The Last Days of Johnny Ramone

Battling cancer, but surrounded by friends and family, Johnny Ramone spoke to 'Rolling Stone' in his final magazine interview

johnny ramone
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
Johnny Ramone performs at Lollapalooza.
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Moderately sized and immoderately pink, Johnny Ramone's ranch house sits high in the Hollywood Hills, guarded by a regiment of cactus and a stuffed, snarling wild boar. Inside, the mounted menagerie includes a duck, a pheasant, a raccoon, a brown bear and a two-headed calf, who are kept company by three unstuffed but very old cats. The lime-green walls are almost completely covered with dozens of perfectly spaced framed posters advertising horror and science-fiction movies of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. "The worst movies had the best artwork," said Johnny, indicating War of the Colossal Beast and Attack of the Crab Monsters.

Other rooms contain lesser collections of Disney, sports and serial-killer memorabilia. A side room is reserved for the Elvis memorabilia, the coolest of which is probably the champagne bottle autographed "Mr. & Mrs. Elvis Presley" on May 1st, 1967. "Lisa Marie was born exactly nine months after that," he said. "She's a friend of mine." There's no Ramones memorabilia visible anywhere.

I'm here because one night in May – four months before Johnny Ramone succumbed to cancer – I got a call from Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist for Metallica. This was a surprise; I had never met Hammett, and rock stars almost never call me out of the blue.

He was phoning because he had an unnamed friend who had cancer really bad. I could see where the conversation was going: I had been getting these calls ever since I wrote a Rolling Stone feature about Adam, the teenage "energy healer" in Vancouver. I told Hammett that I could alert Adam's family that he was sending an e-mail, but that was it. "I'll just tell you who it is, then," said Hammett. "It's Johnny Ramone."

This was a kick in the stomach. We talked for a while about loving the Ramones, how their music changed everything when their first album came out in 1976, how Johnny's machine-gun down-stroking excited Hammett as a kid learning the guitar. And we talked about the Ramones finally receiving the recognition they deserved with their 2002 induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and how Joey Ramone had died the year before of lymphoma, and how bassist Dee Dee Ramone died a few months later of an overdose. And now this thing with Johnny. It was too awful to think about.

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"We bonded over old horror-movie posters," Hammett said of how he and Johnny got to be friends when the Ramones and Metallica toured together during Lollapalooza '96. "The stuff is super-rare. There's a whole network of collectors, and Johnny is the only one I like to talk to, because he isn't full of typical collector bullshit. He knows what he's talking about."

I asked if he thought Johnny's hobby had anything to do with his politics. Hammett pondered a moment. "Let's put it this way," he said. "Anyone with an affinity for the Republican Party and serial killers – that's an explosive combination."

I said yes, I would put in a word with Adam. I also asked if Hammett thought Johnny might want to talk for publication; a few weeks later I'm at Ramone's house.

"It only hurts when I sit down or stand up," said Johnny, wincing as he leaned back on the couch. Johnny was born John Cummings in Queens, New York, in 1948 (not 1951, as the official bios state), to a construction-worker father and a waitress mother. In 1974, he settled on his famous Ramones bowl cut, and he retained it in its entirety for thirty years, until his first round of chemotherapy. The hair came back, but so did the cancer, so he was bald again and self-conscious. Of all the Ramones, he was the most obsessed with how the band presented itself, onstage and in the press. Pale and fragile, he didn't much resemble the guy who owned the stage at Joey Ramone's right hand.

"It was more traumatic the first time it fell out," said Johnny. "Between that and everything else that was happening, yeah, it was very hard. You don't have much choice. You just have to make the best of it. Sometimes you wonder, 'Is this worth it?' I don't know. They tell me I'm doing better. It's just a matter of getting over all these side effects. There's always something, though. I'm always sick."

Besides being the maximum punk in the first punk band, Johnny was also the first straight-edge punk, remaining sober and enjoying excellent health through an addictively amok era of music until a diagnosis of prostate cancer six years ago. On the Gleason scale of virulence, which measures the severity of the cancer and has a top score of ten, he had a nine. In the beginning of last year, it was determined that the cancer had spread to his bones, lungs and bladder. Opting at the start for radiation and then for chemotherapy, he was seeing the doctor that Rudy Giuliani and Robert De Niro saw for the same malady, and he organized benefits for the Cedars-Sinai Prostate Center played by Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

"I worry that they're thinking, 'Oh, God, here's that guy again,' but they seem excited to see me every time," he said of the Cedars-Sinai staff. "I always bring them a present. I want to be able to call them when something is wrong and say, 'Hey, I got this today, what's going on?' Two weeks ago I called them up, and I said, 'I'm tired and I'm weak.' They said come in, and my blood counts were so low that they gave me a transfusion on the spot. I told the doctor, 'I feel like I'm dying.' The doctor said, 'You are. If you had waited a few days, you would have died.'"

But he does seem to be holding it together.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah," he said, dressed in a bathrobe and sweat pants, leaning to his left at a forty-five-degree angle. "It's just this pain. Pain doesn't make sense to me. It should go away. They just did a scan, and there's nothing down there, so I don't understand why there's this swelling, this secondary infection. And your insides are wiped out by the chemo, from your mouth all the way through you. I don't like any of the painkillers. I tried them and I still had the pain, and I was fogged up. I hate being fogged up. I've always wanted to be on top of the situation as much as possible."

Had he learned anything from being sick?

Johnny paused for a long time and muttered something unintelligible. Then he paused again for a long moment. "It's hard to say if I was having any fun, ever. I just wanted to do nothing. Have dinner, relax, not be in pain – these things are enjoyable now. I've had a good life. I'd like to live. I'd like to feel better. But I've had a great run. I've done a lot of stuff and left a mark."

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Johnny did a few sessions of "distant healing" with Adam on the phone from Vancouver, but it didn't work out. Predictably, Johnny was never truly sold on the idea. But you couldn't fault Hammett for trying anything to save the guy who scowled through 2,263 concerts and fourteen studio albums from 1976 to 1995, spreading joy throughout the world to people who really needed it. All Johnny wanted in return was enough money to retire, which he indeed accumulated with a tight fist and business savvy, immediately selling his venerated Mosrite guitars and Marshall amps and moving to California.

The Ramones, with minimal publicity thirty years after forming, are bigger than ever. The royalty checks keep growing by about ten percent a year. T-shirts with the official Ramones eagle holding a baseball bat can be seen on teenagers across the country. Rhino is releasing a box set of CDs and another set of DVDs. A biographical documentary, End of the Century, has finally come out after seven years of preparation. A musical, Gabba Gabba Hey!, with eighteen Ramones songs, has had a successful showcase in Australia and with luck will debut in the U.S. next year. More and more people seem to be discovering that this strange band from Queens, possessing no gold studio albums and no face pretty enough for heavy rotation on MTV, left a body of songs that could fill several musicals.

"I guess the world caught up with the Ramones," says Tommy Ramone (né Erdelyi), the band's original drummer, who worked on the musical with Australian novelist Michael Herrmann and New York director Andy Goldberg. "We were ahead of our time. When something is different, as we were, people can get intimidated or jealous. Now it's just the body of work, and people can finally understand what the band was about."

The documentary presents an extremely bleak picture of life within the band. After four nearly perfect albums in the late Seventies (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin), Joey and Johnny came to hate each other. Partly it was a personality clash, with Joey as the liberal-hippie romantic who was always late and Johnny as the conservative-punk pragmatist who was always on time. But mostly Joey held a grudge over Johnny appropriating and ultimately marrying his girlfriend Linda Danielle. The perfect albums dried up (though great songs intermittently appeared), and the band toured relentlessly – Johnny and Joey unhappily cooped up in a small van – as the only way to make serious money. Johnny comes off as a monstrous taskmaster, driving the band to perform even as Joey's health failed from a number of maladies.

"In order of monsterliness, Dee Dee was first," says Danny Fields, who managed the band from 1975 to 1980. "A genius poet, and charming, which is how he got away with his disastrous alcoholic fibbing. Joey was second, and Johnny was third. He had to whip four very difficult people, including himself, into shape to make enough money for all of them to retire. Joey could have quit at any time, and there were many layoffs for his medical problems. Now Johnny's a sweetie. You should see him with his cats."

"I think we all liked each other in the beginning, but the dynamics were overpowering," says Tommy, who was also the Ramones' first manager and producer. "It's one of the reasons that I had to leave the band after four years in the van with them. I would have drowned. It could get very moody, very volatile."

One great irony the movie misses is that Johnny mellowed greatly in retirement, developing a hitherto little-noticed gift for friendship. The guy didn't even have a telephone for the first five years of the Ramones' existence, because he didn't want to be bothered with other people's problems, and he went home right after every show. His friends in recent years included actor Vincent Gallo (who shares his right-wing political views), Eddie Vedder (who doesn't) and other musicians such as John Frusciante and Rob Zombie.

"He's almost a father figure, or a mentor to me," says Robert Carmine, the twenty-one-year-old singer for Rooney, who one night slipped Johnny a demo tape that Johnny liked. "He never had a kid. The Ramones were his baby that he was obsessed with. When he retired, he needed something else to focus on, and that's his friends and his wife. He's given me a lot of great advice: Play to the back row, not the people in front; get a straight mike stand, not a boom stand; own your section of the stage; watch the money; learn what other people did that was cool. He's turned me on to such great old music, like Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.

"He's a much kinder person now than when he was in the band," Carmine continues. "But the thing with Joey is ongoing. We watched the documentary together in his house, and he couldn't stay in the room when they were talking about the Joey stuff. He's still got that pain and anger that he can't quite let go of and become the person he's mostly become."

"I only wear sneakers when I exercise," said Linda, Johnny's wife, banging around the hardwood floors in high heels and a flowery miniskirt reminiscent of Carnaby Street in London in 1967. "The rest of the time, I wear high heels. They get a little higher at night. This is how high during the day. So I have a day heel and a night heel."

"Chuck was saying how unsentimental I am," said Johnny.

Well, I just can't believe he sold his Mosrite, on which he did ninety-five percent of his playing.

"The whole band was like that," said Linda. "No sentiment. Well, maybe Joey a little. I see bands now huddle in a circle before a show and say, 'Let's go out there and get them!' That would be the most bizarre thing in the world for the Ramones."

"We said nothing before a show," said Johnny, stroking one of his cats. "We sat there in chairs, or lay there. When it was time to go on, we walked onstage and that was it."

Miserable musicians often make the happiest music.

"I don't know how that works, bringing happiness to a song, no matter what the song is about. I don't get it. I have fond memories. It must have been a lot of fun. But I didn't know what fun was. I played the show. I felt good if it went the way it was supposed to. If we weren't good, it would bother me. Some of the records I knew weren't great, and to me that felt like a sickness. Did I have fun at CBGB in the early days? I don't think so. I don't know when it was fun. And then all of a sudden on the last tour, it was like, everyone is going to miss us? I thought everyone would forget us. That was fun? I can't tell."

If it was never fun, how did he know when to stop?

"I wanted to get to twenty years, do one more album, one more tour, and that's it. I felt that we weren't as good as we had been. One day we were having a discussion up at the office, me and Joey and management, and I complained that Joey threatened to quit every time we disagreed on something. Joey denied doing that. Then somebody said we should fire the publicist because the publicist didn't talk to anyone but Joey, and Joey said that if we got rid of the publicist, he would quit. And I said, 'Ya know something? I quit. One more album, one more tour, and whenever that winds down, I've had it. I'm not changing my mind. I've had it with your loyalty being to the publicist.' It was coming to an end anyway, but that finalized it."

Was the girlfriend thing the main problem between Johnny and Joey?

"No, we couldn't get along anyway. It didn't help the situation, but we couldn't agree about anything. I don't know. We were just different. He had constant health problems, not just the lymphoma at the end. He had that disease where you touch things over and over."

Obsessive-compulsive disorder?

"Yeah, OCD. And constant foot infections. If he's sick every time that you have to start a new album, you know it's got to be mental there. 'You're sick with a cold? Every album?' And his ideas wouldn't be practical. He would come up with ideas and they would lose money, so what's the point of doing them?"

Had he seen Joey since the band broke up?

"Two in-store signings at Tower. That was it. We found out he was sick just before Lollapalooza. We were told that lymphoma is very treatable through medication, but then the complications set in. So I said, 'Hi, Joey, how ya feeling?' He said, 'I'm doing great. Why? What do you want to know for?' So I didn't bother saying anything more. Whenever I tried to say something to him, like right before a tour was starting, I'd realize within a minute or two that it was hopeless."

Did he go to Joey's funeral?

"No, I was in California. I wasn't going to travel all the way to New York, but I wouldn't have gone anyway. I wouldn't want him coming to my funeral, and I wouldn't want to hear from him if I were dying. I'd only want to see my friends. Let me die and leave me alone."

But they had created all this great music together.

"We had a job together. Doesn't mean I have to like him. So two in-store signings."

The End of the Century documentary concludes shortly after Joey's death from lymphoma and a few months before Dee Dee's death from an overdose, as the Ramones are inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Dee Dee promises not to sit at Johnny's table for the ceremony.

"What it doesn't show is that Dee Dee sat down at my table right after he said that," said Johnny with an audible sigh and a visible slump. "And he stayed at my table the whole time. He was crazy. Nothing he said was the truth."

The band had been asked if it would perform with another singer taking Joey's place. "I said, 'No way. See us like we were, or don't see us at all. Go buy the DVD,'" said Johnny. "I would never perform without Joey. He was our singer."

This story appeared in the October 14, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 959: October 14, 2004