Music News

End of the Century

The year is 1978. Son of Sam gets life, the Pistols lose theirs and John Lennon still has his. Sandinista guerrillas attempt to extricate Nicaraguan life by overthrowing its government. John Belushi spoofs frats in National Lampoon's Animal House. We are standing in the Phoenix Veterans' Memorial Coliseum 10 rows back from the stage. Our barely teen hearts are speeding in rabid tempo of a sleepless night's anticipation. We are waiting for the band that's opening for Head East and Black Sabbath. The very band that indelibly marks our suburban resignation with a liberating spirit. A band with whose songs we have scaled tract-house rooftops, above the insufferable Yes and Zep FM frequencies of our big brothers and sisters, and all the hateful middle-school scoffs of punk-rock-bigoted students. We have come to see the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band on Earth: New York's Ramones.

Getting here involved a wind-sheared, two-hour ride huddled in the back of a pickup; an introduction to Mickey's Bigmouth; and an elaborate web of bullshit to free us from our parents. Around us the hair is long, the pot stench heavy, the chick count low. Hordes of men look like prisoners on furlough. Others look as if the damage of too many Rick Wakeman keyboard solos, miscellaneous stupefacients and black light posters have frozen them in a moment of timeless suspension, a cultural vacuum somewhere between Woodstock and CBGBs.

Suddenly the arena shakes like the stamp of marching men. With an angular mix of harmonic buzz-saw grandeur and minimalist beat, the Ramones hit the stage in a unity of torn jeans, leather and identity. Guitars low, legs spread, chins high. The songs roar by like shiny boxcars on a speeding train. Ramones are rock 'n' roll by definition. But the irony is lost on the 10,000 intolerant Sabbath fans. Soon a half-full beer cup tags Ramones' singer Joey in the face. Then another hits bassist Dee Dee. Suddenly the whole stage is deluged by cups, bottles and loogies. Yet in the face of such scathing contempt the Ramones remain, outlining teen angst in two-minute bursts of gooseflesh riffology. They complete their set and disappear quickly behind the stage. They were fighting for it. It was the bravest thing we had ever seen. Years later Joey Ramone said, "We stood alone, we were our own island. When we came out, we were like aliens; it was us and Kansas, us and Toto. People were like, "Who are these freaks?"

"I was against us playing with Black Sabbath," says guitarist Johnny Ramone some 21 years later from his home in Los Angeles, recalling the perils of the Sabbath onslaught. "A month after we did those Sabbath shows, I remember playing with Aerosmith and Ted Nugent at a festival in Toronto, and they all go, 'It's going to be different, this is Canada.' And it was the same. We got about seven songs into the set and I just threw off my guitar, walked to the front of the stage, gave the crowd the finger with both hands and just walked off."

Ramone -- born John Cummings in October 1951 -- retired from his 23-year job description of "guitar hero" on August 6, 1996, after a much-ballyhooed final gig in Los Angeles. He is only on the phone today to talk about Rhino Records' just-released Ramones anthology Hey! Ho! Let's Go. The somewhat inert-sounding Ramone says he is content with a leisurely life that entails collecting movie memorabilia, baseball autographs and horror films.

He now lives contently in Los Angeles with his wife. "Los Angeles is a great place to be retired," he says in a softening New York drawl. "You know, stay in New York, retired, it's just so -- I mean, I went back to do the signing for the anthology and it's just so hectic. This is just such a nice, pleasant life. I go outside, sit by my pool. You know, work around the house. It's easy and I'm comfortable doing nothing. I watched one horror movie today and I'm about to start a second one.

"I was never friends with anyone in the band until the Nineties," he continues. "I never knew anyone in the band, no one ever called me. I never hung out with anyone in the band. I didn't go out. My wife complained about this. She says, 'We don't leave the house except to go to dinner.'"

Ramone's often nicked downstroke-fanning guitar style of relentless barre chords and harmonic distortion is long gone. Now he says he doesn't touch the instrument, that he has no interest in it at all. And here is a man whose playing was a blueprint for all the young punks. He has influenced generations of guitar players. Has punk rock given him license to be couch potato? "With my lifestyle? I mean, my goal in life was to be retired at some point," he says laughing. "I'm old and I think that rock 'n' roll is for young bands. Bands live under this illusion where they still think they are gonna make their best album. Occasionally you'll get a band that does their best album a couple records in. The Who, Who's Next, Ramones, Rocket to Russia, you know. I was happy with Too Tough to Die in the Eighties and Adios Amigos in the Nineties."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith