Friday, March 23, 2012

Commando -- The Autobiography Of Johnny Ramone Hits Shelves Hard

Soon after Johnny Ramone learned he had prostate cancer, he started working on an autobiography. He kept working on it right up until his tragic death in September 2004. He was 55.

It would take another eight long years before his book would ever be put into print, despite the many Ramones fans who have been waiting for it. Few bands have ever been as influential as the one that came out of Queens in 1974 and spearheaded punk rock music throughout their careers. They performed 2,263 concerts while touring non-stop for 22 years.

Written in his own words, Commando — The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone, is Johnny's definitive story. The book was edited by his good friend musician, director and producer John Cafiero. The photos were chosen by Johnny’s wife Linda Ramone.

“It is a really powerful book because his whole life has gone before him and he knows it’s going to come to an end, and he really needs to tell everybody what he’s feeling inside, so that’s what makes it so amazing,” Linda Ramone told the Associated Press.

In the foreword, original Ramones drummer and long-time friend Tommy Ramone describes Johnny as “the magnet that pulled us (the band) together.” But it is the daughter of Elvis Presley, Lisa Marie Presley, who perhaps best (and lovingly) sums up Johnny Ramone.

“He was grouchy. He was loyal, kindhearted, soft on the inside, set in his ways, and well… grouchy.” — Lisa Marie Presley

So much of the book is written just like that. It is straightforward, unapologetic, and workmanlike, just like Johnny himself. He even admits to being angry all the time. And those few moments when he wasn’t angry, he often felt ambivalent.

Sometimes you would never know it based on the stories he chose to share. He openly discusses his role as de facto leader of the band, an infamous altercation with Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, his days as a petty criminal and neighborhood bully, and the brutal attack on a New York sidewalk that put him in the hospital with a serious brain injury. Until now, he mostly keep his thoughts and feelings about those events (including the attack) to himself.

As far as the other Ramones go, Johnny pulls no punches in Commando. 

Johnny always had high expectations for the band, and he was willing to put in as much work as it took to achieve success. He expected the same from his bandmates too, even if they didn't share his military-like precision and work ethic.

They played show after show, with Johnny watching the finances and frequently trying to make decisions for the band. Above all, he always wanted to push ahead.

That doesn't mean that Johnny felt alone in his pursuit. It's very clear that he respected original drummer Tommy Ramone, noting that Tommy had no vices other than cigarettes. Johnny would often ask Tommy's opinions.

Johnny also had a deep and longtime friendship with his neighborhood pal Dee Dee Ramone. In the book, he makes it clear that he always understood their bassist played an integral role in the Ramones, particularly with his songwriting. But Dee Dee was also an addict, which angered Johnny. He saw it as a weakness, whether or not it was spurred on by bipolar disorder.

Johnny genuinely liked second drummer Marky Ramone, giving him high marks for his musical ability and hard work. But much like Johnny was concerned about Dee Dee's addiction, he also had serious disdain for the drummer’s early troubles with alcohol. Eventually, Marky kicked the habit during a 4-year hiatus from the band.

As for Joey and his many ailments (including severe obsessive compulsive disorder), Johnny was unsympathetic. The two may have been friends in the early days, but after one-time girlfriend Linda Ramone left Joey and moved in with Johnny, any friendship they had was obviously replaced with bitterness and resentment.

It was well known to everyone. Joey and Johnny would go for months without speaking, even while traveling together on tour. But despite all this and his matter-of-fact telling of Joey's lymphoma and death in 2001, Johnny expresses sadness and loss in his own way. He knew there could never be The Ramones without Joey.

Life went on, but not long enough.

Once the Ramones disbanded and Johnny retired, he began to let his some of his guard down and finally enjoyed friendships with people such as Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Nicolas Cage, and Lisa Marie Presley. In fact, Johnny was the best man at Presley’s wedding to Cage.

Even while writing the book while facing his own mortality, Johnny finds irony in the situation that befell him. The only times he was ever sick was when he had a ruptured appendix and when he was attacked.

In fact, until he was diagnosed with cancer, he had led a healthy lifestyle with no major drug or alcohol use, except for some occassional pot smoking. His health wasn't the only irony. He said that neither he nor the band ever received as much respect and recognition or earned as much money as they did after they retired (or now that three of them are gone). Ironic indeed. Viva Ramones.

Commando By Johnny Ramone Rocks 9.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

While the book is only 176 pages, it features scores of great photos and plenty of notes in Johnny’s own handwriting. One of the highlights of the book is Johnny's notes (and ratings) of every Ramones album ever produced. He also wrote down top ten lists of everything from baseball players and Elvis films to favorite TV shows and Republicans. All of it can be summed up simply enough. Johnny Ramone was his own man and this book is his story.

Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone is available from Amazon. You can also order the book from Barnes & Noble. This is also one of those rare books that can never be the same as a digital download. Most digital versions will be added to online stores around April 1, but this is a case where it feels good to hold Johnny's words, pictures, and lists in your hand. It makes it all physical, like the Ramones and their music.
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