Onstage, the Ramones were a family. They dressed the same, had the same hair color, and shared the same last name. They had the same thoughts, the same energy. There was a sort of pleasurable spirit that overcame the crowd when the Ramones played. However, offstage, it was a completely different story. After their shows, the band would climb back into their van and drive off in silence.
Two band members, Joey and Johnny, rarely spoke to each other during their 22-year career. This was the bitter reality for a band that may not have invented punk but effectively defined it. To make matters worse, most of the music world rejected them, while others saw them as a bad joke that had run its course.
This is the story of the Ramones.
The Ramones weren’t actually related, but they all grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, a middle-class Jewish neighborhood known for its angsty, nonconformist youth. More importantly, the original band members shared similar experiences of living in turbulent households and being the wrong person in the wrong place.
“People who join a band like the Ramones don’t come from stable backgrounds because it’s not that civilized an art form,” bass player Dee Dee Ramone wrote. “Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative.” Drummer Tommy Ramone, who was the true founding member of the band, mostly kept his hurt to himself. Born as Tamás Erdélyi in Budapest, Hungary in 1949, Tommy moved to America when he was a little kid.
Tommy and his family settled in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. “[Hungary] was a very restrictive regime,” the drummer told author Everett True in 2002. “You didn’t hear too much Western music. I remember the early stages of rock & roll, how much it excited me.” Even as a young kid, Tommy was into “dressing cool” and wearing only specific types of shoes.
During his first year at Forest Hills High, Tommy met John Cummings, who would later be known as Johnny Ramone. The two joined a band called the Tangerine Puppets, but the band soon became just as popular for Johnny’s temper as they were for their music. He routinely got into fights with his band members as well as with people in the audience.
“We all liked Johnny,” Tommy later said. “That anger is pure.” Johnny was raised to be a fighter. His father, a hard liquor-drinking construction worker, once made his son pitch a little league baseball game with a broken big toe. “What, did I raise a baby?” His father shouted after Johnny complained that his toe hurt.
As the guitarist grew older, he became tough and demanding like his father. In his autobiography, Commando, Johnny recalls lugging television sets to the tops of apartment buildings only to drop them on people walking on the sidewalk below. He also threw bricks through windows just for the fun of it. Johnny continued like this for two years, until one day, everything changed.
One day, twenty-year-old Johnny was walking down the street when he heard a voice in his head. “I don’t know what it was, God maybe,” he wrote. “It asked, ‘What are you doing with your life? Is this what you are here for?’ It was a spiritual awakening.” Just like that, Johnny says that he stopped his bad streak.
Sometime after this “spiritual awakening,” Johnny met Doug Colvin, better known as Dee Dee while delivering clothes for a dry cleaner. Like Johnny, Dee Dee carried around a lot of hurt. His father was an army sergeant who moved his family back and forth between the States and Germany. In his autobiography, Dee Dee wrote that his mother “was a drunken nut job, prone to emotional outbursts.”
Dee Dee says that his parents constantly fought and blamed him for their problems. “Their lives were complete chaos,” he wrote. Growing up, Dee Dee did not see a future for himself and began taking drugs as an early teen. Everything seemed to turn around when he heard the Beatles for the first time.
“I got my first transistor radio, a Beatle haircut and a Beatle suit. Rock ‘n’ roll [gave] me a sense of my own identity.” When the bass player was 15 years old, his parents got a divorce, and Dee Dee went to live with his mother and sister in Forest Hills. Naturally, Dee Dee gravitated towards Johnny and Tommy.
Of the three, Tommy was the only one who thought they could make something of themselves. He urged Johnny and Dee Dee to start a band and said that he could help them find their sound. After all, Tommy worked sessions as an audio engineer at Record Plant with musicians like Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin.
Johnny resisted at first. He wanted to be practical and, in his words, “normal.” But it wasn’t just the normalcy that Johnny was after. He had seen the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin live, and he knew that he couldn’t play guitar like them. His opinion changed, however, when he saw the New York Dolls in concert.
The New York Dolls took on the glitter movement to a completely new and trashy level. Johnny realized that anyone could make “music.” “They’re great; they’re terrible but just great,” Johnny later wrote. “I can do this.” After the concert, he accepted Tommy’s offer. Johnny bought a $50 Mosrite guitar, and the guys got to work.
As the band began to find their sound, Johnny played guitar, Dee Dee bass, and their friend Jeffrey Hyman played drums. Jeffrey, who later became known as Joey Ramone, also had his fair share of hardships. He was born with a rare type of tumor attached to his spine. Although doctors removed the tumor when Joey was a few weeks old, he was plagued with health problems his entire life.
Joey was prone to terrible blood infections and bad blood circulation his whole life. It wasn’t just health problems that Joey had to deal with. His parents divorced when he was still a child, and his father, Noel, was known for his bad temper. Once, he picked Joey up and threw him at a wall across the room.
Joey was also lanky and shy, which made him the perfect target for school bullies. He began to wear sunglasses everywhere. “I started to spend a lot of time in the dean’s office,” Joey later told author Everett True. “I was a misfit, an outcast, a loner. The greasers were always looking to kick my a**.”
As he reached his teenage years, Joey began acting strangely. He repeatedly climbed in and out of bed before falling asleep and left food out on the counter in the middle of the night. When his mother, Charlotte, would ask him why he was behaving like this, Joey became hostile. He once pulled a knife on her. His condition worsened as time went on.
He soon began hearing voices and would have sudden violent outbursts. In 1972, when Joey was around 20 years old, he went to St. Vincent’s Hospital for an evaluation and was kept for a month. During his stay, doctors diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic that had “minimal brain damage.”
A different psychiatrist apparently told his mother that “He’ll most likely be a vegetable.” Not long after his diagnosis, Charlotte moved into a different apartment but didn’t take him with her. Instead, he slept on the floor of her art gallery. However, by now, Joey had just begun to find his path in life.
“Rock ‘n roll was my salvation,” he told reporters in 1999. “The Beatles really did it to me. Later on, the Stooges were a band that helped me in those dark periods, just get out the aggression.” The same year that Joey was diagnosed, he joined a glam-rock band called Sniper. As the lead singer, Joey wore a skin-tight outfit and went by the name of Jeff Starship.
Joey had already left the glam-rock band when Dee Dee asked him to join his and Johnny’s new band in 1974. However, they still didn’t know what to call themselves. It was actually Dee Dee who came up with the idea for the name Ramones. “[Paul] McCartney would call himself Paul Ramone when he checked into hotels and didn’t want to be noticed,” Dee Dee later said.
“I liked it because I thought it was ridiculous. The Ramones? That’s absurd!” The new bandmates began practicing in Johnny’s apartment and decided early on that they should write a new song every time they meet. However, there were some other kinks that needed to be worked out first.
Dee Dee had a hard time playing bass and singing at the same time, and Joey wasn’t very good on drums. Tommy then suggested that Joey become the lead vocalist, pushing him to the front and center of the band. Johnny disagreed with the idea. He wanted a good-looking guy in the front. Dee Dee, however, agreed with Tommy.
“Joey was a perfect singer,” Dee Dee later said. “I wanted to get somebody real freaky, and Joey was really weird-lookin’ man, which was great for the Ramones.” He thought it was better to have a “messed up” guy as a singer instead of a pretty boy putting on a show for the ladies.
When Tommy eventually joined the Ramones as a drummer, the band’s sound finally came together. They played their first show in August 1974 at CBGB in New York. The dive bar turned biker bar was located in Manhattan’s Bowery, whose streets were filled with homeless alcoholics and cheap housing.
But as time went by, the CBGB became vital in New York’s music scene. The bar’s owner, Hilly Kristal, didn’t think the Ramones’ 17-minute set was all that great. “They were the most un-together band I’d ever heard,” Kristal later wrote. “They kept starting and stopping – equipment breaking down – and yelling at each other.” But by early 1975, the Ramones had honed their performance.
Thanks to their rule of writing a new song at every practice session, the Ramones had a large repertoire of original tracks. All of the band members began wearing leather jackets and torn jeans, looking more like a biker gang than a band. They also stopped messing around on stage. There was no more talking between tracks, no tuning their guitars, no awkward pauses.
Soon, people began to take notice. When music executive Danny Fields first saw them perform at CBGB, he offered to be their manager and eventually won the band a deal with Sire Records. Suddenly, the band began to take themselves even more seriously and began to believe that they were better than every other band out there.
“I remember seeing a clip of Led Zeppelin, they were playing in ’75 at Madison Square Garden, and I thought, ‘Oh, God, these guys are such sh*t,’” Johnny later recalled. But while the Ramones were flying high, many people hated everything about the band. Several American radio stations refused to play their music, and one review described the band as “the sound of 10,000 toilets flushing.”
As time went on, the Ramones found their following and began touring steadily, playing 150 shows a year. However, this came at a price. The band soon found themselves arguing in the van on route to their next show. One time at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles, Tommy and Johnny got into a fierce argument.
“This is my band, and I am the star of this band, not you!” Johnny yelled at Tommy. The drummer says that he had no intention of taking over the band, even though they thought he did. Tommy played his last show in May 1978 at the CBGB. He was replaced by drummer Marc Bell, who went by the name Marky Ramone. By the early ‘80s, the Ramones began to fall apart.
Their music hadn’t reached the masses they had hoped for, and relations in the band were tense. While many fans thought Joey was the band’s leader, it was actually Johnny who called the shots. He fined the other band members if they were late to practice or messed up during a performance.
Dee Dee was terrified of Johnny. The two always seemed to get into it over a minor mistake during a live performance. “‘You did a B-major when you should have done a C-minor,’” Danny Fields heard Johnny yell after a concert one day. “I’d stand outside the dressing room. Inside, you’d hear glass shattering and bodies slamming into walls.”
But then came legendary music producer Phil Spector, who had an even worse temper than Johnny. Spector had been after the Ramones for a long time and was hired to oversee the band’s next album. However, in 1979, the legendary music producer seemed to be past his prime. Early on, he invited the band to his mansion, and that’s when things became clear that Spector had a problem.
“There were a lot of warning signs,” Marky later wrote in his autobiography. Not just warning signs deriving from his behavior, but actual, physical warning signs. “Do not enter. Do not touch the gate. Beware of attack dogs. The signs looked pretty amateurish, and that made them more rather than less imposing.”
The music producer wore two pistols, one under each arm, even though bodyguards followed him around. Spector also made the band stand up all night while they watched the psychological thriller film Magic. Dee Dee says that one night, Spector pulled a gun on him after he tried to leave the house. “He had all the quick-draw, shoot-to-kill pistol techniques,” the bass player later said.
One day, Johnny and Spector clashed. The music producer demanded that Johnny play the same chord over and over again for hours until the guitarist couldn’t take it anymore. He put down his guitar and announced that he was done for the day, but Spector wouldn’t let him leave. It was the last straw. The bandmates then told the music producer that they had had enough of his drama and antics and didn’t want to work with him anymore.
To make matters worse, their album with Spector was a flop, according to the band. The music producer boasted that End of the Century would be the greatest album ever, and although it was the band’s highest-charting album, the Ramones regretted making it. The mainstream sound ruined the band’s momentum and aesthetic.
When the band arrived in Los Angeles to record End of the Century, Joey showed up with his girlfriend, Linda Danielle. The couple had reportedly met at CBGB in ’77, and the two became official during the filming of Rock & Roll High School. After filming wrapped, Linda joined Joey on tour.
Since Johnny called the shots, he told everyone where to sit in the van. Since Linda was Joey’s girlfriend, she was assigned to sit with him at the back of the bus. But according to Johnny, Linda talked back. “Not for long,” she said. “What is this, this girl answers back to me?” Johnny wrote in his autobiography. “Joey told her not to say anything, but she did anyway. I thought it was kind of funny.”
Even though Johnny had a girlfriend at the time, others began to notice that he and Linda had a flirtatious relationship. Sometimes, they would disappear, and no one could find them for hours. When Marky tried telling Joey that Johnny and Linda were having an affair, he refused to listen. Joey loved Linda more than any other women he had dated in the past.
But in the summer of 1982, Linda left Joey. A few weeks later, Johnny left his girlfriend Roxy. Apparently, Johnny and Linda had been living together in New York, but the guitarist was scared to tell Joey. Although the two never got along, Johnny later wrote that he didn’t want to hurt him or break up the band.
According to Johnny, the two tried their best to hide their relationship from Joey, but the sneaking around became too much. Linda and Johnny went public with their relationship, and within a few years, they were married. She became Linda Cummings but went by Linda Ramone, and Joey never recovered from losing her.
Their breakup seeped into his music, including in the song “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” Decades later, Joey said that Johnny had crossed a line when he took Linda from him. “He destroyed the relationship and the band right there.” After the breakup, Joey began to drink heavily and soon developed a nasty drug habit. But surprisingly, Joey didn’t leave the band.
But why did Joey stay? According to the frontman, the Ramones were the last rock ‘n’ roll band left. “Everybody else has quit, but we’re never going to quit. We’re always going to be the Ramones,” Joey reportedly told a friend. The Ramones did a good job of hiding their secrets from the public.
For a decade and a half, the band performed night after night. The label brought in new producers for five out of their six later albums, and their sound began to change. According to Rolling Stone Magazine, the Ramones played faster and harder, as if they were “competing with their own shadows.” Their writing became deeper, and Joey’s voice took on a more weathered sound.
The band’s problems weren’t just reserved for Joey and Johnny. Dee Dee also had his fair share of struggles. The bass player had been abusing hard drugs since he was a kid. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he often mixed his meds with other drugs, making his problems even worse. The Ramones tolerated his drug use, as long as it didn’t affect their live shows.
Although Dee Dee always showed up ready to perform, he grew tired of the band’s constant fighting. One day, he came to rehearsal with spiky hair and gold chains and announced that he was releasing a rap album. Johnny was furious. The 1988 album was a major dud in all respects, with one critic calling it “one of the worst recordings of all time.”
The next year, Dee Dee left the Ramones, which caught everyone off guard. The bass player was replaced by Christopher Joseph Ward, who was known as CJ Ramone. He remained with the band until their eventual split in 1996. Ironically, what held the band together was also what drove them apart.
Joey and Johnny continued to work together for the sake of the band, but they secretly despised one another. Joey continued to suffer from OCD. He once made the band drive back to the airport so he could retrace his steps. Although Joey suffered from a mental illness, Johnny had no patience. But this lack of empathy went both ways.
In 1983, Johnny was involved in a street fight after seeing his ex-girlfriend Roxy with another man. He ended up severely hurt and required emergency brain surgery. However, according to Marky, Joey was happy to hear the news. This twisted relationship lasted until Johnny decided that it was time for the band to break up.
The Ramones’ final show was at the Hollywood Palace on August 6, 1996. Prior to the performance, the band was offered the chance to play at a high-paying show in Argentina. Everyone wanted to go, except for Joey, who said he was sick. Johnny resented the singer for it. “Joey was always sick,” Johnny later wrote. “Anything he could get, he had.”
After their final performance, the band members retired to their dressing rooms, where they packed up their equipment in silence before leaving separately. “I just walked out. It was the way I lived my life,” Johnny said of that night. “Of course, I was really feeling loss of some sort. I just didn’t want to admit it.”
It later came out that Joey had a good reason to decline the trip to Argentina. In 1994, he was diagnosed with lymphoma in his bone marrow. His doctor said that Joey had caught it early and therefore didn’t need any treatment. Regardless, Joey had a hard time during live performances but didn’t feel comfortable sharing his diagnosis with the rest of the band—especially Johnny.
In the winter of 1997, Joey’s chiropractor showed up at his home for a treatment, but nobody answered the door. When he walked in, he saw Joey lying on the floor, unable to get up. According to the emergency services, Joey had been lying there for a day, maybe even two. He was still alive, but his lymphoma had worsened.
Joey began chemotherapy, but his condition deteriorated over the years. The only bandmate who visited him at home was Marky. The next day, Marky called Johnny. “You need to visit him. The window is closing,” he told his former bandmate. However, Johnny refused. In 2001, Joey passed away at the age of 49, and at his funeral, Johnny was nowhere to be seen.
According to Johnny, he was in California at the time and didn’t want to travel all the way to New York for a funeral. “I wouldn’t have gone anyway,” Johnny told Rolling Stone Magazine in 2004. “I wouldn’t want him coming to my funeral, and I wouldn’t want to hear from him if I were dying.”
Eleven weeks after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dee Dee died from an overdose. Johnny also had his fair share of health problems. In 1997, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which spread to the rest of his organs. He passed away in September 2004, surrounded by his wife Linda and his friends.
The following year, a four-foot-tall bronze statue of the musician was unveiled at the Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Johnny had paid for it himself. In July 2014, Tommy, the last surviving original member of the Ramones, succumbed to cancer of the bile duct. The four original Ramones had all passed away.
It was a sad ending for a great band. But although they weren’t on speaking terms, Joey was still proud of what the Ramones had accomplished. “When I put the Ramones on the stereo now, we still sound great,” he told rock journalist David Fricke in 1999. “And that will always be there. When you need a lift. When you need a fix.”