Johnny Ramone, 55; Punk Guitar Drove the Ramones

Times Staff Writer

Johnny Ramone, the guitarist whose bursts of primitive punk energy helped the Ramones go from an obscure New York band to a reshaping force in rock ‘n’ roll, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 55.

Ramone, born John Cummings but known by the surname adopted by each of the punk group’s members, died in his sleep surrounded by friends, according to his family. The guitarist had been battling prostate cancer for five years and took a turn for the worse in June, when he was hospitalized at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with an infection.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 17, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Ramone obituary -- An obituary of rock guitarist Johnny Ramone in Thursday’s California section reported that friend Jill Vedder was among those with Ramone at the time of his death. Her name is Jill McCormack.

The Ramones were a potent and beloved force in punk rock, although their influence and acclaim came late in the game. The band, known for songs that were simple, short and frenetic, formed in 1974 in Forest Hills, N.Y., and their influence was immediate in the late 1970s underground music revolution of punk. But the band could only watch as other acts garnered the largest spotlight.


Inducted last year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- ahead of the more celebrated Sex Pistols -- and celebrated in a new documentary film, “End of the Century,” now in theaters, the Ramones had to wait until most of their membership had died to be hailed by mainstream pop culture as a pioneering force. With Johnny’s death, only one member of the original quartet, drummer Tommy Ramone, is still alive.

With songs such as “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Judy Is a Punk” and “Beat on the Brat,” the Ramones created an underground sensation in the summer of 1974 with their residency at CBGB, a scruffy club in lower Manhattan. Their fashion was bowl haircuts and ripped jeans, and their musical pedigree was equally tattered.

The band’s self-titled 1976 album, recorded for less than $7,000, was a definitive work with 14 almost cartoonish songs that they raced through in less than 30 minutes. It drew on 1950s rock and the 1960s garage bands that seemed to have missed flower power. The band would tour incessantly and their 1976 foray through Europe influenced the U.K. rock scene.

The band had started, famously, as a group of glue-sniffing delinquents who saw in music their only chance to escape a dead-end life. Dee Dee, Joey, Tommy and Johnny somehow exuded both urban fatalism and pure rock optimism. The band got its name from an alias that Paul McCartney had used to reserve hotel rooms during the Beatles years.

Punk rock surged in popularity and the band continued to tour, but the headlines went more often to acts such as the Clash, who added complexity to the searing energy of the genre. The Ramones were a popular concert act, but their albums would come and go with little commercial impact.

By the 1990s, the hipness of the band and the success of the newer generations of artists who revered them led to a widening appreciation of the band. In 1992, Spin magazine cited the band as one of the top seven rock acts of all time, showing just how loud the Ramones’ quiet success story had become. A year later, the band was featured in fittingly cartoon form on “The Simpsons,” indicating a certain pop culture ubiquity. Last year, an album of Ramones song covers was released featuring some of the top bands in rock, including U2 and Metallica.

Johnny Ramone essentially hung up his guitar in 1996 after the Ramones farewell tour and said often that he thought the band would be a footnote in rock. “Six years later the Ramones are bigger than ever, have more friends and better friends, and everyone’s nice to me wherever I go,” he told The Times in 2003 . “It’s weird; it’s nice. Better late than never.... I’m very competitive and I want people to see us as one of the best bands, and when most people you talk to don’t even know who the hell you are, yeah, it never feels good.”

The Long Island-born Johnny Ramone was often described as a core force in the band’s run but also as a difficult personality. He told people his personality came across in the music -- that the rough and fast edge would not be there if his world view was a soft one.

A former construction worker, he was a rebel in a rebel’s world -- an outspoken Republican and supporter of the National Rifle Assn., he used the mike at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to say, “God bless President Bush and God bless America.”

In his personal life he was an avid fan of film and baseball and his outlook was shaped by the blue-collar ethos of his Italian family in Queens, N.Y.

A tribute concert and cancer research fund-raiser was held Sunday in Los Angeles to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary. It featured X, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Henry Rollins and other acts that found in the Ramones a template for rock as rebellion.

Along with his wife, Linda Cummings, Johnny Ramone was surrounded at his death by friends Eddie and Jill Vedder, Rob and Sherrie Zombie and others. Other friends who gathered at his Los Angeles home included Lisa Marie Presley, Pete Yorn, Vincent Gallo and Talia Shire.

He is survived by his wife and his mother, Estelle Cummings. He will be cremated during a private ceremony.