I remember riding down in an elevator with Johnny Ramone, somewhere back in the late '70s, and figuring this would be a good chance to ask him a question. It was something I'd wondered about ever since I'd heard the Ramones' first album, in 1976. Johnny was a glowery sort of guy — "standoffish" didn't really capture his air of frosty disengagement — and I suspected he wasn't the type of fellow human who welcomed random small talk or chatty interaction. But ... well, he wasn't going to hit me or anything, was he? (He was wearing one of those sleeveless T-shirts he favored, and I did note that at least one of his arms was powerfully muscled — bulked-up, no doubt, from years of slamming out warp-speed sets with his band.) So I blurted it out.
"Where'd you learn to play guitar like that?" I asked.
He looked up from whatever interesting stain on the floor he'd been giving his undivided attention, and he said, "It's the only way I can play." Followed, as I recall, by silence.
Even more annoying than the belief, common in snootier musical circles, that the Ramones were wrong-side-of-the-bridge simpletons was the related aspersion that they were a three-chord junk-rock band with little — make that nothing — in the way of redeeming musical value. Only a simpleton could think such a thing. Take, oh ... take "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," on Leave Home, the band's second album. Not only are there a whole bunch of chords packed in there, and not only are they gunned out at a speed not theretofore thought humanly possible, but the opening guitar riff is in 6/4 time. I mean, I can't imagine that John ever devoted even a passing thought to time signatures and suchlike — life's too short — but there it is. It was just part of the way he played — the only way he played.
Watching him onstage with the Ramones, which I must have done a few dozen times over the years, I never ceased to be amazed by his fluidity, his precision — the way he could run his left hand up and down the neck of the guitar through an intricate and eccentrically timed series of roaring power chords and never land on the wrong fret, never blow a note. And all of this, as I say, at NASCAR velocity. He had an absolutely unique way of playing his instrument, and he influenced more younger guitarists in lesser groups than I can be bothered to begin to name. He was one of a kind: a Reagan Republican who wrote the book on punk-rock guitar dynamics, and then had to sit by and watch an unending lemming-line of less creative players slip it into their tote bag on the way to the kind of big-time fame and fortune the Ramones never knew. Screw 'em.
The last time I talked to John was on the phone in June of 2002, on the morning that Dee Dee Ramone was found dead of a drug overdose in his Los Angeles apartment. He didn't sound shaken, but he was surprised. He said he'd seen Dee Dee around town from time to time, and that he looked healthy and claimed to have cleaned up. What're you gonna do? I asked him what he was up to. He said, "I'm enjoying my retirement." It was an odd thing to hear a Ramone say, but he meant it. I doubt he ever said anything he didn't mean.
The last time I tried to call John was this past June, when he was in Cedars-Sinai in L.A. and rumors of his imminent demise were blossoming like pustules all over the press (see "Johnny Ramone Is Not Dying, His Doctor Says"). I finally reached his hospital room and got his wife, Linda. There were about four or five doctors in the room, she said — there did seem to be a lot of commotion on her end — but he wasn't dying. It turned out that he was in Cedars to get rigged up with some experimental drug to treat his cancer. He hated the rumors, but he wasn't about to dignify them with a press statement. A press statement! Johnny Ramone! Picture it.
I kept meaning to call him at home after that, actually get him on the line. But June turned into July, then August, and by the time I heard the news today (see "Ramones Guitarist Johnny Ramone Dies At Age 55"), I still hadn't picked up the phone. This sucks, believe me. But I'm glad he was surrounded by friends at the end. And I think he had more well-wishers — and certainly admirers — scattered around the planet than he ever realized. And now that three-quarters of one of the most distinctively great bands in the recent annals of rock music have moved on to another plane, maybe the Ramones will start shifting some major units, record-wise. Johnny would have liked that. And the many people who never had ears to hear the band's rich contribution to American music, maybe now they'll give it a shot, a long-delayed serious listen. Johnny wouldn't have cared much about that, though. Screw 'em.