My Life as a Ramone
Revealing tales on the genius and dysfunction of punk’s progenitors, told by the drummer with the blitzkrieg beats
By Marky Ramone
Every time I ran into Dee Dee at CBGB in the winter of ‘78, he told me I ought to join the Ramones. As if you could just do that, like joining the Y or the ACLU. He said the band was having trouble with Tommy, their drummer, and I was actually a little upset to hear that. I didn’t want the original lineup of the Ramones to break up. I was a fan. But I didn’t put much stock in what Dee Dee said. He was a nut and known to exaggerate.
It takes a nut to be involved with two psychotic women at once. About a year before, he was living in an apartment with Connie, a violent stalker, prostitute, and drug addict. Dee Dee was also having a fling with Nancy Spungen, the schizophrenic girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. When she came home to find Dee Dee in bed with Nancy, Connie grabbed an empty beer bottle, smashed it, and stabbed Dee Dee in the ass with the jagged edge.
But when Johnny Ramone asked to meet with me about joining the band, the whole proposition turned real. I arrived at Max’s with my girlfriend Marion and we took seats across from John and his girlfriend Roxy (Cynthia Whitney) in a booth up front. I was impressed with John. He seemed to have a handle on the Ramones’ business matters and a vision of how to get the band through this difficult transition. Joey wasn’t exactly up to it, and Dee Dee would have sent the whole thing into the toilet.
John laid down some rules. Maybe they were more like guidelines.
Whatever they were, the Ramones didn’t get high before playing. Me neither. Dress on and off the stage was leather jackets, jeans, and sneakers. I was already wearing all that and had been forever. Dee Dee always counts off the songs. Definitely. I know. We don’t go away on tour for more than a month. Sounds good. We travel together, and girlfriends are welcome. Marion can come. Thanks.
The only confusing thing was the audition. There would be one at the Ramones’ rehearsal studio. But John discussed the rules and regs like my being a Ramone was already a done deal. Then I thought, Whatever they call it, I’ll blow it away.
On our way out of Max’s, Marion and I put our heads together. We had heard through the grapevine that the Ramones already auditioned several drummers, maybe more. Marion’s take was the Ramones knew from the start that I had the experience they needed, but in the back of their minds they preferred a nobody they could boss around. It was hard to get all that in the same package, so over time they realized I was their man.
From what I had heard, Dee Dee wasn’t the only one rooting for me. Tommy was, too. In fact, Tommy was the one who first suggested me. Beyond whatever had happened between him and the other Ramones, Tommy still loved the band and wanted it to continue. What better way to do it than with an experienced professional drummer who knew the ropes?
When I walked into Performance Studios on East Twentieth Street in Manhattan and sat down, Tommy was sitting at a drum set behind the set I would be using. It was an unusual way to run an audition, a show, or anything musical unless maybe you were in the Grateful Dead. I asked him what all this was about.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tommy said. “Just in case you need a little help.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I got it.”
I shot Tommy a little smile. I really did have it. The songs “I Don’t Care,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” were on the jukebox at CBGB, on my stereo, and in my world. I had listened to them again before coming down, and that was enough. It wasn’t like learning “From a Dry Camel.” But they were great songs, and I was like Sheena and her friends — all hopped up and ready to go. Even so, I appreciated Tommy’s concern. He literally had my back.
Dee Dee counted “One, two, three, four!” and we launched into “I Don’t Care.” It was one of the purest rock & roll songs written after the year 1962. With a deliberate, powerful beat underpinning a progression based on E, F, G, A, it was a song a novice could learn on but never tire of playing: not caring about the world or the girl was the entire message served up in two lines, repeated over and over like a punk mantra.
The song clocked in at a minute forty seconds. We were locked in as a band within the first ten of those seconds. Thirty seconds in, the audition — if there ever was one — was over. We were relaxed and smiling. Rehearsal had begun.
I had my work cut out for me. Recording for the new album, Road to Ruin, was set to begin in less than three weeks. We’d be doing shows immediately after. We were scheduled to do fourteen songs for the album, and the Ramones’ live set was twenty-four songs. So I had almost forty songs to learn, minus the three for the audition, in about the length of a honeymoon. The Ramones handed me a pair of cassette demo tapes with all the songs. I stopped in at Sam Ash on Forty-Eighth Street and picked up a set of drum pads. When I got back to the apartment on Ocean Avenue, I hooked up a pair of headphones to the boom box I had gotten with the Voidoids advance. Right next to it, I set up the pads. And that’s where I spent most of the next eighteen days.
My favorite song on the Road to Ruin demo was “I Wanna Be Sedated.” It was catchy and huge even in stripped-down form on a cheap cassette tape. It was pop but without sacrificing hardness. Lyrically, being sedated could mean any number of things, but at its simplest level it was about needing a drink. The song captured being on the road just about perfectly. Of course, I had never been on the road with the Ramones, but I would be finding out what that was like soon enough.
I also really liked “I Just Want to Have Something to Do” and “Go Mental.” “Mental” was faster than most Ramones songs — and faster than most songs, period. It felt like what it was about: sitting in a hospital bed and losing your mind. The album’s one cover song, “Needles and Pins,” was written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono back in 1963. The original single was done by Jackie DeShannon, but the Searchers had more success with it the following year, giving it an early-Beatles feel. The chord changes and subject matter — heartbreak and holding back tears — were right up the Ramones’ alley.
We recorded at Media Sound in Manhattan. I was prepared, but everyone there totally expected that of me. I understood my role from the get-go. I was not a ringer, mercenary, hired gun, or session player. I was a member of the band who could nonetheless deliver what a ringer, mercenary, hired gun, or session player could deliver. But I wanted to take it a step further. I wanted to help take the band’s sound to the next level.
There was a lot of heavy competition out there. Not so much from the punk bands. I considered the Ramones the originators of punk, so in that sense there was no one to compete with. But the Ramones were a punk rock band with the emphasis on rock. In rock, there were a lot of big boys with heavy drums: AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, and Van Halen. Van Halen were the new kids on the block, and someone the Ramones might not even have considered. Yet their self-titled album had just come out and it was worth considering.
Van Halen stood out from the corporate rock clones being churned out monthly by the music industry. Eddie Van Halen loved Page, Beck, and Clapton but squeezed his influences out of his black-and-white-striped red Charvel with a new, wild hammer-on style of playing that was melodic, smooth, and raucous all at the same time. Alex Van Halen’s drums were huge, sounded huge, and were locked in perfectly with his brother’s playing as well as bassist Michael Anthony’s. The band didn’t take itself very seriously. They were kind of campy, thanks especially to lead singer David Lee Roth, who brought his Las Vegas A-game to the show. The album was a fun listen and made me think.
The idea for Road to Ruin, I thought, was not to be Van Halen or anyone else. The idea was to be a heavier Ramones. We had our fans and would keep aiming to please them. And we had our punk/new wave competition — the Clash, the Police, the Cars. But there was no harm in letting the metalheads and all their cousins know that the Ramones could rock a stadium if they needed to.
To begin with, I tuned my snare a lot tighter than Tommy’s and used larger cymbals. I wanted to get more projection and impact from the sound. There were a bunch of other factors involving microphone placement, levels, and even the way I struck the kit that would give the songs a bolder, more muscular feel. The beauty of the situation was that I had a great producer who worked closely with me to get that sound: Tommy. He hadn’t just passed me a golden baton. He was clearing the track for me. Tommy was there alongside me every step of the way.
The very first song we tracked was “Sedated.” I speeded up the tempo a bit from the demo. The song itself didn’t feel right sedated. It had to be manic and in need of sedation. I added a few fills here and there that helped distinguish the parts, plus a critical fill in the break. It sounded nice when we did it. Then it jumped out of the monitors and had all of us smiling.
During recording, I noticed Joey had a funny habit. He would touch a spot somewhere — the mixing console, a chair, a microphone stand — and then touch it again. And again. And again. It didn’t matter. His vocals were great, and he didn’t need to do them again and again and again. It was just a little weird.
I got to meet and talk to the full Ramones entourage, including Seymour Stein of Sire Records. Seymour was already my boss from the Voidoids, but he especially loved the Ramones. He appreciated the way they took the chord changes and vocal approach of the doo-wop era and spit it back out as their own — harder, faster, and a little warped. Seymour was knowledgeable, easygoing, and quiet.
His wife made up for the quiet part. Linda Stein was a short, loud, opinionated, outgoing quintessential New Yorker. She started out as a schoolteacher — probably one you would never want to be caught throwing a spitball at. She learned the music business from her husband, and the Ramones were lucky to have her managing their business.
Danny Fields was the other half of the Ramones management team. Danny had started out doing publicity for the Doors and later was instrumental in signing the Stooges and MC5 to Elektra. In 1975, he brought the Ramones to the attention of Sire. Danny was the hands-on manager for the group, plying connections at rock magazines, booking venues, getting the band radio interviews. Together, the Steins and Danny Fields spearheaded a professional organization behind what looked like four punks in street clothes.
It was this professional team that asked me about changing my name. I was off to a good start, but we weren’t going to be Marc Bell and the Ramones. My new last name was a done deal, but I needed a first name that ended in a long-e sound. Rocky Ramone was either too suggestive of the Sylvester Stallone movie or made me sound like a gangster. Timmy, Jimmy, and Willie Ramone and a dozen others made me puke. And just adding a y to Marc came out to Marcy, which was not only a girl’s name but happened to be the name of the discount store Marcy’s, across the street from Erasmus High School. The fewer reminders of high school, the better.
So I said, “Let’s go with Marky, with a k.” My grandmother called me Marky as a kid, and the name was made famous by Marky Maypo. In the fifties and sixties, Maypo was one of the big three hot cereals, along with Farina and Wheatena. Mickey Mantle was a pitchman for Maypo, literally crying if he didn’t get a bowl of the stuff. Marky Maypo was the goofy, whiney, cartoon mascot wearing a cowboy hat. For the sake of nostalgia, I could live with that. So Marky, like the cereal, stuck.
There was no need to change my name legally. My bills would still come to Marc Bell. And so would my paychecks. The Ramones team let me know that I would be receiving a nice check every week, on time, from our accountant Ira Herzog. The check would come whether we were on the road or off. When we toured, there would be extra per diem payments based on the shows we did. This was all a load off my mind and off Marion’s. Moving into Manhattan was on the horizon.
Rehearsals for live shows were mostly just Johnny, Dee Dee, and me. Joey showed up a couple of times. Joey had health problems, and the band thought it was better to save his energy for the shows. There was a hidden advantage to doing things this way. Although Dee Dee would sing where necessary, we weren’t using the vocals as a crutch to know where we were in the song. When a band used that crutch, there was sometimes a bit of uncertainty and a slight wavering when a change came in. This way, with no one to lean on but ourselves, there was no choice but to become a well-oiled machine.
After rehearsal one day, I learned a little more about why Tommy pushed the eject button. In the beginning, he was the manager and, in that sense, an authority figure. When the real management team was brought in, Tommy was reduced to just a member of the band, and the other three Ramones seemed to rub salt in the wound. Tommy was an unimposing guy, and they taunted him — maybe good-naturedly, but it didn’t feel that way to him. Also, there was a fair amount of bickering among the other band members, and what seems kind of funny at first gets really old when you’re on the road for weeks on end.
The last straw was more like a last cigarette. John was the bully of the group. His bark was usually worse than his bite, but still, John laid down rules of the road. One of them was no smoking cigarettes in the van, which was a problem for Tommy, who smoked. But on a trip to Chicago, John took a plane out early to be with Roxy, who was visiting home in the Windy City. Tommy was relieved to be able to smoke on the long ride west in the van, but what he didn’t count on was Dee Dee and Joey taking mushrooms as they pulled out of New York. The two of them were hallucinating heavily for a few hundred miles on Route 80. While Dee Dee was counting pink elephants, and Joey was counting clouds shaped like Superman, Tommy was counting the days till he got out.
Tommy impressed me. He had barely ever picked up a pair of sticks before joining the Ramones but gave them what they needed. He helped create a blueprint for three successful albums, hundreds of performances, and, most important, a new sound. He laid down a foundation, and I was grateful for the opportunity to build on it.
On June 29, the Ramones’ fifteen-passenger Ford Econoline van picked us up around noon in front of artist Arturo Vega’s loft on East Second Street in Manhattan, where Joey was living. We were headed to Poughkeepsie, New York, for my first gig with the band. John was very insistent that Marion and I sit in the second row. John and Roxy sat in the first row behind Monte Melnick, the driver and road manager. Dee Dee sat behind us, and Joey sat in the very back.
It was a nice way to break in, because the trip up the Taconic State Parkway to Poughkeepsie was only about an hour and forty minutes, barring traffic. Still, between tokes on a joint, Dee Dee kept asking if we were there yet. John was speechifying on how Nixon never should have had to resign four years earlier. Joey was in the back quietly twiddling his long hair.
The Chance was a theater in downtown Poughkeepsie built in the early part of the century. It was empty and full of ghosts when we did our four-song sound check. It held about a thousand people and had a very historic feel. There was no concrete anywhere. The floorboards were oak. The seats were also wood and probably hand-carved. The mezzanine had decorative façade work. The place looked like it belonged more in the old South than upstate New York.
Before the show, Danny Fields came by to take a photo for the back cover of Road to Ruin. The four of us sat on the stoop at the rear exit. Dee Dee and Johnny sat on the lower step at opposite ends. Joey and I sat in the middle on the upper step. Joey’s long, skinny legs reached all the way down to the brick pavement with length to spare.
It was “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!” from the first song. The theater was packed to the point where I looked around for the fire exits just in case. The kids screamed and jumped. Our sound was upbeat, loud, and heavy, and the set started to fly by. There were no mistakes halfway in, and I knew there wouldn’t be the rest of the way through. When there was even a hint of drifting off the beat or missing a change, I would look at John, or he would look at me. Upon eye contact, I knew what he was doing, and he knew what I was doing. Mistakes were never allowed to develop. We weren’t on automatic pilot, but it sounded that way.
The history in the room was personal now. It was my initiation. I wasn’t nervous, because I learned early on that it was only about doing what you had to do. At the same time, I became aware of the pressure only because it was gradually disappearing. There was a series of firsts for me: the so-called audition, the first rehearsal, the first recording. But the first live show was the biggest. If that didn’t work, what was the point of all the other firsts?
Backstage after the show, Joey, Dee Dee, John, Marion, Roxy, Monte, Danny Fields, Linda Stein, and everyone who made the transition a reality were on the same page as me. There was a sense of security in knowing that the machine known as the Ramones could continue. Dee Dee was the first to come up to me and pat me on the back.
“It was great playing with you,” he said. “You’re my bunny now.”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot.” I really appreciated that.
The set wasn’t the most complex music I had ever played live, but it was maybe the most demanding in its sheer energy. It was not a marathon. It was more like a very long sprint. I was drenched in sweat. So was the rest of the band. When I walked into the dressing room, Joey had already begun changing and had his shirt off. He had a big nasty scar on his back that looked like an upside-down letter V.
“Hey, how’d you get that?” I said. ”Shark bite,” Joey said.
Sharks were on people’s minds with the movie Jaws cleaning up at the box office three summers earlier and then again with the sequel that had just come out. But Joey was the last person on earth I figured for a shark-bite victim. First of all, you had to go swimming fairly far out in the ocean. Joey had spent time in the hospital on more than one occasion for a variety of anxiety disorders. A hospital room is where he wrote the lyrics to the forthcoming song “Go Mental” on Road to Ruin.
So I didn’t picture him at six-foot-six, 190 pounds, in a Speedo, swimming out past the buoys at Rockaway Beach as the lifeguards blew their whistles and gave chase. On the outside chance that he ever managed to pull that off, the odds of him swimming back safely to shore with blood gushing from his torso seemed even closer to zero.
John explained to me a little later that Joey was born with a parasitic twin. It was a malformed Siamese twin growing out of his back. The twin was incomplete, a threat to the life of the newborn, and so it was surgically removed. I could understand why he used the shark story.
When we piled into the tan Econoline for the ride back to New York,
Marion and I were about to climb into the front row when John stopped us and explained that we all had assigned seats and had to stick with them. I asked why, and he said that’s the way the Ramones had done it for years. So we climbed into the second row.
John continued his pro-Nixon harangue on the ride back.
“The thing is, the liberals were out to get him from the fucking beginning. Watergate was bullshit. The whole thing should never have happened.”
I didn’t really mind having to sit with Marion in assigned seats, but there was only so much I could take.
“You know what?” I said. “The whole thing did happen because Nixon ordered it and then covered it up. He doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself. He was the President, and he fucked up. And he resigned because he knew he was wrong.”
“Bullshit!” John said. “Do you think a tiny, insignificant fucking security break would have meant shit without the liberal press looking to screw him?”
“If it was so insignificant, why did he bother covering it up?”
“Because he knew they had it in for him.”
“Why do it in the first place?”
It was surprising to see a rock musician, or any musician, for that matter, defend Richard Nixon, but that seemed to be as much a part of John as the scar on Joey’s back was a part of him.
The summer was a blur. We did two dozen shows scattered across the East Coast and the Midwest. Bands usually liked to settle in, especially when playing multiple dates in a city or back-to-back in cities close by. That was not happening with the Ramones. Not if they could help it. They were homebodies. They liked their own pillows, their own mattresses, and their own leftovers in the fridge. If it was possible to make it back to New York City by dawn, we were there.
Destinations like New Brunswick, New Jersey; Greenwood Lake, New York; and, of course, Poughkeepsie, were no-brainers. They were truly local. But it seemed neurotic to play Boston three nights in a row with a 450-mile round trip on I-95 in between two of the three shows. There were a lot of Holiday Inns with empty beds along the way. It wasn’t like stumbling back from Max’s through Union Square Park.
But there was also a practical side to taking the redeye van back to New York. The Ramones were running a business. The pitfalls of the road were too many to list. Countless bands convinced themselves they were having fun and supporting an album, but when the album didn’t produce royalties and the shows didn’t produce take-home pay, the fun quickly disappeared. The Ramones’ solution was to economize. Why travel in a huge gas-guzzling luxury bus when a van will do? Why pay for a bunch of hotel rooms you didn’t need? All the money you saved one week was money in the band’s pocket the next.
Besides, not much sleeping went on in hotel rooms. When we got off the stage at, say, midnight, we were buzzed on adrenaline. There was not going to be any sleep happening for three or four hours anyway.
Being in a van at all hours of the night gave me a chance to learn a lot more about John than when he dropped by the apartment in SoHo to pick up Roxy. His dad was a blue-collar guy. John’s parents sent him to military school for a few years, which explained his routine in the dressing room. A normal rock musician would leave his street clothes anywhere. Let alone a punk musician. John would fold his pants and shirt neatly, perfectly. He lined up the seams of the pants symmetrically. The shirts were folded as if to be ready for reshelving. He could have worked at the Gap.
John was about four years older than me. After he graduated from Forest Hills High School, his father got him work as a pipefitter. One of his jobs was working on the World Trade Center, which in the late sixties was slowly forming a shadow above Lower Manhattan. The centerpiece was the Twin Towers, a pair of office buildings destined to rise 110 stories and with pumps so large they were normally used to supply water to cities of a half million people. But even with hundreds of miles of pipes to fit, there were occasional distractions.
One afternoon while the Vietnam War was raging, a large group of young protesters showed up at the site. A bunch of the union guys on the ground confronted them, and it quickly became a classic hard-hat-versus-hippie battle, complete with name calling, shoving, and hair pulling. Up on the eleventh floor of Tower 1, young John Cummings was taking a break from welding the joints of ten-inch-diameter cast-iron soil stacks and looked out the window. Most of the hippie freaks were assembled together. John had a clear shot. He took small bags of sand and started tossing them out the window. They were not lethal, but they stunned on impact and made little clouds when they broke. The hippie freaks scattered. It wasn’t napalm, but it made a statement.
“What do you fucking mean how could I do that? These hippie assholes have such a good deal in America, and they don’t even appreciate it.”
“What the guys fighting in Vietnam did for them.”
“What did they do for them?”
“Protected their freedom.”
“Their freedom to have sandbags thrown at them?”
“Hey, fuck ’em.”
John probably didn’t realize those same hippies fought for his right to wear long hair one day. And somebody somewhere fought for his right to play in a rock band.
All these rides back and forth to New England and elsewhere, day in day out, seemed efficient, on one hand. But on the other, they invited delays. Waiting for Joey to emerge from Arturo’s building was a show in itself. We couldn’t leave the motor of the Econoline running unless we wanted to fill the tank a second time before leaving the five boroughs. We would try to buzz Joey down, but after about five minutes, Monte would go upstairs and help him get dressed. Meanwhile, Dee Dee continued smoking pot in the van. There was an oil crisis going on, but no marijuana crisis other than paraquat.
Once he was done tapping the door saddle in the bathroom, Joey would step in and out of the door to the loft thirty, maybe forty times. Once that was done, he would walk down the one flight of stairs. Then back up. Then down. Then back up again. This would go on ten or twenty times before Joey finally came out of the building. We were lucky he didn’t live on the ninetieth floor of the World Trade Center.
Once we hit Youngstown, Ohio, we were out of range for even the most extreme Ramones definition of local. Driving across Pennsylvania alone was three hundred miles, and we had Lansing and Flint, Michigan, next. It was a long ride out to Ohio, and John made sure we were still in the same seats from Poughkeepsie. He also made sure we knew the only reason John F. Kennedy was ever elected president was his good looks.
Monte booked our rooms ahead of time, and not long after we got to Youngstown, I found out why. Dee Dee, John, Monte, and I would all get rooms on the same floor, while Joey would get a room on a different floor. When I checked out his room on the fourth floor, Joey was opening and closing the door again and again. Just like home. The band preferred getting some sleep to hearing their lead singer come and go nowhere all night. Hopefully, Joey’s new next-door neighbors were insomniacs.
Mornings were fairly normal. We would get up in time to check out, get some coffee and breakfast downstairs, and meet in the lobby. If Joey wasn’t there on time, we usually sent Monte up to his room to escort him down. Joey not only had trouble getting out of his room; he had trouble getting out of the shower. It wasn’t easy for him to get in in the first place. At six-foot-six, the shower nozzles were too low for him, so he had to squeeze underneath to wash his hair, taking care not to smash his head against the plumbing. Getting out of the shower wasn’t much easier. And then the excruciating repetition began: getting in and out a dozen more times. Sometimes Monte had Joey skip the shower altogether just to avoid triggering his compulsion to repeat the showering process umpteen more times.
Dee Dee had no problem getting in and out of the shower or the tub. He would take four or five baths or showers a day. It was not easy to cram in all that bathing activity, but he managed. A bath when we checked in to the hotel. Go do the soundcheck, come back and take a shower. Another bath before the show and a shower after. Then there was the bedtime bubble bath. All the way across the Keystone state, Dee Dee talked about the luxurious bubble bath he was going to prepare that night. Passing steel mills, cement plants, and coal mines Dee Dee, never lost focus on his big date with Mr. Bubble.
Dee Dee was not only super clean, he was super shaved. He liked to shave the hair thoroughly off his chest and arms, and when that was done, pluck out the stray hairs with a tweezers. You never knew if he was getting ready for a rock show or a walk down the runway.
Dee Dee was revolted by the smell of Joey. Dee Dee would freak out sometimes when he got a whiff. He would complain to Monte that he needed to wash Joey’s clothes and get him some cologne. If only Dee Dee could have taken a shower for Joey, they could have solved the Ramones’ entire hygiene problem.
Joey was cool onstage. I thought that when I watched the Ramones at CBGB early on and I thought that now from behind my drum kit. He stood in one place the entire set, clutching the microphone stand. John, meanwhile, moved around like a spinning top, bending his knees a little and stroking his guitar rapid-fire like an AK-47. Dee Dee was bouncing all over the place. But Joey’s position looked like someone taking a stand. Like James Dean. He had something to say and wasn’t going to budge. He was going to protect his turf.
The truth was, Joey was frightened to leave his turf. Once he found his spot onstage, he was afraid to vacate it, like a shower or an apartment. We were just glad he didn’t turn the microphone on and off seventy times.
Our trip across the heartland of America was filled with racism, but not from Midwesterners. It was from John. We saw blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Asians. Johnny saw spades, spics, and chinks. Somewhere between Columbus and Cincinnati, we learned that spades were too lazy to put out a fire in their own bedroom. Somewhere between Madison and DeKalb, we discovered that spics were too crazy about roaches to kill them. Somewhere between Kansas City and Springfield, we found out that every accident between Kansas City and Springfield was caused by a Chinaman carrying around a phony learner’s permit. John was rock & roll’s Archie Bunker.
We really didn’t know if John was an out-and-out racist or if he was doing it to get a rise out of us. Probably a combination. He didn’t draw the line at anti-Semitism. Even riding cross-country in a van with a Jewish lead singer and road manager. Johnny called Joey and Monte rabbis. The things Johnny did to save money were smart. The things the rabbis did to save money were “cheap.” Johnny was so over the top and in their faces with this shtick that Joey and Monte didn’t have much choice but to roll with it. And if it wasn’t simply anti-Semitism, it was masking other emotions that weren’t all that great either.
We could drive halfway across a state — or a time zone — without John looking at Joey. There was usually no conversation or eye contact. You could explain it away by saying they were just oil and vinegar. That John was the jock and Joey was the shy, sensitive poet of the band. But I got the sense that there was more to it than that.
With every hotel we could barely check out of because of Joey’s tapping, touching, and endless in-and-out routine, we were all obviously aware that he had problems. John, however, seemed disgusted with those problems and with Joey himself. And to a degree, that attitude colored John’s comments and the ride. When you’re all great friends, ethnic slurs don’t cut the same way, even when it’s your ethnic group. But calling Joey a rabbi when it’s a rabbi you won’t even look at or talk to is no longer a sign of affection — especially when that guy is alone in the back of the bus. The rift grated on me. I wanted everybody to get along.
So while John was at the front of the van telling Monte the Yankees were going to come all the way back from fourteen games behind the Red Sox, I was turning around and talking to Joey, not just to make him feel better but because I enjoyed it. We talked about which songs sounded great or not so great from the night before and maybe switching the order. About Blondie, the Cramps, the Sex Pistols, and Cheap Trick — one of Joey’s favorites. About a pretty girl in the audience. It kept our wheels rolling and was better than letting Joey count the number of stitches in the seat of the van.
At the same time, I had to give John credit. He went about things in a professional way, for the most part. He had quit shooting dope years earlier. There was no rehab as far as I knew. He just understood he was going down the road to ruin, which is fine as an album title but not where you wanted to be as you pushed thirty and had a chance to make your dreams a reality.
For most people in entertainment, being in a movie was one of those dreams, even if it was a B movie on a shoestring budget. We were back in New York August 11 through 13 to showcase the band for the director of a movie called Rock ’n’ Roll High School. Linda Stein and Danny Fields had been talking to a young guy named Allan Arkush, who directed independent teen-oriented comedies for the producer Roger Corman.
There had been talk about calling the movie Disco High, but even with the countless millions made the year before by Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta, a lot of people both in show business and out were over it. Someone in A&R at Warner, which distributed the Ramones for Sire, told Arkush he should check out the Ramones. So he did.
Arkush flew in from California, and Danny and Linda slapped us on the bill at Hurrah. Located on West Sixty-Second Street not far from Columbus Circle, Hurrah was not a typical venue for the Ramones. Aside from being in Midtown, the club was more of a new wave place and had television monitors all over the club showing music videos. We were on a bill with the avant-garde European singer Klaus Nomi and Lance Loud. Lance became louder than life in 1973 when he came out to his parents on the pioneer reality series An American Family.
Arkush was a good guy. He was a little surprised to see us rehearse a few of the songs unplugged before the show, but that’s what worked for us. Tina Weymouth, the bassist from Talking Heads, was there, and so was Lester Bangs. Bangs was shooting the shit with Tina and being his usual no-holds-barred self, and Arkush seemed to be in awe, taking notes like he was a student in the New York campus of a rock & roll high school.
I didn’t think Bangs had gotten a listen yet to Road to Ruin, but I hoped he liked it half as much as he liked my last band. Bangs had written, “The first real-deal punk-jazz mix I heard around this town came from the recently disbanded Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and mainly from their lead guitarist Robert Quine.”
The unplugged rehearsal must have worked, because Arkush loved the show. We all went to CBGB afterward and then to Arturo Vega’s loft around the corner. Arturo did the lights and sold Ramones merchandise before and after every show.
There was a big buzz in advance of the movie Animal House, about a bad-boy frat house battling the asshole preppy frat on campus. The movie starred John Belushi of TV’s Saturday Night Live and stood to rake it in at the box office. Allan Arkush was looking to capture some of that lightning in a small bottle. He told us he needed a band that had a defining look and sound that kids in this fictional high school could identify with. The plot involved one girl’s love for a band and her attempt to get them to listen to a song she’s written for them. When the band finally rocks the school, the conflict with the prudish principal escalates to the point where the police come in and the building is blown up. John heard this and said, “So, we gonna make this movie or what?”
In September, Animal House debuted in theaters across the country, and people lined up around the block. Road to Ruin came out, too, opening at 103 on the Billboard 200. Not as strong out of the gate as the previous album, Rocket to Russia, but the reviews were promising. Writing for Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau said, “Like any great group, this one is always topping itself… ‘I Wanted Everything,’ ‘I’m Against It,’ and ‘She’s the One’ are as good as any they’ve ever done.”
I thought the cartoon by John Holmstrom on the cover, showing the four of us with leather jackets and very blue blue jeans against a backdrop of amps, drums, and a gritty city skyline, was good. But Joey and Dee Dee didn’t like it. They objected to being depicted as cartoon characters because they thought it suggested the band itself was a cartoon. They complained the drawing was amateurish. But there was no reason to argue about it. The cover, like the album, was a done deal. The album was going over big in Europe, and we were booked for a twenty-two-city tour of the Continent.
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