Punks in the Hall

The Ramones and Talking Heads Battle Their Way From CBGB to Cleveland

"My first impression of the Ramones," says Byrne, "and the impression probably never changed, was that this was real art rock. The concept was so strong and so focused that it became invisible. People almost didn't notice that it was tongue in cheek." Loser kids who'd barely made it through high school in the early '70s really weren't walking around with leather jackets and extended bowl cuts. That was an "iconography" the Ramones gave the world.

The band blazed a few trails of their own. Monte Melnick—the Ramones' tour manager for the whole wild ride—remembers an early fuel stop in rural Texas. After pumping the gas, Monte walked into the small shop where Tommy, Dee Dee, Joey, and Johnny were stretching their legs. On the way out, the beehived clerk pulled him aside and said in a low voice, "Mister, it sure is nice of you to take care of those retarded people."

Left to right: Johnny, Marky, Joey and Dee Dee
photo: Sire/Warner Bros. Records
Left to right: Johnny, Marky, Joey and Dee Dee

As the cliché goes, wherever the Ramones went, 10 new bands sprung up. That takes on more weight when you note bands that made it past the garage. Pearl Jam, Rob Zombie, the Chili Peppers, Green Day, and Rancid are all cutting tracks for a Ramones tribute that Johnny is putting together. Bono has long said that his band would not have existed without the Ramones; this past April, U2's "In a Little While" played at the Weill Cornell Medical Center as Joey slipped away. And since he passed on, U2 has taken to playing "I Remember You."

The Ramones obviously, sadly, will not be reuniting Monday night, but that precludes no drama on their part. First on Johnny Ramone's list of gripes is the exclusion of bassist CJ Ramone from the induction; the Hall of Fame Foundation wouldn't even grant him a ticket. When the band played their last gig, in L.A. in August of '96, CJ had been a member for eight years and three studio albums; he was such a longtime, die-hard fan before he joined that he still refers to the Ramones as "them." Today he works 12-hour shifts cleaning polluted air ducts at the World Trade Center site, and is among the first to explain why he shouldn't be inducted. "Only the original members should be going in," says CJ. "That's when they put out Ramones to Rocket to Russia, the stuff that made them legendary."

Johnny, the guitarist with the iconic downstroke, sees things differently. "The '80s were a lonely time for us," he says. "We were out there by ourselves. When the '90s came, you had this movement of punk bands again. We would just sit in the dressing rooms and not talk to anyone because we didn't think anyone cared about us. But CJ was our ambassador. And all of a sudden Soundgarden wanted us to tour with them. And White Zombie. And Pearl Jam. I felt [CJ] was more important than Mark. Mark is a great drummer, but CJ is a frontman." Johnny has arranged for CJ to attend, and plans to bring him on stage.

Meanwhile, Marky (who replaced Tommy after Rocket to Russia) bristles at Johnny's assessment. After launching into a tirade about everything from Johnny's pre-Ramones gold lamé pants to his guitar playing ("We would tour each city and a guy who knew the leads would be behind the curtain and play guitar. John could only play the rhythm." Johnny denies this), Marky called back twice in a couple of days. "Johnny is the greatest living punk guitarist," he said finally, calm and contrite. "He has his opinion and obviously the Hall of Fame voters didn't agree. I don't want there to be any negativity."

The sparring, though, is as much a part of the Ramones' history as their baseball-bat-clutching American eagle logo. "They'd play for 40 minutes," recalls CBGB proprietor Hilly Kristal. "And 20 of them would just be the band yelling at each other." Danny Fields says that early on, they'd also come to blows after their sets. "Johnny would be strangling Dee Dee, and there'd be press or fans waiting to see them," he says. "I'd tell folks they were just toweling off, give them a couple of minutes, and by the time people saw them, they'd be sipping a beer."

Beyond the ungainly frictions of youth lay deeply harbored grudges. Johnny and Joey were the only beginning-to-end Ramones, but Johnny stole Joey's girlfriend in the early '80s and the pair weren't friendly again. Johnny never called Joey before he passed. Instead, the guitarist checked in every couple of days with Arturo Vega, the Ramones' lifelong art director and lighting supervisor. Vega had remained friends with both, and ultimately recommended that Johnny not phone Joey. "On Easter Sunday, I was about to go to a friend's house and I got the word," Johnny says. "It didn't really sink in until I got home and there was like 20 messages. After a week of that every day, I felt very depressed."

But Johnny's not sorry. "I wouldn't want him to call me," he reasons. "I would not want to be hearing from someone I didn't get along with. A lot of people don't understand that."

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