The Wisdom of Johnny Ramone

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

johnny_ramoneThe Ramones were the first band I really loved. Which is a little weird, as when I was an adolescent in the late ’80s the group was not a significant presence in pop culture. I think my friend and I started listening to them because his uncle, who was in his 30s, would let us go through his record collection, a conglomeration of ’70s material that included a fair amount of punk albums. He liked the Ramones, and he turned us on to them.

I loved that their songs were catchy and no-nonsense and sounded like ’50s and ’60s pop. I’d grown up listening to my parents’ music — a mix of doo-wop, girl group, and other pre-1965 stuff — and the Ramones seemed to be bouncing off of all of that in a way that, somehow, felt irreverent and sincere at the same time. (I think it’s odd when discussions of Ramones influences focus exclusively on bands like the Stooges and the MC5. To me, they’re often more reminiscent of Tommy James and the Shondells and the Shangri-Las.) Also, though the Ramones were clever, particularly as songwriters, they were admirably free of pretensions, and they were really, really ugly. When you’re twelve or thirteen it’s somehow comforting to know that the members of your favorite band look considerably worse than you do. It gives you hope.

So I was pretty happy when co-blogger Blowhard, Esq. sent me the 2012 “Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone.” It was published posthumously — Ramone died of cancer in 2004 — but you can hear Johnny’s voice in the writing, which is as terse and as rat-a-tat authoritative as his famous guitar hammering. (To call it “playing” would be to make it sound too flouncy.) And the editors — John Cafiero, Henry Rollins, and Steve Miller — do a terrific job of preserving Johnny’s personality, his bristling take-no-shit attitude. Maybe that’s why the book’s such a brisk, invigorating read. Resembling a beefed-up rock ‘zine, it’s as colorful and un-tome-like as you’d expect a book about the Ramones to be.

Aside from the pleasure I took in examining the photographs and the lists drawn from Johnny’s personal notebooks — in one, he places Vincent Gallo among his favorite Republicans — the most memorable part of my “Commando” experience was my LOL’ing. The book reveals that Johnny, who was a legendary sorehead, had a gift for laconic grouchspeak that would make a Spartan sit up and take notice.

With that in mind, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

  • “I liked feeling angry. It energized me and made me feel strong.”
  • “I even beat up Joey, our singer, one time . . . He was late to meet me — so I punched him . . . We were meeting up for a movie. There was no excuse for being late.”
  • “With Joey, I’d try to like him, talk to him, then it just went bad. He was a fucking pain in the ass. So I gave up.”
  • “Every time we had a new fan in those early days, I’d say, ‘Fooled another one.'”
  • “What we did is take out everything that we didn’t like about rock and roll and use the rest . . . “
  • “In terms of time, I remember everything from my childhood by the year of the baseball cards.”
  • “I hated hippies and never liked that peace and love shit.”
  • “I was the terror of the neighborhood, like a really bad Fonzie.”
  • “I thought [Hendrix] was tremendous, and he actually made me not ever want to play the guitar. You had to be a virtuoso — then. Even if you had the talent, you’d have to practice for fifteen years before you would get to that point.”
  • “I saw the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium, and I took in a bag of rocks to throw at them . . . but they were too far away to hit, like out at second base . . . “
  • “Something like Woodstock wasn’t for me. I knew people who went to Woodstock, and I knew that I didn’t want to sit outside on the ground, in the mud. That just sounded bad. I told them they were crazy.”
  • “I got [to the hospital] and told them I had to [hurry up and have my appendix removed] and get back home because I had things to watch on TV.”
  • “Some bands blow it before they even play. I mean, the most important moment, the most exciting part of any show, is when a band walks out with the red amp lights glowing . . . You come out, no talking, no tuning, and it’s crucial not to blow it.”
  • “Andy Warhol and those people even came down to see us, but to me they were just a bunch of freaks.”
  • “Ramones songs were basically structured the same as regular songs, but played fast, so they became short.”
  • “I don’t think anyone, even big bands, should play for more than an hour.”
  • “We called Warner Bros. and they said we sounded like bad Zeppelin.”
  • “Later on in our career, we had a flap about a line in the song ‘Wart Hog,’ which referred to ‘junkies, fags, Commies, and queers.’ Gary Kurfirst, our manager at the time, called and said he was getting complaints about the line . . . I said, ‘Who are you getting complaints from, junkies, fags, Commies, and queers?'”
  • “The early songs, well, what would we write about — girls? We didn’t really have any.”
  • “On August 26, we went to Disneyland. I always liked that place, loved riding Space Mountain.”
  • “I thought we’d do this for five years, and then I’d get into the movie business, and be a director or producer of some sort. I wanted to direct low-budget horror films.”
  • “Jerry Harrison, the Talking Heads keyboard player, made me nuts. If you asked him a question, he would go on and on, talking for twenty minutes on the same subject. They were all intellectuals. Tiny Weymouth was unbearable.”
  • “For the last British tour in 1977, we got there a day early and saw the Sex Pistols on December 16. After they played, Johnny Rotten asked me what I thought of them, and I told him I thought they stunk.”
  • “At one point, [Bruce Springsteen] wrote a song for us, ‘Hungry Heart.’ His manager found out that he was going to give it away to us and told him that he couldn’t. It turned out to be one of his biggest hits. He never wrote another one for us.”
  • “Joey and Mark met [Roger Daltrey] and didn’t like him. I’m a Who fan, but I didn’t really care to meet him. I don’t usually look up to people . . . “
  • “We started 1978 on a tour with the Runaways, a band of dykes.”
  • “It was easy opening for Foreigner or Eddie Money or Tom Petty. I mean, who’s really into those bands? Who gets excited enough about them to throw something or even to boo?”
  • “So I just said, ‘I’m leaving,’ and Phil [Spector] said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ I said, ‘What are you gonna do, Phil, shoot me?'”
  • “When I started, I believed that if you were good in this business, you would succeed. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s the bands who get this promotion, this push, regardless of whether they’re any good, who often succeed in a big way. Working hard helps, but that’s not all of it.”
  • “Dee Dee and I wrote ‘Weasel Face’ about a guy who had a real weasel face.”
  • “One time I told a college newspaper in Oregon that Ronald Reagan was all right but he wasn’t conservative enough. I did it to get a reaction, just to irritate people.”
  • “I paid five dollars for someone to take a picture of [Linda and I at our wedding], with Linda holding a plastic bouquet of flowers. Linda noticed a thumbprint on the photo and said, ‘Let’s take another.’ But I said no. The first one had already cost me five bucks . . . “
  • “I was friends with most of Blondie and the Talking Heads. I think.”
  • “The fans lined up outside the nearest 7-11 in any city we played, knowing the Ramones van was going to head over there right after the show.”
  • “When the record company wanted to hear some songs that we were going to use, I would just tell them to listen to the last five albums, and that’s what these were going to sound like, but different.”
  • “Pete Townshend did backing vocals on ‘Substitute.’ He is one of the greats and one of my guitar heroes, but he was late . . . so I left to go watch the Yankee game.”
  • “The front cover is of dinosaurs, which is what we felt like. When we showed up for the shoot for the back cover, I told them that we were going to face away from the camera. The label said that I had agreed to take pictures, and I did, but I’d never said that we would face the camera. I was very protective of how we looked at that point, and some of us looked worse than others.”
  • “I started rooting for Nixon just because people thought he wasn’t good-looking.”
  • “[Lester Bangs] was really mad that I liked Reagan . . . So I turned it around on him and asked to see his Commie card . . . I think he really had one.”
  • “Bands are fooling themselves if they think they’re as good after playing together for fifteen years as they were three or four years in. It just doesn’t work like that.”
  • “I don’t think the fans want to hear that their favorite band disliked each other. They want to believe that you’re friends, but that’s only a public image.”
  • “[Joey Ramone] was actually the most difficult person I have ever dealt with in my life. I didn’t want him to die though.”
  • “About five years after we’d retired, I was driving in Los Angeles, and somebody called out to me, ‘Hey, you’re driving a Cadillac . . . How are you a punk if you’re driving a Cadillac?’ I said, ‘. . . I wrote the book on punk. I decide what’s punk. If I’m driving a Cadillac, it’s punk.'”
  • “By the time you are reading this book, I might not be here. But I’ve had a great life no matter how it turns out now.”

Related

  • “Commando” on Amazon.
  • While I think each of the Ramones’ first five albums is worth owning, if you’re looking to pick up one cheap compilation, this is a pretty nice one.
  • “Rolling Stone” named Johnny the 28th greatest guitarist of all time. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t play when he joined his first band.
  • A 1982 interview with the author in which he talks about playing a big festival. According to a YouTube comment, the Ramones were invited to play the festival again the following year, to which Johnny replied,”We’re not going to play any more hippie festivals.”
  • His last interview.
  • At their peak:
  • An early performance, caught before the look and stage presence of the band had been set. Johnny devotes a lot of words in “Commando” to the development of the visual presentation of the Ramones.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Music, Performers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Wisdom of Johnny Ramone

  1. chucho says:

    Johnny invites severe cognitive dissonance for the modern cultural gatekeeper. His influence and quality are undeniable, yet he is a unrepentant prole. I’ve seen attempts at explaining this away by claiming Dee Dee and Joey were the only brains and talent behind the group, but that’s obviously bunk.

    Like

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      In the book Johnny is pretty straightforward regarding who contributed what. He doesn’t like Joey, but if you read between the lines you can tell he appreciated him as a songwriter. And he gives Dee Dee a lot of songwriting credit as well. Reading it you get the sense that Johnny’s big contributions were: making sure the band’s sound stayed lean and mean (it’s possible they would have gone in a much lighter direction had he not been around), and developing the Ramones image. He devotes more words to image and presentation than to songwriting.

      Also, I doubt the band would have stayed together or managed to make finances work without his influence. People tend to overlook it, but successful partnerships need that person who is going to be stable and dependable.

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  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Back in the early ’80’s, I loved the Ramones. I didn’t know anything about them, but I was a lower middle/blue collar kid, and I sensed that in some way they were like me. Looks like I was right. RIP Johnny, nice to know that you can still outrage junkies, fags, Commies, and queers from beyond the grave.

    Like

    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Hard to imagine a more blue-collar band than the Ramones.

      When I first discovered them I was surprised that a band had all these super catchy songs — “Rockaway Beach, “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” etc. — and yet few people talked about them. Few in the late ’80s, anyway. I guess they were briefly well known in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But as late as 1990 you couldn’t even get their albums on CD.

      It’s nice that they became more recognized later on. In the book Johnny talks about being amazed by his sudden ability to support himself on merchandise sales, even though the band had broken up.

      Like

  3. Glad you enjoyed the book, I also liked it a lot. Before I sent it to you, I had to remove a ton of Post-Its that marked passages I laughed at. I thought the book was a pretty good evocation of life in 70s NYC too.

    Like

  4. Callowman says:

    I was wondering what a Ramones version of Hungry Heart would sound like. Turns out somebody else gave it some thought, too.

    Like

  5. Pingback: Ramones live music videos | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: The Best of UR 2014 | Uncouth Reflections

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