"The Ramones were the great American rock band of our time," says Rob Zombie. "Endlessly copied but never equaled." The leather-clad jackhammer punk icons broke up in 1996 and Johnny Ramone died in 2004, but in the 10 years since his passing, the guitarist's widow Linda has been celebrating his memory with an annual tribute bash at Los Angeles' Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Previous tributes have featured a reunion of the cast of the Ramones movie Rock 'n' Roll High School and an unveiling of a Johnny Ramone statue. Now, for the tenth anniversary of Johnny's death, Zombie will be hosting a screening of his movie The Devil's Rejects and leading an all-star band (including Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols) through a selection of Ramones covers. Fred Armisen of Portlandia will also be in attendance, doing some songs as his punk-rock doppelganger Ian Rubbish, while Kirk Hammett of Metallica (billed as Kirk Von Hammett) will be displaying his collection of horror-movie posters and memorabilia in the cemetery's mausoleum. The event will take place on August 24th and benefit cancer research through the Johnny Ramone Foundation and the Center for Applied Medicine at USC. Sadly, no funds will go to pinheads, victims of teenage lobotomies or brats who have been beaten on by baseball bats.
The tribute draws on Johnny's circle of friends and admirers. Zombie first met Johnny in New York City around 1986, getting his autograph when the Ramones did an in-store appearance at Tower Records, but the two didn't get to know each other until a decade later. "I really met John when the Ramones were opening for my band White Zombie on tour," the singer recalls. "John was concerned about how many T-shirts they could sell and if they could hang the Ramones backdrop. I told him they could do anything they wanted. Johnny was the most specific person I ever met. He liked everything exactly perfect, no matter what it was. It was always fun and exciting to watch him order dinner in a restaurant."
Armisen, meanwhile, began his relationship with the band when he bought the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century in 1980 — his first ever record. "I've always been a fan," he tells Rolling Stone. "That's where I started!" He also scored the Ramones' autographs as a teenager, waiting in line at a record convention in New York City. He says he was impressed with how Johnny was the band's organizer: "He kept it all together, on a professional level. Like a job." This won't be Armisen's first time at Hollywood Forever. "I've visited Johnny's gravesite a lot over the years. What a cool place."
The Ramones legacy has been fractured since they broke up, partially because of the long-standing antipathy (based on multiple factors, including political beliefs and Linda having dated Joey before marrying Johnny) between Johnny and Joey while they were alive. Linda says that reports of friction between the two bandmates were overstated: "They didn't argue. If they had been that hateful, they wouldn't have been able to stay together and tour. Joey used to send Johnny Christmas cards: 'It's been a great fucking year.'" Nevertheless, in recent months, she has been working more closely with Mickey Leigh (Joey's brother and the executor of his estate) and new management to safeguard the memory of the Ramones. "We're discussing movies and plays," she says, meaning that a Ramones jukebox musical on Broadway may be in our future. "But we never lose the cool factor. Johnny loved his legacy."
That might make this year's bash the final Johnny Ramone tribute. If all goes well on Planet Ramone, future years will feature the band as a whole, rather than individual members. One thing Ramones fans shouldn't expect is much in the way of unreleased music. "I don't know how the Beatles do that," Linda says. "Do they go to somebody's basement?"