puts it, it seems that he and Johnny separated amicably when The Ramones ended
Yeah, well, they were still in the band together. Don’t forget the band, to Johnny and Joey, was the most important thing. Everybody is like “Whoa, Joey and Johnny didn’t get along.” If they didn’t get along, the band and being in the Ramones was the most important thing to both of them. That was their life.
Oh, how the time flies! Remember when Adam Lambert was just a contestant on American Idol, and now he's a judge himself! Filling in for Keith Urban, Lambert paid a visit to Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. on the set of the New York auditions of American Idol. Lambert tweeted, "What a fun day guest judging on @AmericanIdol! @jlo and @HarryConnickJR r SO fun 2 work w. Def a few potential Stars that auditioned today!" Sounds promising!