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Johnny Ramone, Rock-and-Roll Innovator, Dies

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2004; Page B06

Johnny Ramone, 55, a guitarist and founding member of the Ramones, the seminal New York rock-and-roll band that practically defined the punk movement of the 1970s, died Sept. 15 of prostate cancer at his home in Los Angeles.

The Ramones never had a hit single or a gold record in their 22-year career, but their influence on later bands, on the independent music movement and on the rebellious nature of disenfranchised suburban teenagers can hardly be overstated.

Johnny Ramone, the driving force of the Ramones, speaks in New York after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. (Kathy Willens -- AP)

Mr. Ramone, whose real name was John Cummings, formed the band in 1974 with three other young outcasts in the Forest Hills section of Queens, N.Y.: Jeffrey Hyman, Douglas Colvin, Tom Erdelyi -- better known by their stage names of Joey Ramone, Dee Dee Ramone and Tommy Ramone.

From the beginning, the Ramones had a raw, unadorned style of fast and furious rock-and-roll that became the fount from which the later punk and new wave movements would spring. They sounded rough and unschooled, and in many ways they were, but scores of bands around the world copied the Ramones' deceptively simple style without matching their originality, energy and flair.

All four of the original members wrote songs and contributed to the band's brash attitude, but it was Johnny Ramone who was the sometimes paternal, sometimes tyrannical driving force of the Ramones.

"They carved out that 22-year career mostly on Johnny's willpower," said Christopher J. Ward, a bass player who joined the band in 1989 as C.J. Ramone. "He made sure they kept touring, he decided the pace of the set and what songs would be played. He made it happen."

In 1992, while the band was still active, Spin magazine called the Ramones one of the seven best rock acts of all time. Since then, the group's reputation has grown stronger. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, a tribute album was released last year of Ramones songs performed by U2, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eddie Vedder and others. A documentary about the Ramones, taking its title from the group's 1980 album, "End of the Century," has just been released.

Johnny Ramone is the third member of the original group to die in the past three years. Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in 2001, and Dee Dee Ramone died of a heroin overdose in 2002.

Infusing their ultra-fast music with humor, angst and outright paranoia, the Ramones' paradoxical anthems of frantic boredom -- "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Rock 'n' Roll High School," "Suzy Is a Headbanger," "Gimme, Gimme Shock Treatment" -- captured a mood of spiritual disaffection that rang true with two generations of followers. If the Ramones didn't exactly teach America's suburban youth how to have a bad attitude, with their black leather jackets, torn jeans and sullen, nighttime pallor, they helped create both the look and the sound of late 20th-century teenage alienation.

"We didn't sell a lot of records, but somehow we left an impression," Johnny Ramone said in an interview with Guitar Player magazine in 2003. "We just wrote good pop songs, tried not to compromise, and we put on a good show. Somehow, we appealed to all the misfits of society."

John Cummings was born Oct. 8, 1948, and grew up in the suburbs of New York. Band members would later describe their youth as a period of glue-sniffing delinquency. He worked construction and played in a few bands before the Ramones formed in 1974, taking the name from an alias Paul McCartney sometimes used in hotels and not, as is often believed, from record producer Phil Ramone.

With Joey on vocals, Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums, the Ramones made their debut in 1974 at New York's CBGB club, developing an immediate underground following. Johnny Ramone held the guitar at knee level, strumming at machine-gun speed. Their 1976 debut album, "Ramones," was later called "the most radical album of the past decade" by Washington Post critic Robert A. Hull.

Overseas, they played in arenas and stadiums, but in this country their success was mostly by word of mouth. The Ramones toured the country in a battered white van, until they finally retired from the road in 1996.

"Johnny was the brains," said Arturo Vega, the Ramones' creative director and spokesman, who was around the band from the beginning. "He was the one who kept it functioning. The Ramones never canceled a show, they were never late for a show and there were no prima donna demands."

For their uncompromising music, their no-frills approach to performing and their lack of commercial success, the Ramones came to represent an incorruptible honesty that stood out in the music business.

"They're an icon of credibility at a time when nothing, from the Catholic Church to Olympic athletes, has any integrity anymore," Vega said. "The Ramones never lost their integrity or their image as an underdog."

Behind their lank, unstyled hair and their well-worn leather jackets, the Ramones enacted many of the same suburban anxieties that vexed the gray-flannel generation of John Cheever and John Updike. In the early 1980s, Joey Ramone's girlfriend left him for Johnny, and the two later married. Linda Cummings survives Mr. Ramone, along with his mother, Estelle Cummings.

Johnny and Joey Ramone continued to perform together for 15 years, but almost never spoke again before Joey's death.

For all his posing as an aging teenager rebel, Johnny Ramone was a lifelong Republican who belonged to the National Rifle Association. When the Ramones were named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he said, "God bless President Bush, and God bless America."

He called Ronald Reagan "the greatest president of my lifetime," but in a classic exercise of democracy, he was outvoted by other members of the band when they recorded "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," a satirical slam at Reagan's visit to a German cemetery in which Nazi troops were buried.

Mr. Ramone had battled prostate cancer for five years. Unlike the lyrics of one of the band's most famous songs, "I Wanna Be Sedated," he faced his ordeal without painkillers. He refused a morphine drip because, C.J. Ramone said, "he didn't want to lose control of his mind."

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