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The Last Days of Johnny Ramone

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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.

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

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