John Cummings went to military school; he was a construction worker, a nasty Queens hitter. He flirted with drugs and hippie regalia, but he knew that wasn’t God’s plan. Years later, in 2002, when his band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Johnny Ramone asked God to bless President Bush. If Joey was the heart and Dee Dee the soul of the Ramones, Johnny was the balls, the propellant for punk’s most dysfunctional family, drilling through 22 years of hard touring, cross-addictions, personality crises, and bad breaks. In the recent documentary End of the Century, the feral guitarist comes off as a merciless taskmaster who browbeat his bandmates into a tight paramilitary organization. He stole Joey’s girl, then refused to call his former bandmate in the hospital, even as the lead singer lay dying.
I first met Johnny in 1996, at the Empire Diner. The Ramones were retiring; Johnny was moving to Los Angeles—Adios Amigos. “When my friends found out I was being interviewed by the Voice, they made fun of me, ‘You’re gonna talk to that commie paper?’ ” Johnny smirked, pointing defiantly at his T-shirt, “Kill a Commie for Mommy.” Interviewing Dee Dee or Joey could last all day, but Johnny was punctual, precise, no drama or mood swings. Professional. But Dee Dee and Joey gave you everything—all their blood, tears, pizza, truth, and love. They lived in the moment. In contrast, Johnny served up canned vegetables, scripted replies, like stale catechism. The street on Johnny has always been that he’s a heartless prick. Dee Dee and Joey had no boundaries; Johnny had too many.
But something happened that day at the Empire. After we finished the interview, Johnny noticed my “Kill ‘Em All” T-shirt. My dad was 82nd Division Army Airborne, I explained. Johnny’s face opened up, like a little kid, smiling, animated, talking about how much he loved his father, how much he missed him. He showed me a photo, he talked about growing up as an only child, then signed an autograph for a fan—a nine-year-old-kid on dialysis.
Sometimes Johnny played his guitar till his fingers bled out, till the white instrument turned red. On Sunday, September 12, 2004, the remaining Ramones and their friends put on a 30th anniversary tribute concert in L.A. Johnny had been sick for a long time. Three days later, he died—his work was finished. Every Ramones fan has his or her own personal Ramone—sort of like a personal savior: Dee Dee’s the outcast’s outcast, a home for the displaced psyche. Joey’s the patron saint of lonely kids even now; some say he’s their only friend. Johnny’s Army is all the angry fatherless boys, disposable heroes who work hard, fight wars, and never get anything. Johnny’s their Captain; he’ll never leave a soldier for dead, never betray the trust. He’s the father Ramone.
Three Ramones killed-by-death in just over three years’ time. First Joey from lymphoma, then Dee Dee from an overdose. Now Johnny from prostate cancer. The Ramones gave their fans hope; now our love will give them immortality.