Life After Death: Clinging to Punk Rock with CJ Ramone
Tommy Ramone's death last month means the original kings of American punk rock are gone from this earth. But the band's last new member, who ditched the US Marine Corps to join, is still being followed around by a fanatical painter obsessed with the...
CJ Ramone alongside a painting of him by artist and punk fanatic Jesse Mosher. Photos by Petra Szabo unless otherwise noted
"Every time I asked for a raise and they said no, I just shaved my head. Eventually Johnny—and it was always Johnny—realized that I wasn't bluffing, and would cooperate."
CJ Ramone, the youngest of the seven men to carry that name, is telling me about the process of joining the only American band that can be rightly called the kings of punk rock. He was brought on board in 1989, deserting from the US Marine Corps. The Ramones changed the face of music by introducing their rapid version of punk 15 years earlier, when there were still hippies to shock with the stuff. CJ was joining punk royalty, then, playing and touring with the band until they broke up in 1996. Those seven years, during which he was first threatened and then mentored by Dee Dee, saw CJ grow into the famous leather jackets that Tommy had envisioned as the Ramones uniform.
But Tommy Ramone died last month. Originally Erdelyi Tamas, a name my Hungarian wife can pronounce better than I, he was the last survivor of the four men who got together in the decidedly uncool New York neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, to form the Ramones in 1974. Without the influence of the British invasion or the Eastern stuff that a lot of late 60s bands had incorporated, the Ramones made rock seemingly composed entirely of American influences. The music, which is fast and aggressive, is sort-of like Motown sped up—the 50s again after being disgusted by the 60s. Tommy was the Svengali of the band. He may have served as the drummer and thus not been in the spotlight, but he also arranged for the Ramones' look and even dictated the proper way a Ramone should walk. After all, he was originally the manager and not a performer. According to CJ, Tommy took over the drums when he could not find a musician capable of fitting in with the unique and fast-paced sound of the band. Then he left the Ramones in 1978 to become a producer, though he did co-produce their seminal album Too Tough to Die six years later.
With the death of the last of the original four, those who have been saying that punk is dead can hold the occasion up as evidence that now it's definitely all over. The Paul McCartney of a band once called the second greatest of all time after the Beatles by Spin magazine is gone. Sure, there are three Ramones left—three men playing under this name, which didn't really belong to anyone as no one in the band was related. McCartney used the pseudonym Paul Ramon in his Silver Beatle days and CJ Ramone uses it still. But with the passing of Tommy, are The Ramones—cultural institution—totally behind us now? Are the other three men playing under the name a vain nostalgia act, a tribute band, or something else? Is this the final nail in the coffin of punk rock?
In hopes of answering these questions, I recently spent a rather long evening with CJ Ramone and Jesse Mosher, the man who maniacally paints the Ramones over and over again. Tommy's death was a blow, but the Ramones are far from dead, they told me. The band may have stopped touring in 1996, but as long as there is a single guy with the adoptive last name Ramone on stage and a mad artist thrashing around painting him, it's not quite right to say The Ramones are gone from this Earth. Tommy had bile duct cancer, but the common association of the band with drugs—while legitimately prompted by some of their references to sniffing glue and their signature song "I Wanna Be Sedated"—is somewhat inaccurate. CJ Ramone is a sober man, fit and healthy as any ex-marine should be, even though he had to go AWOL from Parris Island, a Marine training facility in South Carolina, to join the band in 1989. Dee Dee did have his problems, and they eventually led to his death of a drug overdose in 2002. Joey Ramone, meanwhile, died of lymphoma in 2001, and Johnny succumbed to prostate cancer in 2004. But a band that played together for over two decades could not have been a bunch of goons huddled over a glue pot, despite what the lyrics led some to believe.
The Ramones acquired new members over the years, but it was the addition of CJ that "kept the band young," according to Tommy, who said as much on stage as they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame In 2002. In essence, CJ took over for Dee Dee, and the story of their relationship is an unusual one. CJ got a phone call at the Marine base saying he was in. Unfortunately, there was no one around to celebrate with, since he was in the brig at the time. This is not the story of a fan's dream coming to life per se, but of a musician being drafted into a band that had already been touring for 15 years.
CJ took a bus to New York—the military hadn't liked that he kept both ears pierced anyway. Little did he know that Dee Dee had promised to shoot him on sight. Given his reputation, CJ took the threat seriously. After all, he was just 23 and fresh out of the military, where there was plenty of shooting, and here was 40-something Dee Dee, promising to murder him. Fortunately, CJ had a few friends in the Hell's Angels who didn't mind being brought on as his security and watching a few shows. CJ's parents were at the first show, too; after all, here was the kid that no one in their Long Island town was allowed to play with, and now he was a rock star.
After a while it became clear that Dee Dee was bluffing, but the two men still only met at rehearsals. It took a global tour for Dee Dee to accept that CJ was worthy of the mantle, and they became friends, despite the senior Ramone's growing addiction to heroin, their difference in age, and CJ's health and vitality. The days when Dee Dee routinely showed CJ a switchblade marked for him, causing a terrified CJ to barricade his door on tour with a bookcase, were over, and Dee Dee became a mentor of sorts. As a younger man, CJ wanted to learn how to play the bass like Dee Dee. As an older man, he learned how to be a Ramone directly from him.
The original Ramones playing at the Electric Ballroom in London in 1980. Photo via Flickr user Klaus Hiltscher
The Ramones toured, pretty much non-stop, for 22 years. That adds up to 2,263 concerts, according to their official site. Not a bad run, and CJ spent seven years on it. He may have been the 'kid' at first, nine years younger than any other member, but he soon learned how to have some influence. Dee Dee, the original Ramone, continued to write music for the band, but in CJ's words, "He got tired of being in a revival band." Why did they keep touring for all those years? No one minded the money, but the Ramones were also obsessively interested in pleasing their fans. So even at the very end, when it felt like they were getting on stage to perform stale moves and singing the same old songs, they couldn't help but continue.
Dee Dee's departure from the stage was timely. The last time CJ saw the band before becoming a member, at the since-demolished rock venue Lamore's in 1988, Dee Dee just stood on stage strumming wide open bass strings until they cut him off at the board. It was time to move on, although not to leave. CJ came from a heavy metal background and was really a technical bass player, which made the three-chord strum of punk rock easy for him. That allowed him to jump around the stage like a madman and not worry about making a mistake, in his recollection.
In a sense, CJ thought he was joining a gang. And when he got in, he found out about the rules, as set by Tommy: No drinks before shows, no drugs on the road, no parties on the road. No sniffing glue. Only Dee Dee was on drugs by the time CJ joined in 1989, and that was part of the reason he left. He had been acting out before that, one time showing up at a European show with his head shaved and wearing boots and braces—full-on skinhead regalia. The rules did not help the spontaneity that marks a live show, and perhaps precipitated the rather scornful comment on revival bands. Tommy kept the image as strict as the sound he insisted on.
CJ understands his contribution. Despite the nasty comments that have been put out there about him not being a real Ramone, he points out that they had more drummers than bass players, that he wrote songs for their last record, and that he had more impact on their stage shows (his youth helped). Basically, CJ helped the Ramones get seven more successful years out of their careers with his injection of vitality. But he actually made more money with the Marine Corps than with the Ramones; his pay went from $350 to $700 a week over the years—that's it. Meanwhile, he got to live the life. And it's not what you think. For example, according to CJ, GG Allin was a really nice guy in person—even though he witnessed GG punch a woman from the audience in the face over and over to emphasize the strophes of a poem he wrote. (Incase a reminder is required, Allin is the man who would shit on stage and then consume his own feces. He was also removed from a big show at NYU for shoving a banana up his ass and tossing it at the crowd. GG Allin died of a heroin overdose as well, in 1993.) An encounter with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder revealed a man who was surprisingly down to earth and quite unlike his stage presence. Meeting all of the men CJ had listened to as a kid was amazing at first and pretty routine towards the final years. It's no wonder that CJ is writing a memoir.
After the end of the band's run, CJ had to take a few bizarre jobs. He was the doorman at the techno-church nightclub Limelight in the 90s, where the crowd was probably totally ignorant of who it was checking their IDs. CJ had children, one of them autistic, which takes extra effort and work, and he is a devoted family man. But he also continues to play, to make music under the Ramone name, and he played in a band named the Remainz with Dee Dee, his wife Barbara, and Mark Ramone. And CJ had his own band, Los Gusanos, after the Ramones stopped touring as well. CJ witnessed the late stages of Dee Dee's madness, with a bookcase pushed against the door and a switchblade in his hand because Dee Dee insisted on CJ playing in his new band. Luckily that incident ended without violence; CJ and his ex-wife managed to leave and the Remainz faded away. Dee Dee did clean up but ended up overdosing by relapsing, misjudging his tolerance. It was downhill from there. Fans asked CJ whether they thought the death might be suicide, especially because he was at a low point of playing music. Dee Dee was playing corporate events because he wanted a stage; he didn't even need the money, considering that he wrote most of the famous Ramones songs. But even though he wasn't happy with it, the OD was no suicide, according to CJ.
Jesse Mosher with one of his paintings of Tommy Ramone
The t-shirt proceeds were a big deal. Splitting the money was contentious, and the sales of the very popular shirts, especially on tour, meant that everyone flying back to the States was carrying a dollar less than $10,000 to get the cash in without declaring it. CJ did his share of muling. There were other reasons the Ramones argued amongst themselves, too. When Johnny met CJ, he was impressed by the military bearing—his fit look and clean living. Later, Johnny, who went to military school as a kid, took on a conservative identity, even blessing George W. Bush at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Meanwhile, Joey was an arch-liberal. CJ explains: "You have to understand, that in the music business, if you are even a little bit conservative, you get black-fucking-listed. He said the George Bush blessing strictly to piss people off. Being a Republican in punk rock is the ultimate punk statement, the logical extreme." Joey wasn't pleased. This conflict tore the band up, but CJ interpreted it differently. He saw Johnny's conservatism as not too different from the short fad of punks of wearing swastikas, which faded with the rise of the Hardcore movement as well as actual skinheads who were not wearing such things the least bit ironically.
The Ramones have tribute bands and fan clubs all over the world; there are all girl-Ramones cover bands, leather-wearing Ramone impersonators baking in Brazil, and an especially high percentage of tribute bands per capita in Japan. So the sound endures, but over the years, a new form of homage has appeared in the person of Jesse Mosher. Hosting both me and CJ in his loft in Brooklyn, he's an artist with Synesthesia—a rare effect often observed in schizophrenics and those under the influence of hallucinogenic substances where you see sound as color, and interpret touch as taste. I first witnessed him in action while covering Spike Polite, the punk rocker who did time for an S&M murder after making MTV in the 90s, at a dive called Hank's Saloon. There was this madman thrashing around to the music, seemingly really into his air guitar. As I got closer, I saw that he was actually painting, holding his canvas like a guitar and his paintbrush in his other hand, "playing it." He was flipping around the canvas, creating a portrait. Only it wasn't a portrait of anything on stage or in his field of vision at all. Mosher manages to turn music he hears into images. And the images he chooses to depict are often the Ramones. There are over 2500 of these paintings, some owned by people like Johnny Depp, and at least 250 of them are portraits of the band. Jesse has painted to the sound of CJ Ramone 28 times alone, and they recently collaborated on a visual work and came up with a skateboard art piece. But I had to ask Jesse why he felt compelled to paint the Ramones over and over given that they are essentially a piece of history.
"The same way the Ramones channeled pure energy into music while other musicians of the time aimed for some sort of aesthetic perfection is the way I paint," he told me. "I turn sound into images, and the Ramones turned energy into sound."
Tommy's death is a great loss, but CJ plays to this day, and so do Mark and Richie, also under the Ramones name. The image, that in the case of the Ramones, at least, is totally impossible to cut away from the sound, lives on. Perhaps no one really knows what Rush or Electric Light Orchestra look like beyond a fleeting impression, but it's very easy to envision a caricature of a Ramone. Tommy was responsible for this. His creation of the anti-hippie, at a time when the remnants of the 60s were alive and well, persists across the world. Even the t-shirts, which were once so contentious, have a second life as they are sold in malls to kids not even born even when CJ joined the band, much less when the Ramones first went on tour. Then there are the tribute acts and impersonators who keep the music alive, as do the tunes that continue to sell and are often the first records bought by an aspiring (male) teenage punk, along with stuff by the Sex Pistols.
But the existence of a guy like Mosher, thrashing to the sound of contemporary punk like Sewage or CJ's latest projects, while painting Tommy, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, demonstrates the real staying power of the Ramones. As CJ himself puts it, "As long as you have young, pissed-off teenagers, punk rock will live on. The mystery of the guitars and the drums and the slam dancing... the very physicality of the show; it's just something that cannot die. And luckily there are old-timers like me who can keep the continuity going."
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