Interview with Johnny Ramone
Conservative Punk's Interview with Johnny Ramone, conducted 2 April 2003 by telephone. Interviewer, Sgt. Robert Jones, U.S. Army, Fort Dix, New Jersey, with Johnny Ramone, at his home in Los Angeles.
This is a transcript of an interview that has never been published until December, 2008. I first attempted it to coincide with the release of the tribute album We're A Happy Family, released by Sony in February 2003. It was scheduled to be published in the Army newspaper The Fort Dix Post in New Jersey, but never saw any ink on the printing presses, due to difficulties in obtaining a second interview, and intransigence on the part of the features editor who, in addition to outranking me, also assured me that "punk is quite dead."
Punk was never dead for Johnny Ramone, though. He remained a voice for those in the punk movement who were independent thinking conservatives, and proud of their country. He never forgot that the whole point of punk was to not walk in lockstep conformity.
Bad things come in threes. In the case of the godfathers of punk, The Ramones, the grim reaper had already visited Joey and Dee Dee just one and two years prior – respectively – to this interview, conducted in March 2003. At that time, it was scheduled to be done over two interview sessions, which is often my pratice when engaging subjects in an interview; during the first part, I stick to my script, and use the second session for follow-up questions which come to mind after reviewing my tapes.
Part two of this interview was never to be. I called Johnny's publicist, who told me that Johnny was sick, and couldn't finish the interview. At the time I assumed a flu bug, so it was quite a shock to me next year when Johnny Ramone died of cancer. He had kept his terminal illness pretty-well hidden until almost the end.
On September 15, 2004, Johnny Cummings Ramone, a man once tagged as "too tough to die" succumbed to the ravages of cancer. He was 55.
Jones: Whose idea was it to release a tribute album?
Ramone: Originally, Seymour Stein from Sire Records called me, he wanted to work on a tribute album. Would I be interested in being involved, and I said sure if I’m in charge and I take everything and he said "okay." I called up Gary Kurfirst, and I ran it by him, and he said that it would be distributed by Rhino which is great for a band catalog but not for a new product. He said it would be better if take it somewhere else. So I said well I need to run it though Seymour so I called Seymour back and said that’s fine no problem, I just want to see it get done. And I called Rob Zombie and Rob said "I’ll work with you on getting a label." And right away, we took it to him.
Jones: It was a huge success. Everywhere people were coming up to me in the Army and I’m not talking people my age. I’m 38, I grew up with you guys. Kids I’m talking about, 19 and 20 year olds are saying how great this is finally a fitting tribute to the Ramones.
Ramone: Wow, that’s great!
Jones: Yeah, and as I was telling your publicist, what really got me on the story was that one of the troops was sitting there singing to himself, “Now I want to sniff some glue.” Beautiful.
Ramone: (Laughs) Well Metalica is covering about four Ramones songs and that was one of the four songs. “53rd and 3rd” was the track we decided to put on.
Jones: I thought that they did a good version of that. Has a bite.
Ramone: Yeah, I am so happy with that track and the [Eddie] Vedder track, and Rob Zombie’s track.
Jones: So I have a question that tells you how out of touch I am. Eddie Vedder is no longer with Pearl Jam?
Ramone: No, he’s still with Pearl Jam. He’s touring with them now. He did his solo and I talked to Eddie – he’s a close friend of mine – and he said that Pearl Jam was not going into the studio for two more months after that, and I said “Eddie, I really need it quick,” and he goes “how about I get this punk band I play with sometimes this week,” so I said “sure, do it like that.” I put away two more months and then Pearl Jam was in the studio and I said, “well, when I said that I was in a rush, but it ended up being another year before it's coming out so he ended up playing it with Pearl Jam.”
Jones: Yeah, well it’s really solid. I like it. Now I don’t know how much the time you came up with the tribute to of course Joey and Dee Dee having both passed on so recently.
Ramone: Well when it started. Joey already had died and they were looking to get it out last summer and you understand, it took quite a while because bands were on tour – everyone was on tour. Then we had a record company that took forever and then Dee Dee had died while we were putting it all together, recording, getting demos in the mail. Basically I was the one who was always in charge of projects and stuff.
Jones: The proceeds of all sales are going to the Lymphoma Research Foundation, which was the type of cancer that Joey died of.
Ramone: Yeah, of Lymphoma.
Jones: Many of the bands on the album: Pearl Jam, Garbage, Kiss, they’re not exactly what you think of as “punk,” and there’s U2, who started out punk and went mainstream. But, to me, listening to them –
Ramone: – That’s why it works as well as it does, you know? We got many different takes on our songs, in different styles...genres...but when we were putting it all together, I was pleased at how the performances brought out the best in the songs. It’s not apparent, though, that some of these bands were influenced by punk. But, they were.
Jones: I noticed a couple bands I swore who would have been on the album, but they weren’t. For one, Blondie...
Ramone: Blondie wasn’t invited to be on it.
Jones: ...and Motorhead.
Ramone: Motorhead was invited, and they recorded a couple songs. But, when we put together the final version of the album, theirs weren’t chosen.
Jones: It’s really strange: For twenty years, the Ramones recorded, toured, and never really hit the top. Yet, bands who’ve been at the top of the charts at some point – just at random, let’s just say Air Supply – have zero presence today. Yet, by the time you all did Lollapalooza in ’96, it’s fair to say that almost every act on the bill was in some way influenced by the Ramones.
Ramone: Well... (laughs) well, like in 1995, I was getting ready to start touring and playing. I told my wife, “well, we’re going to start playing next year.” The guy who runs Lollapalooza comes up to me, as though he was doing us a favor. As though I gave a shit. At that point, my attitude was I’m retiring after this.
Jones: But, your influence was phenomenal. Through it all, you strove to be on top but instead the Ramones have become this unseen undercurrent that runs through anything that’s honest to God rock, whether it’s punk, or early grunge, speed metal.
Ramone: Thank you.
Jones: A lot of punk and speed guitarists owe a lot to you. But, who inspires you?
Ramone: Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.
Jones: Jimmy Page! That’s the last reply I would have expected to hear.
Ramone: He’s truly unique.
Jones: It’s ironic: Almost every blurb I read explaining the appeal of the Ramones chalks it up to you guys reintroducing straight tunes in 4/4 time, two minutes, a return to the kind of stuff the Beach Boys or the girl groups from the early ‘60s recorded. That the Ramones were the antidote to the fifteen minute-long "concept rock" stuff from groups like Led Zeppelin.
Ramone: The Ramones were never anti-Led Zeppelin. Maybe "anti-groups-who-just-aped Led Zeppelin." Everything in the ‘70s was moving towards all that. FM radio was promoting an album rock format. We wanted to record something kids could dance to. But, Jimmy Page: His playing is truly amazing. I could never play at that level. I don’t try to imitate him, but I listen to him a lot.
Jones: Come to think of it, I can hear the opening chords from “Whole Lotta Love” in a your playing. It comes at you fast and furious, lots of ostinato.
Ramone: That was on their second album, when they were playing more straightforward blues rock, less complex than their later songs, like, um, “Kashmir.”
Jones: There were a lot of things about the Ramones that defined punk, yet would later on be seen as atypical of punk. For one, Joey had this beautiful, velvety voice, like he was channeling Frank Sinatra.
Ramone: (Laughs). Yeah, he had a voice….
Jones: I think that my epiphany came, strangely, about five years ago when Sonny Bono died. That day, all the stations were playing Sonny & Cher's song “I Got You, Babe” in tribute. But, the college radio station where I lived played the Ramones’ version of “Needles and Pins,” which Bono wrote.
Ramone: Yeah, he and Jack Nietzsche wrote that.
Jones: Hearing Joey’s vocals breaks your heart. That and the haunting guitar reverb, it’s goes so much deeper than the Searchers’ original.
Jones: You’re sort of regarded as an oddity in the punk movement. A conservative Republican. Like a right-winger doesn’t belong.
Ramone: To me, I think punk is right wing. What happened in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was a lot of disaffected kids – the kind who would’ve been hippies a decade before – drifted into punk. But, when you think of who punks are, they’re greasers, people who didn’t fit in, but they didn’t back down either. Who above all, love America. I’ve voted Republican ever since 1960 when Kennedy ran against Nixon. I’ve been with the conservative Republicans since I was eleven years old.
Jones: Oh really? So you were for Nixon in 60’? That’s really amazing, you know, being from Queens.
Ramone: People back then were going on about Kennedy: “Oh, I really like this guy. He’s so good looking.” This is how we’re picking a President? If he’s good looking? And I was thinking this since I was 11 years old. Nixon beat Kennedy in the polls for the people who only heard them debate on the radio.
Jones: Yeah but fortunately for us, of course, Kennedy turned out to be a hero. Because of how he handled the Cuban missile crisis and forced Khruschev to withdraw his nukes. But when people talk about –
Ramone: –but he also got us involved in the war with Vietnam – the war that they didn’t really try to win.
Jones: I know.
Ramone: When Barry Goldwater ran against President Johnson, Goldwater said that if we are going to be involved in Vietnam, we have to basically nuke them and that was the only way to win. To get it over, and be done with it.
Jones: Yeah. “Bomb them into the stone age,” as he said.
Ramone: And everyone thought he was crazy. But, the war just dragged on for over a decade and our soldiers were made to come home defeated.
Jones: Yeah but you know what is really funny is that when Nixon ran twelve years later, remembering how Kennedy bought Chicago, and of course that’s what won the election for him, without those votes Nixon would’ve won. And somehow really there's such miseducation about history that people think that Nixon was just paranoid for the hell of it, and that's why he had people spy on the Democrats, the Watergate break-in. What it was was that he just didn't want another election stolen out from underneath him.
Ramone: I know that. You know, and then he opened us up to China later on. Trade, culture, even an alliance, though that was shaky at times. He wasn’t so hot for the communist Chinese, but it was great trump card against the Russians.
Jones: On foreign policy, to a lot of people he was a visionary. Even Democrats will admit that.
Ramone: Yeah, well I think that Reagan was the best President in my life. A real Republican. And Nixon is number two.
Jones: Well for me it would be Reagan, Truman, and I haven’t made my mind on number three. I don’t what Bush is made of yet. But Reagan, definitely. I served under him and it was a whole different military back then.
Jones: We got our pride back.
Ramone: Things have gotten a lot better now because of his two terms.
Jones: One thing I learned that when Reagan was president is you want to have a military that’s so powerful you won’t have to use it.
Ramone: Right. That’s the idea I mean that the best offense is a strong defense. I love and support the military, and I would do anything for them. No country wants to have these problems, with terrorists blowing up our buildings, murdering our citizens. But the military isn’t just a jobs program, it’s the only thing keeping us safe. What is happening with this president is that we’re respected again. We reached the low point with our last president [Bill Clinton].
Jones: So you voted for Bush? I remember when you said "God bless America and God bless President Bush" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction.
Ramone: Oh, yeah of course. I voted for his father when his father lost to Bill Clinton in ’92. I wasn’t thrilled about Dole, but I voted for Dole four years later.
Jones: I wasn’t terribly thrilled with him but there is one thing he had. He was the real deal. A hero in World War II and –
Ramone: I just don’t think that he was the right candidate. You need someone younger, around fifty years old, that the young people can still relate to, and all.
Jones: What thoughts do you have to share with the troops who are overseas? Your personal feelings toward what job they are doing for the country?
Ramone: There are doing a tremendous job and they are the real heroes of America. You know, seeing so many young men and women defending this country, enlisting right after 9/11. It’s so inspirational. The soldiers, and the police and fireman. These are the tough jobs.
Jones: Yeah they’re not glamorous.
Ramone: Everyone’s doing bullshit jobs, but no, not these guys. They’re the tough jobs that take real men.
Jones: I think that people are finally getting it, that you have to put the security of America first. Some think about the troops, “well, they’re in the military, I guess they need to pay for their college somehow.” They think most are losers who don’t know what to do with their lives. That’s the stereotype, the patronizing view of those who’ve never served – you never hear them talk about aimless college kids, who can’t declare a major, who “don’t know what to do with their lives.”
Ramone: Yeah. I convinced a friend who's a musician in the recording business, who was getting active in these anti-war demonstrations, to put a stop to it till this [the Iraq War] is over. You know that bothered me. I said, "if you want to demonstrate, you demonstrate before some one gets sent into harm’s way, not while they’re deployed somewhere, facing the fire. This is a wonderful country, and you don’t do that.” I got him to agree that "I guess your right." [Editor's note: This likely refers to Ramone's longtime friend Eddie Vedder , who the day after this interview demonstrated his disapproval of George Bush by stomping on a mask of the President's likeness during a Pearl Jam concert].
Jones: God bless you for that. Thanks so much for talking with us today.
Ramone: Thank you.