Johnny Recalled As The Glue That Held The Ramones Together

Pioneering punk guitarist died Wednesday at age 55.

Without Johnny Ramone there would have been no Ramones, the band’s surviving members insist.

The guitarist — who at times acted as the band’s manager — may have been a dictator, but he was a benevolent one, they said, and his decisions often helped keep the band together.

“John kept things in control when they could have spun out of control very easily,” drummer Marky Ramone said in a statement Thursday (September 16), one day after Johnny Ramone died in his sleep at the age of 55 (see “Ramones Guitarist Johnny Ramone Dies At Age 55″ ).

Those close to him — aside from lauding him with words like “genius,” “legend” and “born rock star” — described him as having a brutal sense of honesty that commanded respect from people, “even if they didn’t like him,” said C.J. Ramone, who replaced original bassist Dee Dee Ramone in 1989.

“It wasn’t always easy working with Johnny,” tour manager Monte A. Melnick said. “He could be a hard and a harsh taskmaster, but in the end his talent and drive was the glue that fastened this groundbreaking group together. Like all great bands, the Ramones were a combination of talents: You had Tommy and his forward-thinking musical vision, Joey with his heart and soul, the creative genius of Dee Dee, and Johnny’s relentless drive and keen business sense. They were a one-of-a-kind band. A band that could be copied but never, never duplicated.”

C.J. said Johnny was often misunderstood, especially when people didn’t understand his decisions, but “after a lot of reflection and clarification,” even he came to appreciate the guitarist’s take on matters and realized that for this band, Johnny knew best. The band was a family, and Johnny was the dad.

“He made the talent of Dee Dee and Joey possible,” said Arturo Vega, the band’s creative director. “If it weren’t for the guidance and support and willpower of Johnny, the Ramones would have been impossible. He was the enforcer, for real. Johnny wouldn’t think twice about giving you a slap on the head if you were doing something stupid — and believe me, Dee Dee needed it — or tell you that if you didn’t shut up, you’d get a punch in the face. They needed that, the fear and the discipline. It kept them going.”

“I used to think that he was working Joey too hard and not giving him enough time off, like when he got sick, and that it was killing him,” C.J. said, “but then he explained to me that wasn’t what was going on at all. He said that when he gave Joey time off, he would just go off and work on other projects, like his solo album, or work with other people, and not take the time off at all. And then he realized we were here, losing money, so that Joey could work with other people.”

Vega said Johnny dealt with crooked promoters, often demanding to see receipts and doing his own audit if the band was told a show hadn’t made any money — something the other bandmembers weren’t up to. He said Johnny treated the band like a business, making the group drive back from shows in Boston instead of getting a hotel room there, for instance, but was still considerate of other people’s needs, often putting up the crew in a tour bus while the band took a van. “A selfish dictator type would have been in a limo and put the crew in a truck,” Vega said. “Johnny looked after people.”

Those aspects of his personality are what drew so many people to him, C.J. said. Johnny commanded fierce loyalty, even if he never asked for it. That’s why so many people wanted to be there for Johnny, C.J. said, in his final moments — a crowd that included Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, Lisa Marie Presley, Vincent Gallo, Steve Jones, Pete Yorn, Rooney’s Robert Carmine, Talia Shire and Gia Coppola.

“I called him up to see how he was doing, and he said he wasn’t seeing anybody, just close friends, and I was surprised that he then said he wanted to see me,” C.J. said. “He apparently considered me a close friend, and it was cool to hear that, it was good to find out, because I never really knew.”

“Four months ago, I knew about the serious nature of his illness,” Marky said, “but for a while, he had a turn for the better. This comes as a shock, but it was inevitable because of the severity of his condition, which worsened more recently. We were lucky enough to talk and hang out a few months ago when he was strong enough to do the commentary track on the DVD ’Ramones Raw,’ which was his last professional contribution to the Ramones. I spoke to him most recently when I was in L.A. for the 30th anniversary concert that we put together for Ramones fans (see “Chili Peppers, Vedder, Rollins Rock Ramones Tribute Show” ). Based on our last conversation, I felt this moment was coming. I’m sorry to see him go like this.”

“He was a very important person in my life,” drummer Tommy Ramone, the last surviving original member of the band, said. “We had been friends since high school. … He was fun to be with because of his intelligence and great sense of humor. I cannot put into words how sad I am.”

C.J. was sad to see him go as well, but added that the way he passed was fitting. Describing Johnny as surrounded by paperwork on his bed with his phone ringing off the hook, C.J. said his former bandmate needed a break. “The Ramones were the most important thing in his life,” the bassist said. “That’s why he held on so long, to see the tribute concert through, I think. But he spent his life constantly working, and was working until the end. He deserves the rest.”

Johnny Ramone will be cremated in a private ceremony.

For more on the life and legacy of Johnny Ramone, check out “Kurt Loder Remembers Johnny Ramone.”