Johnny Ramone died in his sleep yesterday afternoon (September 15th) after a five-year fight with prostate cancer; the Ramones guitarist and leader was fifty-five.
Ramone (born John Cummings) kept his sickness private for four years, and news of it only became public in June when he lapsed into a coma for a week and was hospitalized. At the time, bandmate Marky Ramone, who joined the group in 1977 after drummer Tommy Ramone quit, expressed shock at Johnny’s disease. “John never smoked cigarettes, and he wasn’t a heavy drinker,” Marky told Rolling Stone. “He was always into his health. That’s why I can’t understand it.”
The Ramones have lost three members in the last five years, with Johnny’s passing following singer Joey Ramone’s death in 2001 from lymphatic cancer and bassist Dee Dee Ramone’s death from a drug overdose the following year.
Founded in Queens, New York, in 1974, the Ramones are widely cited as the original punk rock band. With a uniform no more complicated than ripped jeans and black leather jackets, the band made simple into an art form, writing about everything from boredom to sniffing glue in aggressive two-minute bursts as clever as they were economical.
Underappreciated in their time, the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and have enjoyed something of a retroactive renaissance as musicians from U2’s Bono to shock rocker Rob Zombie stepped forward to herald the band’s influence. And the band’s impact has transcended rock & roll, as sports arenas — including Yankee Stadium, where Johnny’s beloved Yankees play — routinely blare the rallying cry “Hey ho, let’s go” from their debut album’s opener “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
This past Sunday, a cast of all-star rockers, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eddie Vedder, Tim Armstrong of Rancid and Henry Rollins, marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Ramones’ first show with a cancer research benefit in Los Angeles. (Another benefit, featuring Blondie and the Strokes, is set to take place in New York on Johnny’s birthday, October 8th.) Johnny had planned to attend the Los Angeles show, but had taken a recent turn for the worse. Host Rob Zombie called him from stage. “It was heartbreaking to call him,” Zombie said after the show. “I knew he really wanted to be here.”
The Ramones’ tumultuous career is documented in the new film End of the Century: The Ramones Story. “It’s a very dark movie,” Johnny told Rolling Stone in 2002. “It’s accurate, but it left me disturbed as I was watching it. I’m basically portrayed as a tyrannical monster, Dee Dee is on drugs, Mark is an alcoholic and Joey is an alcoholic and drug addict at various times.”
After the band’s final split in 1996, Johnny put down his guitar for good. “I just didn’t want to go up there and perform at a level below what the kids had grown to expect,” he said. “Having fond memories to me was more important. If you’re a baseball player twenty-two years into your career, you’re not performing at the same level you were ten years into your career. I’m not going to fool myself and think I’m as good. Even if we were still good, I wanted to get out with some dignity.”
Johnny Ramone is survived by his wife Linda Cummings and his mother Estelle Cummings.