There was only one Johnny Ramone. The legendary guitarist not only defined punk rock, he helped invent it. Sadly, cancer took him away in 2004, but for the past eight years Johnny’s widow Linda has worked to keep his memory alive by throwing the most rocking party in Tinseltown. Friends and fans gather at an unlikely place, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where Johnny – and bandmate Dee Dee – are buried. The yearly outing is a chance for both to mix and mingle while watching Ramones videos and Johnny’s favorite films on the mausoleum wall and honor his legacy.
West Coast Bureau chief Keith Valcourt sat down with a who’s-who of rock and roll luminaries including Steve Jones (Sex Pistols), Tommy Ramone (original Ramones Drummer), Slim Jim Phantom (Stray Cats), Billy Zoom (Guitarist for X), writer/rocker Henry Rollins (Black Flag) and John Cafiero (Osaka Pop Star/ Ramones Business Manager) at this year’s event.
Rocker: What was your first memory of meeting Johnny Ramone?
Billy: That’s easy. I had done an interview with a magazine, I think it was “Guitar World” and the writer said something derogatory about Johnny’s guitar playing and I straightened him out. Said good things about Johnny and I guess he read it. When X got to the hotel in New York there was a note at the front desk that said, “Johnny Ramone would like to take you to dinner.” We went to eat, Johnny, Linda and I. Then we went over to their apartment and looked at his baseball collection.
John: I was only 16 at the time and still in high school. They were shooting a music video in midtown Manhattan on the front steps of the NY Public Library. I stumbled on to it by chance. I can’t imagine this was a coincidence as much as an act of God, or fate, or whatever you choose to believe in. I was (and still am) a HUGE Ramones fan so it was a real thrill, particularly being a kid at the time. I was thrown into the mix because they thought I looked like a Ramone. They put me right alongside Dee Dee in a lineup with the entire band. What I remember most about Johnny the first time I observed him in person was that on the surface, he appeared to be somewhat casual, but it looked like in reality he was discretely watching over everything going on around him. Taking it in, assessing things, and processing the information. Even when in deep conversation with someone else, he appeared to be multitasking in his mind, watching everyone else peripherally. It was as if he was calculating, not numbers but strategies, based on the things occurring around him. I now know for a fact, from editing his autobiography and going through everything he left behind to assemble it, that was indeed the case with Johnny.
Steve: It’s funny I talked to Linda (Ramone-Johnny’s widow) about that the other day. I don’t remember. I briefly met him at The Roundhouse in 1977 or 76. I remember when John and Linda were looking for a place out here and they were looking at Beverly Glenn, this area where I live. I told them, “This is where you wanna live.” They bought a place there. He listened.
Slim Jim: I met him when I was a kid, then a few years later when our bands were doing a gig together. He had a poster of a Britt Ekland movie (who was my wife) that he wanted signed.
He was my friend for thirty five years. We bonded over baseball, both being Yankees guys. When he moved to L.A. we became especially close.
Rollins: He was very friendly to me. Of all The Ramones he seemed to be the one that was, in a way, the most together.
Rocker: Were you aware of The Ramones when you were in the Pistols?
Steve: I was aware of The Ramones. We had done about forty gigs before we first saw them when they played the Roadhouse (Legendary English Club.) The whole thing about that we went to see The Ramones and then we started the Sex Pistols wasn’t the case. We had already been going along.
Rocker: Did the Sex Pistols influence the Ramones?
Steve: I don’t know, but I don’t think they would have admitted it if we did.
Rocker: Was there ever a rivalry between your band and The Ramones?
Steve: That whole New York punk vs London punk was all bullshit. I liked The Ramones. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to put them down.
Billy: Oh gosh no. We were on the same team. I admired him as a player. He was so underrated.
Rocker: Legend is, he was a surly guy. Did you think that was true?
Rollins: That was never my experience of him. He was always very straight ahead with me.
Slim Jim: He didn’t suffer fools.
Steve: I think he just had a funny sense of humor and some people mistook that humor for him being an ass. You know what I me? You just had to understand him. He was a very funny guy.
John: In my opinion, no. I think Johnny and his motives were far more complex than most realize, and he was largely misunderstood during his lifetime. Its one of the many reasons why editing his autobiography was such a gratifying and enriching experience for me. I really do care about the subject, and I’m passionate about doing Johnny and the Ramones the justice they deserve. I firmly believe reading Johnny’s book is unbelievably enlightening as to who the real Johnny Ramone was. It blows the lid off of many stereotypical views and misconceptions about him, and poetically, in his own words. In simplest terms, he was the way he was, in order to ensure the Ramones would be who and what they are now. If not for him, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. While Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy each played an integral role, without Johnny’s relentless pursuit driving them onward and upward, metaphorically speaking, the rocket would have never made it to Russia…
Billy: He never was that way with me. Always nice to me.
Rocker: Is it weird to be throwing a party in a graveyard?
Slim Jim: All the people here tonight are the same gang that had dinner together. All the same people. Our little gang of odd characters and John was the glue to put us all together. All of us are pals but to get the same exact combination together reminds me of the Johnny Ramone barbeques he used to throw.
Steve: No. I wanna built a pyramid right next to Johnny’s grave. Just bigger than his. A joke pyramid. I think that would be perfect.
Tommy: Yeah. Dee Dee is on one side of the reflecting pool and Johnny is on the other. It’s so serene. All the movie stars are buried here and Johnny’s s second favorite thing was movies. His first favorite was baseball. Music was in there somewhere.
Rocker: What would Johnny think of this event?
Tommy: He would have loved it. He planned it. He designed it.
Billy: I think he’d be very pleased. Linda has done a good job keeping his legacy alive.
John: I have no doubt he would love it. We really strive to keep the event, and the programming within it, true to Johnny’s personality, and it is. Had this event been for someone else during Johnny’s lifetime, he’d have been there every year—loving it —I’m sure.
Slim Jim: I’m not sure if he would have showed up tonight. The Yankees are playing the Red Sox on national TV and that would the legitimate excuse for John.
What is your favorite Ramones album and song?
Billy: That’s hard. I don’t know. I like the first album because that’s the one that had the biggest impact.
Slim Jim: I think on every record they have a couple classic songs. “Beat On The Brat.” “I Wanna Be Sedated” That was when they were trying to have a hit. On the last record I loved the cover of the Tom Waits song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”
Steve: The first album was my favorite. Songwise? “Blitzkrieg Bop.”
Tommy: “Rocket To Russia” is my favorite album. It’s The Ramones becoming something really great. Great songs. We used good studios. I really enjoyed making that record. Great record.
Rollins: I think “Rocket To Russia” was probably their most concise statement. Tommy (Ramone) the drummer is one of the the best rock drummers ever. He is an amazingly natural musician. That album to me was the best of their ideas. And that was Johnny’s favorite Ramones album. The rest are quite nice. I have a very soft spot for the first one as well. I have all The Ramones albums. The ones with Tommy, basically the first four, are really magical.
John: A personal favorite of mine is “Pleasant Dreams”, but their best album is undoubtedly “Rocket to Russia”. Some of my many favorites songs are “All is Quiet on the Eastern Front”, “KKK Took my Baby Away”, “Rockaway Beach” & “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”.
Rocker: What do you think is the lasting appeal of The Ramones and their music?
Slim Jim: The music is easy to get a grip on. The uniform of the band. They had a style and an attitude. The Ramones were easy to remember and easy to understand. Plus the songs were good. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about for all of us making music.
John: The Ramones are a timeless force of nature. Chaotic elements that when joined together have a level of balance and focus that is unstoppable. They’re every man and immortal all at the same time. Simple but complex. Imperfectly perfect. They are pure unbridled intensity with a melodic core wrapped in a package that’s cool and relatable to nearly anyone and everyone on different levels. They’re enigmatic.
Billy: He did it right. Everything he did was perfect. The whole Ramones concept.
Rocker: What are you working on now?
Slim Jim: I just made a record in London with Daryl Hyam a British rockabilly guy, under the name Cat Men. The record comes out in January. I just did a bunch of stuff with Lemmy too as HeadCat. I just played some shows with Lee Rocker and Earl Slick as Phantom Rocker and Slick to celebrate the re-release of the record we made in the 1980s.
Steve: The radio show “Jonesy’s Jukebox” is still going strong on KROQ. Two years. Not fired yet. I love doing it. And I’ve been doing some acting. I just finished four episodes of “Californication” playing a tour manager. Basically playing myself. The season starts next January. Loved it!
Tommy: I have an acoustic duo that is influenced by bluegrass and old time music called Uncle Monk. We’ve been doing it for five years and we have a great time.
Billy: I just got back for a tour with X. We’ve been playing a lot. I don’t think we will ever record again. It just wouldn’t work. I would say okay if we could get everybody to rehearse and try to work songs out and stuff. Not just do it on the fly in one day. Which is what John (Doe) would wanna do.
John: Shepard Fairey and I are putting together a Dee Dee Ramone art show at his Subliminal Gallery this fall. We’ll be exhibiting some of Dee Dee’s paintings that I recovered for Dee Dee’s wife Barbara. The pieces were previously thought to have been lost. They’ve never been exhibited in the U.S.. Barbara and I are planning to publish a coffee table book showcasing Dee Dee’s artwork. I’m also working on a new live Misfits album that was recorded on the “Devil’s Rain” Halloween tour in 2011, and a brand new Osaka Popstar single.