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

October 14, 2004
johnny ramone
Johnny Ramone performs at Lollapalooza.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

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.

The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: The Ramones, Ramones

"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."

The 100 Greatest Guitarists, David Fricke's Picks: Johnny Ramone

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."

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“San Francisco Mabel Joy”

Mickey Newbury | 1969

A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

More Song Stories entries »