A Musical Warrior’s Swan Song

Naturally, the color scheme of Commando, Johnny Ramone’s posthumous autobiography, is red, white, and blue. Johnny drove American cars and drank American beer, though it’s worth pointing out he capped himself at two bottles; his post-concert routine for most of his career was to hit up 7-11 for milk and cookies, then retreat to his hotel room.

In a band of dudes who are hard to love, Johnny was the hardest. His sourpuss face is synonymous with the band’s sulky collective persona. Spying multiple photos of Johnny smiling in Commando was shocking enough, but when I saw a picture of Johnny and his wife on Disney World’s dinosaur ride, I thought my face was going to melt off.

Don’t worry, Commando still teems with frowny Johnny photos. Hostility was his internal engine, his Bizzarro World Zen. Instead of denying his anger, he used it as a medium, the way a sculptor chisels a marble slab. Punk is the music of rebels, and Johnny was a rebel among punks. He stashed his earnings into a retirement account. His favorite president was Regan.

There are a lot of books by and about The Ramones. Direct and dynamic, Commando is easily the best. Johnny didn’t exactly exude compassion during his interview segments in the well-made 2005 documentary End of the Century: Story of the Ramones, so it’s refreshing to discover he had a human side.

Another enlightening look at the inner workings of the band is the unfortunately titled I Slept with Joey Ramone, by Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh. While not a great read, it’s a worthwhile skim, and it offers many insights to Joey’s sickly constitution and obsessive-compulsive disorder (giving songs like “I Wanna Be Well” and “Go Mental” a bittersweet new dimension).

But for the best instant Ramones immersion, just watch Rock’n’Roll High School. Yes, it’s a schlocky teen b-movie, but it captures the spirit of the Ramones in the most buoyant fashion possible, and the concert scene at the end exudes a blissfully straightforward musical purity. Look out for Johnny’s solitary line: “We’re not students, we’re the Ramones.”