Johnny Ramone Was An Asshole But I Get It
Johnny's autobiography 'Commando' tells his story in his own blunt, Republican-punk tongue.
What I love most about reading rock stars autobiographies is that they are written by people who are not professional writers, but punks. These books read like a conversation, scattered, often off on side-story tangents. Rock star autobiographies (especially if the rock star had no ghostwriter) are littered with improper language and he-said-she-said-gossip about widely know events that made rock history. Johnny Ramone's Commando is no different. It's his story in his own blunt, Republican-punk tongue (in the back of the book Johnny has penned Top Ten lists of baseball players, guitarists and of course, Republican presidents). He's pro-police, pro-Capitalism, pro-war (some of them). He's the ultimate good American, but he's also a Ramone.
Remember in that Ramones documentary End of the Century when they interview Johnny about Joey's death and he acts desensitized? Like the death of his life long pal and bandmate was nothing to him? It's weird and shocking, but the book dispels all notions of Johnny being an emotionless robot with a six-string talent. When Johnny talks about his bandmates, he speaks with an air of annoyance, which makes him sound like an asshole, but I get it. I get it when he's talking about Joey always being sick and too tired on the road and why it pissed him off. I get why he beat Joey up when he was late for so much as a movie. I get why he was irritated by Dee Dee's drug habits. (Though he did smoke pot regularly, Johnny never had more than one or two beers. He gave up drinking when he saw God at 20-years-old and decided to go from neighborhood thug to what he describes as "normal.") I get being irritated all the time with his bandmates. Johnny was the leader. He had orchestrated the Ramones. It was his vision and he didn't like having that vision lose focus because of others.
The reality of being in a band with three other people is that at a certain point—after recording, torturously long tours, fights, and accomplishments—you become a family, and what family isn't fucked up? Johnny wasn't a jerk (maybe, sometimes) he just had strict goals for the Ramones. Even in Lisa Marie Presley's introduction to the book, she uses the word grouchy numerous times to describe her dearest Ramone (she follows the word grouchy with one of these ;) faces, I might add). Grouchy. I get grouchy when it comes to dealing with bandmates. Plus, Johnny does address both Joey and Dee Dee's deaths with love and admiration for them as friends and performers, saying that Dee Dee was the "most influential punk rock bass player of all time" and that "there was no Ramones without Joey." For Johnny, Joey's death marked the official end of the Ramones.
Of course, as much as all the rock'n'roll gossip about the Ramones' private tour jokes (which often involved putting a sign that said "gay" on their roadies back), the Joey-Johnny-Linda-Ramone love triangle, all the New York 70's punk legends Johnny had nasty opinions about, and the in-studio events are fun to read, the most memorable part of the book comes at the end when Johnny describes having cancer.
"I had this 100 percent belief that I would never get sick," he writes. "When I was a kid, I would smoke pot with this friend of mine who had hepatitis. I just figured, 'I can't get this.'" Johnny only had two injuries in his life and they were both life threatening accidents that he brushed off like dandruff. When Johnny begins to write about his battle with prostate cancer, he has a different tone to his voice as he describes details of the nutritionist he first thought could fix him, finding out it was actually cancer, the treatment he received (down to the extreme pain in his penis), and how his cancer went public when the Ramones' second drummer Mark blabbed to the press. When Johnny was sick in the hospital after treatment and trying to keep his illness quiet, Mark told Rolling Stone Johnny was on his death bed. The news spread like wildfire.
"I called Mark after I got out of the hospital and told him, 'You really have to control yourself, control what you're saying.'...No one knew until Mark broke the news to get his name in the press. He'd do anything to get his name in the press. He was always like that."
Johnny talks about not wanting to be a role model for illness. He also talks about his doctor, who he respected deeply. He describes taking Dr. Agus to a Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam concert. Dr. Agus had never been to a rock show before and told Johnny he was a nerd. "I don't think you're a nerd. I find you interesting." These kind of oddly tender moments make you want to cry. Brilliantly, Johnny peppers them through out the book at just the right moments. Or maybe that's just life?
What I get from Commando is that Johnny is that guy people think is an asshole until he let's them get to know him, and who he lets in is rare. Johnny is smart. When he talks about his persona as "Johnny Ramone," fandom, and the importance of public image, you know he was somewhat of a branding genius before self-branding was even a thing. Johnny says he was all about the fans and I actually believe him. That's why he never gave up on the Ramones even when, inside the band, things were terrible, because as Johnny writes: "When we got up on stage, we were the best out there. Nobody came close." I don't argue with that.
- Noisey Blog