Johnny Ramone’s manual for punk living
Through the brisk "Commando," the late Johnny Ramone expresses his admiration for John Wayne, baseball, old horror movies, the New York City Police Department, American beer and American cars, particularly the Cadillac. He recalls driving around Los Angeles when a kid expressed outrage that the punk rock icon would drive a Caddy. "I said, 'What the (expletive) are you talking about?"' Ramone writes. "'I wrote the book on punk. I decide what's punk. If I'm driving a Cadillac, it's punk."'
With "Commando," Ramone has written the book about writing the book on punk.
Like the songs powered by Ramone's jaw-busting barre chords, "Commando" is short and blunt and void of decoration. He races through his youth as John Cummings - a kid who liked baseball and movies and ended up in military school - and ends 144 pages later with a frank take on the prostate cancer that killed him. In between, he touches on his transformation from New York street hood to punk rock icon with candor and a disinterest in pulling punches.
"Commando" is not the book where the music of the Ramones will be intellectualized, a rock crit practice Ramone detested. The band's formation, image, sound, all of it, is broken down to its elements, each one like a two-minute song. Johnny and drummer Tommy get credit for the image, bassist Dee Dee for the band name and many of the best-known songs. Singer Joey doesn't fare as well, cast as fragile and obsessive compulsive, two things Ramone had little patience for.
"He was actually the most difficult person I have ever dealt with in my life," Ramone writes, reflecting on Joey's passing in 2001. "I didn't want him to die though."
While the immediacy of the Ramones music suggested a primitive but pure pulse, a self-preservationist pursuit ran parallel to the band's career: Ramone decided early on that $1 million was his goal for retirement, and he spent the band's early years making deposits rather than withdrawals from the bank. He marvels at the band's inability to make a hit song, and then puzzles over the branding and marketing that made him more money after the band called it quits than they made while recording and performing.
Much of the book's humor comes from Ramone's dislikes, which are legion. To wit: "In April, we left for a seven-week tour of Europe with the Talking Heads. That was two stress factors: the Talking Heads and Europe. I was clinging to my sanity. I wanted to kill myself. It was miserable, and Europe was a horrible place."
The food? "All this boiled (expletive) and curry."
The Heads? "They were all intellectuals."
After the autobiography's conclusion, Ramone offers album-by-album commentary and grade ratings for the Ramones' work, followed by some of his Top 10 lists for baseball players, punk bands, guitarists, books, films and Republicans. (Ronald Reagan is a logical No. 1, Vincent Gallo a curious No. 4.)
There's something refreshing about the lack of political correctness in "Commando," though occasionally the bluntness becomes uncomfortable, like an unprintable and non-musical dismissal of the Runaways and lionization of subway shooter Bernhard Goetz.
As cringe-inducing as the Goetz bit is, Ramone brings it up because of an incident when he was nearly killed after getting cold-cocked by an assailant. The vulnerability that runs through the book offers a contrast and gentle depth to an artist whose hard eyes and helmetlike haircut made him seem unapproachable. In "Commando," Ramone comes across as both fan-friendly and fan appreciative. The account of the development of his relationship with his wife and longtime companion Linda is lovingly handled, and his old-school patriotism is endearing given his involvement in an industry that tends to lean the other way.
"Commando" was written with near certainty that the end was coming. As a result, Ramone has broad-stroke legacy on the mind. It won't be the deepest or most detailed volume to ever be written about the Ramones, but it's likely to be the most sincere.
"Looking at it now, maybe a little less connected because I'm sick and time has kind of dwindled for me, the most important part of the Ramones legacy was that when we got up on a stage, we were the best out there," he writes. "Nobody came close."