A year after his death, Johnny Ramone’s inner circle tell Andrew Perry about the effect their fallen comrade had on them and his unique view of life in a black leather jacket.

“Road to Ruin had just come out when I first saw the Ramones. I saw them at a small club, Louis’s Rock City, which is now a Chinese restaurant, in Fallschurch, Virginia, right over the bridge from ‘DC. It was one of those over-sold events where there’s no breathable air.

I was right in front of Dee Dee. It was the first time I can remember being really star-struck. A lot of us were just coming out of arena rock. I’d seen Led Zeppelin a year and a half before. But with the Ramones here was no barricade, I could’ve leaned over and grabbed the head-stock of Dee Dee’s bass. Johnny and Joey were very tall people, so they had quite a presence up close. There was no space between the songs, they just beat you over the head with it. It’s a hot night, there’s no air, it was kind of painful, really loud, and we knew every word to every song – so you walked out of there, knowing you’d been put through something. You felt physically pummelled, it was really a full-on experience. I realised I was gonna be in this mindset for the rest of my life. I had no idea then what I was doing with my life. I had a minimum-wage job, $3.50 an hour, and a really bad apartment with a friend. So the Ramones had a very big impact on me. This band and this kind of band were gonna be relevant to me forever.

I played a couple of shows with them in Black Flag in 1984. Recently, I’ve been editing Johnny’s book [due out in 2006]. The leather jackets, the backdrop, walking on stage in a line, going up to the front of the stage every three songs – that was all Johnny telling them. He was the first guy in a leather jacket – look at the classic Roberta Bayley shot on first album – he’s the one wearing the Perfecto leather jacket, the others all found theirs from the Salvation Army. They were told they had to bring one to band practice and they grabbed what they could. Dee’s looks like a woman’s leather jacket, whereas Johnny’s fits. He was into it. He dictated the look. He was the businessman in the band, the anchor. He was also the conservative, the Republican, like Archie Bunker with a guitar. He used to work construction with his dad for years, so he brought that whole workman-like thing to the music – even in the way he played – downstrokes, like a machine. Try and do it, your hand’ll fall off!”

“I met Linda [Johnny’s wife] first, then Johnny, and we hit it off immediately. We became really good friends. It was a very strange relationship that we had. I ended up going to Vegas with him and Linda, just jumping on a plane. We were pretty inseparable there for a few years. I was on the phone with him almost every day.

He gave me all the discs, and made sure I’d listened to everything, and made me watch Rock’N’Roll High School and [laughs] made me learn everything, which I did. He was a very thorough and compulsive guy. When I first listened, it was like, OK, it’s just two chords through most of these songs. I didn’t quite understand what they were doing until he said ‘I spent 20 years playing two chords!’, and laughed about it, thought it was really funny. They were breaking this mould that was intentionally and simplistically there to be broken. To be honest with you, I was more of a Sex Pistols fan than I was a Ramones fan. Yes, for sure, I rebelled against that ’50s tradition because I had it around me all the time as a kid, but they definitely took me back in that direction.

I know that the music that Johnny was aiming towards was ‘50s and ‘60s type melody. He did manage to do these really simplistic, grasp-able melodies, with these seriously raging, angry guitars going at the same time. It was a very interesting marriage of ideas there. Sure, he was interested in my family, he made that very clear from the beginning. I knew that he had an Elvis room in the house. We never really talked about it until I took him to Graceland. We spent three days there, and because of the impact that had on him, I realised how much [Elvis] meant to him. He ran around afterwards saying that that was one of the best times of his life.

When I got the cover of Rolling Stone when I put my record out, he was like, ‘What? In 20 years we never got the cover of Rolling Stone!’ I felt horrible. I was like, ‘Yeah, but they put people like Lindsay Lohan on there now, so who cares? Don’t be offended, don’t be upset with me!’ Then when I got a gold record he was pissed off. He felt a bit scorned by the public, but it wasn’t something that he regularly bitched about. He was so disgusted with that, how easy it is to become some crazy stupid phenomenon based on stupid shallow stuff now. I’m sure he’d be happier being just a cool, real thing.”

“I must’ve been 9 years old when I first heard the Ramones, and it was on National Lampoon’s Vacation. The kids are in the back seat of the car, and Blitzkrieg Bop comes on. I remember really liking the song, even though I didn’t know who the Ramones were. After that, they were always around. It seemed they were perpetually on tour, playing. In college, I started exploring their records. In 1993 or 94, they were playing at my college. It was outdoors in a field and I was on mushrooms, so I think I wandered off into the woods at some point. They just had a sound, like it was channelled in from another planet, made by aliens.

Johnny and I came together through the tribute record he was putting together four or five years ago. We hit it off right away, over the Yankees, and baseball. We talked for hours about bands. He’d play really rare old video footage of the MC5, or early Stones, then horror movies – we bonded over that as well. He was such a character. He had such strong opinions, in the weirdest way. Never expected it, so much like my Dad. My Dad was a military guy, kind of a hardass, and they were very similar. Wouldn’t think one of the godfathers of rock would have anything in common with my father. They actually met backstage at one of my shows, and they had a lot in common!”

“The Ramones meant everything to Johnny, more than anything because it was something he happened into. It wasn’t something he worked towards. He went from being a construction worker to all of a sudden being in the Ramones. I mean, I practised guitar in my bedroom roughly four to 15 hours a day between the ages of 12 and 17. Then at 18 I joined a band. With Johnny, he just lost his job as a construction worker, bought a guitar, joined the Ramones and started writing great songs, right off the bat.

We think of rock’n’roll in the ‘50s as being rock in its pure, simple state. But even back then they were using ninth chords, and seventh chords, and rhythmically it was interesting – it was kind of jazz-influenced at times in terms of the way they soloed using the sixths. What the Ramones did in 1974 was break it down to something even simpler, and even more pure. What was important was imagination, an idea.

However, technique was very important to him. In Johnny’s opinion, one guitar player could be better than another guitar player – period, fact! In his opinion, Jimmy Page was the best guitar player ever, and Jimi Hendrix was the second best ever. He was very clear in his mind what was good or bad, even though he couldn’t define what good actually was.

We’d have arguments: he’d say, ‘Pete Townshend shouldn’t solo. Pete Townshend’s soloing is like me trying to solo,’ and I would say, ‘I think you’re wrong, the playing on Live at Leeds, it’s pure power and energy!’ But he would encourage his friends to think his way. We once had to make a list of the 20 greatest rock bands of all time – not who we liked the best, he said, but who (ital)was(itals) the best – even though he couldn’t define what was embodied in this word ‘good’ that was being tossed around.

For one thing, if things were in any way rooted in jazz or classical music or epic forms of music, this was not part of what ‘good’ meant. Things had to be rooted in ’50s rock, and that ’50s definition of what a song was. He grew up with rock’n’roll, he started with Elvis, he was deeply affected by the Beatles when they came, so when music strayed too far from that, he just wasn’t interested. It all ended in the ’70s for Johnny. He wasn’t really interested in too much music from 1980 onwards, when a song came to mean other things. You started to understand that he does have a point, if The Beatles are the greatest group, then the Rolling Stones and the Who. You go through the top rock groups of all time, purely in terms of the energy that they put out and the excitement they could generate. So, his favourite Led Zeppelin albums were the first two. By the time it got to Houses of the Holy, he just wasn’t interested. The Who – once it gets to Quadrophenia, it’s over. Jimi Hendrix – he loved his first and second albums, he didn’t care for Electric Ladyland. What was important to him was a three-minute song, that had a great verse, an even better chorus and hopefully a bridge that’s even better than the chorus. For Johnny, that’s the formula.

We had this experience with the album Pin-Ups by David Bowie. His wife Linda and I love Pin-Ups, loved it our whole lives, love looking at the cover… Johnny insisted, ‘Pin-Ups sucks! It’s a terrible record!’ So, one day, he went through with us, listening to Bowie’s version of the songs, alongside the originals. And it’s true, you compare Bowie’s See Emily Play to the Pink Floyd version, or his Friday On My Mind to The Easybeats version, [laughing, still exasperated] none of his versions are better, you know? Me and Linda were definitely both left for dust in that whole argument. Yet, I don’t give a fuck! I still love it!

He could’ve kept talking about music like that if he’d lived 1000 years. The very fact that he had such a defined idea of what ‘good’ was, that’s what made him able to keep the Ramones going, and keep it in this narrow framework, this repeating formula, but to keep making music that was consistantly good. It was almost a scientific approach to making good music.

The Ramones filmed their first show, and he sat there and watched it over and over, analysing what everybody was doing wrong, and what was good, and they made rules based on that. They stuck to those forever. It was, ‘Dee Dee, it looks bad you playing with your fingers, you should play with a pick always.’ ‘Joey, you should never take your hand off the microphone stand.’

When he retired the Ramones was so important to him. Whatever personal problems he had with Joey, or with Dee Dee – as a rule with Dee Dee he was good, but he didn’t like the fact that he had quit the band – he loved those people purely because they were Ramones. Nothing could fuck with that at all. Joey was a Ramone. That’s the word. That’s it.

It meant a lot to him when the Ramones meant a lot to someone, whether it was a fan coming up to him on the street, or another musician, or something he heard about through a magazine. He was very proud of The Ramones. In fact, The Ramones were in his Top 20 greatest bands of all time.

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