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Adios, Amigo

In memory of Johnny Ramone, the last--and possibly only--great conservative punk

By Sara Bir

These are dark days for Ramones fans, let alone actual Ramones. On June 16, former Ramones drummer Marky Ramone announced via an interview with RollingStone.com that ex-band mate Johnny Ramone's health was in decline after a five-year tussle with prostate cancer.

The following day, Johnny's publicist released a statement downplaying the urgency of Johnny's condition, while confirming that Johnny was indeed in the hospital receiving treatment for an infection related to prostate cancer, and that he was expected to be released the following week to continue his recovery.

But three months later, almost to the day, Johnny Ramone was gone. He died Sept. 15 at his home in Los Angeles, at age 55.

Like his band mates Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, Johnny--nee John Cummings--died too young. Unlike the rest of the group, however, Johnny was always a bit of an old fogey, and it's this quality that held the Ramones together for two-plus decades. Let's face it, being a staunch Republican and an NRA member in the otherwise decidedly left-leaning genre of punk rock is not widely thought of as cool. But, in classic Ramones tradition, Johnny didn't care.

And let's face it: Johnny made the Ramones. Most accounts paint him as a businesslike tyrant whose political ideals typically clashed with the rest of the band and whose no-nonsense work ethic took more than a few cues from his stint in military school. A vehement Reagan lover, Johnny insisted that the Ramones' retitle their Joey-penned, Reagan-knocking 1985 single, "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," as "My Head Is Hanging Upside Down" for its album release; the song only joined the Ramones' canon because a band is a democracy, and Johnny was outvoted.

According to the Ramones' self-designated roles, Joey was the gangly space alien with a heart of gold; Dee Dee was somehow both the drug-addled, tortured genius and the cute one; Tommy, as the drummer and the shortest in stature, was a much-needed force of normalization. That left Johnny to be the mean one.

Go figure. Look at any given image of Johnny, and you'll see only two facial expressions: one stoic and sour, the other a frenzied mug, lips pursed, cheeks puffed out like a blowfish, singular in purpose and as dynamic as his machine-gun-slinging of his trusty Mosrite guitar. The Johnny Ramone concert stance--feet apart, bowl cut swinging--is immortal. It is rock.

And yet Johnny is typically not folks' favorite Ramone; I've always been a Dee Dee girl myself, falling for his idiot-savant complexity (RIP 2002, baby), while historically Joey's (RIP 2001, baby) human-walking-stick build and lead singer status made him the most recognizable.

Any dedicated Ramones fan, however, must acknowledge that without Johnny, there are no Ramones. Imagine the countless hours they spent together in buses and vans, crisscrossing the continents and crashing in hotels. Who would be strong enough to keep an alcoholic, a coke fiend and a crazy heroin junkie in line? Johnny, that's who.

We, as a public, could be more understanding. I'll love the Ramones till the pinheads come home, but I wouldn't want to be one for the world. Those guys gave their sanity to chase their dreams and alleviate the painful, shapeless resentment of a zillion disaffected youth, old farts and lifelong punkers--never mind that it may have been resentment spawned by Johnny's much-adored Reagan administration.

God bless America, and God bless Johnny Ramone.

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From the September 22-29, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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