by Steve Miller
the public didn't know about Johnny Ramone is that he cared.
Johnny cared about the people he may have not paid enough attention to
during his life and he cared about anybody he might have inadvertently
hurt along the way to creating music history.
''I didn't ever want to do anything to hurt anyone,'' he told me as we
gathered notes for his upcoming memoirs, which we began working on in
April. ''I was always doing the best with what I had.''
To begin the upcoming book, Johnny says something, which he dictated with
succinct precision, as if he had been holding it in for the moment: ''I
want you Ramones fans to understand that I would not play the way I play
if I were not the person I am, and the Ramones would never have been the
band it was without that.''
It seemed to be an apology of sorts, as if the person that he had been
did not square with the person he grew into, who was a faithful husband,
and, by all accounts, a very true friend.
Johnny would hate for his legacy to be ''whitewashed,'' a word he used
when he read or heard something that glossed over the bad or negative
aspects of an issue.
So to some, Johnny was a nasty, difficult person. Many have said as much,
it's out there among the books and articles and video collections. Some
of it is true. Some of it isn't. Some more of it will soon be out there
for people to decide.
But from this vantage point, even in the throes of his illness, he was
never brusque, never impatient. Listening back to the tapes of our many
hours of conversations, he was at times strident and opinionated. Other
times, he was tired, worn out by the sickness that he fought with such
His illness had sapped some of his anger, he noted ruefully.
"It has changed me and I don't know that I like how,'' he said.
''It has softened me up and I liked the old me better. I don't even have
the energy to be angry. I liked being angry. ''
But he kept on and we kept on, daily phone calls and several weeks of
meetings at his Los Angeles home. Sometimes he talked baseball. Sometimes
he bitched about liberals.
And he always understood his lot in life and how lucky he was to play
music. And he was very grateful.
" There are people who really have to work for a living, they work
in coal mines, they sweep streets, they collect garbage,'' he told me.
''It was taxing on the mind because of all the travel and there were certain
pressures, but it was nothing like real work that most people do. I was
As Arturo Vega, the band's lighting man and art director for all of its
22 years, most aptly said, ''Johnny was the misunderstood Ramone. What
he did was so basic and elemental that it was beyond the idea of liking
him. People never like authority and that was what he had to exert in
the Ramones. He was misunderstood because he was not the lovable Joey
or the crazy punk Dee Dee.''
The Ramones were what counted for Johnny, more than himself, and bigger
to him than any other entity in his universe. He loved that unit more
than he loved himself.
When we worked through changes in the manuscript, Johnny would quietly
chastise me if anything looked as if he were taking credit, due or not.
It was that selflessness that made the Ramones the giants they were. When
Johnny recognized that a guitar part could be played better by someone
other than himself, he stepped aside.
The guitar chord at the end of ''You're Gonna Kill That Girl'' was Tommy.
Walter Lure and Daniel Rey played fills on some albums that, Johnny said,
''would've taken me longer to get down and even then they wouldn't have
sounded as good.''
His leadership corralled the formidable individual talents of the Ramones
and sent them from cult band during their existence to the mass acceptance
of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
''The Ramones were his band, he was always right and he's a bully, a real
bully,'' said Danny Fields, the band's first manager. ''But always for
the right reasons. His sense of justice was impeccable.''
Gary Kurfirst, who succeeded Fields in 1980, saw right away who ran the
show. ''Johnny was the glue,'' Kurfirst said. ''They would work for three
months straight, come home for two weeks and take one day off, then he
made them go into rehearsal so they wouldn't lose their chops. I asked
him how they could do that and he said it was like a basketball team,
'you have to practice or you lose it.' That was Johnny.''
The fans were his playground, the people who made it worth all his while.
Johnny signed endlessly for anyone who requested.
''I started to see them when I was 16 they were one of my favorite bands,''
said Jose Theodore who is now all-star goalie for the Montreal Canadians.
''But when I was 17, me and my brother and a couple of friends when to
see them in Montreal and we waited outside the venue and followed them
to their hotel and when they got out of their van I asked them for their
autograph. I told Johnny that I was going to play NHL hockey and they
were all really nice.''
In the exchanges of fandom and partings, Jose gave his address to Gene
the Cop, Johnny's friend who was traveling with the band.
''That Christmas, I got a card and it said 'Merry Christmas' and it was
signed by Johnny,'' Theodore said. ''With that kind of thing, and
how nice they were, they taught me how to treat my fans. I was just
a kid and they treated me like that. Imagine.''
Johnny relished the attention and felt humbly honored by those fans.
''I always had that in mind, to treat people like I'd like to be treated,''
Johnny said. ''I tell people who are becoming celebrities how important
that is. I hope someone pays attention to that.''
Johnny was the tough Ramone, though, and nobody forgot about it. This
was part of the reason for his remorse that was noted at the top of this
page. He knew he knocked heads and he felt the tension he created in the
As for the money, well, Johnny was all about it. He watched his money
grow with capitalistic glee as his career progressed, befitting his Republican
status. He hated wasting dough and would scold others if he saw it going
on. They stayed in cheaper hotels unless the promoter was paying.
And he was characteristically honest and unashamed about his quest for
When ''Blitzkrieg Bop'' became a music bed for a Bud Lite commercial,
Johnny was ecstatic even as some cried sellout.
"I thought it was terrific. I liked seeing the commercial and I would
get questions about how I could let them do it. It was the easiest money
I ever made. It made the Bud commercial better. It would have been bad
if it was a lame commercial, but I mean, beer, which is all-American.
I thought it was good.''
Johnny departs as the purveyor of what is the most important musical movement
of the 20th century, punk rock. It was born when rock music was still
just breaking out of adolescence at the age of 20 or so.
The man who changed its direction was a 6-foot tall lightening bolt of
wiry fury, a man who burst the sonic volume level with a frown and a Mosrite
that was cranked to the heights, the man who influenced generations.
And the movement continues.
We sat in his living room one afternoon last month, several weeks after
Johnny had narrowly escaped death via an infection he had developed related
to his cancer. He was tired and we were about to wrap up a day of book
But that mind, ever sharp, honed in on what is the substance of the parting
chapter in the book, one in which he describes his battle with prostate
''We all have time limits and mine came a little early,'' he said to me,
quietly, his eyes closing.
''But I've had a great life no matter how it turns out now. I've had the
best wife, Linda, that I could ever hope to find and I've had such great
friends that really care about me and would do anything they could for
President Bush, speaking in eulogy of Ronald Reagan, who passed away in
June and was one of Johnny's few heroes, said that the late president
had ''principles that are etched in his soul.''
Johnny's own principle-riddled soul is finally resting. May his afterlife
be as fruitful as his life was here with us.
- Steve Miller