The Last Days of Johnny Ramone
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.”
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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.