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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."

What does he think of the current Blondie reunion? "Uh. I mean the whole outfit was her looks. Being young and prettier than any girl out there, doing these lightweight pop songs. If you're gonna be a fat old lady, I don't understand the point. And we were friends with her; they were one of our closest friends of all the bands," adds Ramone. "You know, if they need the money, fine, I can understand. Go out there, do what you have to do. Get in shape, at least, and try to do your best. Same thing with the Sex Pistols tour, too. I mean, 20 years later it was an offer they couldn't turn down, I guess. They probably played better than ever. But they are still bloated old men. I see Steve Jones, he lives near me and, you know. I haven't seen Johnny Rotten, but the last time I did see him he was a bloated old man."

If Ramone doesn't regard his past and place in rock 'n' roll history with any hint of sentimentality, it isn't out of indifference; rather, it's a kind of an enlightenment. How many people can just walk from the vocation of pop star as if it were the postal service or Burger King? By the time of the Ramones split -- after countless singles, 21 albums, tours, a movie or two -- they were reasonably wealthy international rock 'n' roll stars. They turned punk rock into the American dream. But can you blame them? "Blitzkrieg Bop" was selling Bud Light on TV. The Offspring covered "I Wanna Be Sedated" on the bankable soundtrack Idle Hands. Commerical superstars like Guns n' Roses, Green Day, Pearl Jam and others were starting to give the band its due credit.

The end of the band came after years, even decades, of festering personal friction. Ramone says he hasn't talked to Joey in years. "I like CJ a lot, but the only one I've really talked to was Marky," he says. "He will call me up once every couple of months and we'll talk. Me, CJ and Mark got along. Mark and Joey got along until the very end. On the last tour, they, we, had a falling out and they haven't talked since. I didn't talk to Joey probably for the last 10 years.

"I'd liked a lot of the songs that CJ sang. Usually we'd go to rehearsal, we'd rehearse the songs without Joey coming and I'd be picking out my favorite ones for CJ to sing. Joey just wouldn't come to rehearsal until it got down to the very end. And it was much easier rehearsing and learning the songs without him there to interfere."

With tremendous volume and speed, the Ramones put rock ' n' roll purity back on the chopping block at a time when extended guitar solos, distended waistlines and stultifying lack of enthusiasm had been all but suffocated at Hotel California. And the Ramones succeeded where their antecedents (the Velvets, Stooges, MC5, Dolls) failed; with their 1976 self-titled debut, the Ramones permanently altered the way rock 'n' roll was perceived and the way it was made. And they did it with a handful of chords inside of terse, sub-three-minute jabs thick with veiled absurdist verse, Junkie-speak and bubblegum nostalgia. The songs had a kind of lyrical subtext lost on all but a few discerning listeners.

The ensuing years saw the band still bucking shitty odds: replacing drummers (Tommy with Marky); a "sellout" record that didn't sell (the Phil Specter-produced End of the Century); being continually snubbed in middle America; gruesome tours; and drug-addled main man Dee Dee's departure in 1989 (replaced by CJ). Wall of sound kook/maestro Phil Spector had been pestering the band to produce a record with them since 1977's Rocket to Russia. Problem was, the band was trying to avoid control freaks like Spector. But after the release and subsequent commercial disappointment of Road to Ruin, the band relented to Spector requests, reasoning that the only way they were going to get on the radio was working with a "name" producer. The experience wound up being a wholly joyless affair. Worse, in the middle of recording, Ramone's father died.

"I don't think it was until after we got Phil Spector and did End of the Century that I still resigned myself to the fact that we were going to be a cult band," Ramone says laughing. "I'm not that fond of the [End of the Century] production. We did not want to work with him. We wanted to maintain control as much as we could. But some songs it works on, like 'Danny Says.' One of my least favorite things we ever did, 'Baby I Love You,' is on that. None of us performed on that song at all. It was a very painful time because not only was Phil this tortuous guy, I had to leave after my father died and come back again two days later and finish the record."

Rhino's Ramones anthology, Hey! Ho! Let's Go, puts the best of the Ramones on one double CD. But B-sides (where's the brilliant "Babysitter"?) and other oddball inclusions familiar to stuffy boxed sets from overanthologized groups are noticeably absent. Basically, if you own all the Ramones reissues, you have all 63 songs on Hey! Ho! excluding the lost Leave Home gem "Carbona Not Glue." The seminal singles ("Sheena," "Sedated," "Rock 'n' Roll High School," etc.) are here, but glaring omissions abound ("Do You Wanna Dance," "Ramona").

Regardless, the newly remastered songs get rid of considerable sonic mud from previous versions, adding surprising clarity, particularly on the '70s-era tracks. The enclosed 80-page book features pages of rare pics and sharp liners penned by David Fricke. "I'm happy that Rhino wanted to put the anthology out. I'm happy with the booklet; the booklet I think is great. I would have chosen some different songs," says Ramone. "There are some favorites of mine that are not included. Yeah, it sounds great. I didn't listen to the whole thing. My wife, she'll listen to the stuff. She'll go outside to the pool-house and walk on the treadmill and listen to the stuff. I feel funny listening to it."

Does he ever get drunk, jump around and shout things like, "Hey, I was a Ramone!" "No," he says laughing. "It's funnier to see what it means to other people. I just looked at it as my job and did the best that I could. But at the same time, I feel like we are a very important band. I look at it and I wonder if we were the most influential American band. I mean, there are the Beach Boys, but I don't know that they were more influential. The Doors were a tremendous band, one of my favorites, but I don't think they were very influential. But as far as American bands, I think that we are possibly the most influential American band."

Ramone explains that he doesn't want to do interviews anymore. He's tired. The rock 'n' roll fight has taken it out of him. At least he'll never have to stare down at the faces of simian Sabbath fans. "This might be my last interview I ever do," he says emphatically. "Yeah, this is probably my last interview."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith