Last Ramones Standing


Just before Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer, the End of the Century documentary was released. Marky Ramone and director John Cafiero have released Ramones Raw, a DVD compilation of TV, concert, and road footage. Tommy Ramone is involved in a stage musical, Gabba Gabba Hey! The two drummers had never given an interview together before I sat down with them, at El Quijote next to the Chelsea Hotel. I asked Marky about his Hall of Fame acceptance speech thanking Tommy for creating the Ramones drum sound.

Marky Ramone Well, the eighth-note high hat playing and the cymbal and floor tom playing created a wall of sound, and it was a challenge. When I joined the band he was at rehearsal behind me. I got a tape of Road to Ruin and the live show, which I went home and put on a boombox with headphones and a drum pad and that’s how I learned.

Tommy Ramone I kind of played backwards, the cymbal hits come where they normally wouldn’t. It makes all the difference.

MR When I heard Ramones it reminded me of everything that I liked—it was the Kinks, it was the Who, it was Phil Spector, it was the Beach Boys, everything rolled into one 4/4 straight-ahead music. At that time things were getting very bloated, there were albums with two songs.

TR When Mark came aboard it was a great opportunity to expand the Ramones’ palette. His experience, his knowledge of drum technique combined with the Ramones’ feel really broadened our capabilities.

Joey Ramone had been the first drummer, and I asked how Tommy had transformed the rhythm.

TR With Joey it was a very choppy sound, sort of like a jagged rockabilly, like the White Stripes, and the major change was smoothing it out, giving it a flowing feel, more of a propulsive kind of straight-ahead feel. John’s guitar playing and the drumming I was doing really did click. So within a month we were playing CBGB’s and the sound developed from there.

It’s clear that Tommy’s influence was critical in the formation of the band’s musical identity. But in the movie End of the Century the other Ramones disagreed.

TR The problem was they were always afraid that if I got any credit I would get all the credit, which is ridiculous. We all contributed our thing and all of our contributions were equally important, including mine.

MR Maybe because Dee Dee wrote a lot of the songs he felt that way. Dee Dee was a very strange guy, very bipolar; he could have turned around the next day and said that Tommy was great. That’s how he was with me too. We’d be hanging out and the next thing you know he’d be kicking my jukebox in.

TR In certain ways these were dangerous people, who came up with brilliant creative ideas. I tried to harness as much of that brilliance, but a lot of times I got burnt. I had to eventually leave because I would have been consumed. Most of the time I was trying to keep the peace.

I wondered why Johnny was more involved with End of the Century.

TR Johnny got involved and he sort of took over the movie because he liked it and realized it was a pretty accurate portrayal of him. Johnny was a very intelligent person, very sharp, witty, troubled, but deep and multidimensional. He could be nice at times; he could be really vicious at other times. It seems somewhat negative of him but it’s not really because his idols were people like Ty Cobb. When Joey passed away there was a lot of media coverage of Joey, as if Joey was the whole band. This infuriated Johnny. Joey had a lot of friends in the media. Joey was always out mingling, making connections, schmoozing. So Johnny started doing that, in the last years of his life. It gave him a chance to get his story across. In this movie, I guess it’s as if it was his band. John was always the disciplinarian. He was always the one to threaten to punch you out if you got out of line, but everybody had their say.

How much of the sound and concept of the band came from Johnny?

TR The speed is pure Johnny. Johnny was a fastball pitcher. And the speed was his virtuosity. We were looking for short songs because we wanted to bring back the original feel of rock and roll. And of course short songs played fast become very short. We saw that the speed worked.

I asked about Johnny and Joey’s prolonged feud.

TR John didn’t hang out with people he didn’t like. Of course, Johnny would say he never liked him, but he agreed to have Joey in the band, so he liked Joey. I know Joey liked John. The rift between them happened after I left. I wasn’t around to play them off each other anymore and Johnny had to deal with Joey, playing the role of lead singer, given confidence from Phil Spector.

MR You’d sit in the van for six hours driving and not a word was said. When Dee Dee left the band, they separated even more. If I didn’t talk to Joey one day he’d go, “Go talk to your best friend John.” If I didn’t talk to John one day he’d go, “Oh, you’re talking to Joey today.” Was it like children in the sandbox? I guess so, but it went deeper than that.

I saw Joey in the hospital once. I recorded his album with him while he was ill. He was still in good spirits. We had a little argument about something really stupid for two years, but luckily we made amends toward each other. I saw John in Los Angeles in March when he did the commentary on the DVD.

I watched the DVD and the quality of it reminded me of A Hard Day’s Night or The Monkees. It’s very teenage. There was no intention to soft-soap anything. What you see is what you get. If there was an argument I would have filmed it. Maybe somebody would have said, “Shut the camera off,” but I would have diligently kept it on.

TR There’s a lot of depth, a lot of dimensions to the Ramones. Certainly one or two films are not going to capture all of it. And all the angles are true. Certainly, to a large percentage of the fans, Mark and John’s film is what they want to see. Because, you know, the happy times, the good times, which are genuine, the Hard Day’s Night side of the Ramones. It’s there.

Tell me about Gabba Gabba Hey!

TR This novelist from Perth, Australia, sent me the script for this musical about a boy who runs away from an abusive home, and he runs away to the Lower East Side and he gets into more trouble. He’s a Ramones fanatic. It’s amazing how well the songs fit the story. Actually it makes sense, because most of the Ramones’ songs were based on real events.

What’s it been like for both of you to be the surviving members of the band?

TR It’s too awesome and bizarre to really deal with.

MR There’s a reminder of it every moment. One time in every day, a song or a photo, and they’re gone.

TR Every time I made an offer to see Joey it was like, “Oh, nah don’t.” Everybody else ended up seeing him except for me. Almost like there was a conspiracy to keep me away. That’s getting paranoid, I suppose, but there’s a lot of paranoia involved in the Ramones organization. The extended family is very jealous and controlling of their Ramones-ness. With Johnny it’s a little more complex. I got there about five, six days before he died. I was talking on the phone with him all the time, basically pleading to see him. He seemed to want to be surrounded by his new friends, who were all celebrities. I think he considered it a sign of achievement or of winning the prize of being successful by having celebrity friends. Everything was a game to him and he had to win it all. If you noticed the press release of his death, it says he was surrounded by—you know the names. So, there were no Ramones of any kind at his, you know, when he passed away. Nor at his funeral. He had to play his game all the way to the end. In a way that made me feel good. That he left thinking that he won, because what he had to go through was unbelievable. It was just so awful what happened to him. So I felt good that he felt like he left a winner.