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Music

For flame-keeper Linda Ramone, Hollywood Forever and Ramones forever are inseparable

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Linda Ramone, widow of Ramones songwriter-guitarist Johnny Ramone, poses on the kitchen counter of her home.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In the suburban hills above Sherman Oaks, summertime comes easily at Ramone Ranch. The home is a lovingly assembled museum of pop culture and rock ’n’ roll artifacts, personally decorated by the late punk-rock guitar hero Johnny Ramone and his wife, Linda, who’s pouring tall glasses of iced coffee with Kahlua in the kitchen.

A playlist of ancient pop unspools in the living room as she takes a seat, looking mid-‘60s mod in a bright orange skirt and metallic knee-high boots, a sparkly tiara in her strawberry blond hair. “Johnny died on the couch right over there,” she says, pointing just a few feet away. A large black urn with his ashes rests on the mantle nearby.

Her husband has been gone from cancer since 2004, but his presence and the legacy of the Ramones, the band of punk rock originators he led for two decades and 2,263 live performances, is as strong as ever. Despite modest sales during their career, the Ramones have arguably become as influential a force as the Rolling Stones.

“What can you do?” asks Linda, 59, speaking in a lively New York brogue rooted in her youth in Rosedale, Queens, just 30 minutes from the Ramones’ old Forest Hills neighborhood. “He got sick. And they all got sick and they all passed away. But that doesn’t mean the legacy goes away. That to me is the most important thing because that’s what they all wanted.”

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With all four original Ramones deceased — three from cancer, and bassist Dee Dee from a heroin overdose — their legacy rests in the hands of two heirs: Linda and singer Joey Ramone’s younger brother, Mickey Leigh. As partners, they don’t always agree, but together they keep the Ramones name actively in motion through merchandising, album releases, licensing and special events.

In New York, Leigh hosts the annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash, while Linda has created the yearly Johnny Ramone Tribute on the lawn of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which in recent years has drawn such performers/hosts as Rob Zombie, Johnny Depp, Billy Idol and Eddie Vedder. It’s back for its 14th edition on Sunday, Aug. 11, curated by filmmaker Vincent Gallo with performances by Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, comedian Fred Armisen, the band Starcrawler, an outdoor screening of the 1979 film “The Warriors” and an exhibit of vintage punk and glitter rock photography.

The gathering is anchored around the large bronze statue of the guitarist — leaning back, mid-riff — that stands at the cemetery. Dee Dee Ramone and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell also are buried there.

Johnny Ramone: 1948-2004
The Johnny Ramone statue at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

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“It’s a good rock ’n’ roll hang,” says Jones, now a popular radio DJ on KLOS. He has appeared at every one of the tributes, and was a personal friend to the Ramones guitarist. “I saw Johnny on his last legs — I actually saw him when he was in the La-Z-Boy dead.”

This year, Jones will perform a set of “fun, goofy” songs with Armisen, another friend to Linda, best known for his years on “Saturday Night Live” and “Portlandia.” Armisen never got to know Johnny but as a teen once scored an autographed poster from the Ramones guitarist at a New York record convention.

“Their music, of course, has aged so well,” says Armisen, who calls the annual tribute “a special time for everyone. [Linda] really gets into the details, and it shows.”

Johnny (born John Cummings in 1948) was already battling cancer when he attended Dee Dee’s funeral at Hollywood Forever in 2002, just six months after the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The bassist was the first Ramone to be buried there, and Johnny began making plans for his epic statue. It was unveiled a year after his death, and Linda says she’s arranged to be buried there beside her husband’s ashes.

“Johnny was so into having people visit his statue,” says Linda. She recommended the park for Cornell’s funeral and burial when his wife, Vicky, reached out the night of his suicide. “I don’t make a commission selling plots. I just think it’s fun to have all my friends around us.”

The event, with proceeds going to prostate cancer research, is just the most public expression of Linda’s work promoting her husband’s music with the band he formed in 1974. A new deluxe edition of the 1979 live album “It’s Alive” arrives in September, and producer Rick Rubin is currently involved in an upcoming expanded reissue of the “End of the Century” album. She deals with Ramones business much of the week.

“I call Linda the princess of punk,” says Jeff Jampol, who manages her half of the Ramones estate and also represents Janis Joplin, Charlie Parker and the Doors. “She was an intrinsic part of that whole scene, and she protects and promotes it with a vigor that I’ve scarcely ever seen.”

Jampol wouldn’t place a financial value on the Ramones estate, but said that the most in-demand name on “the Mount Rushmore of punk” earns significant income from music, apparel, posters and more. “We sell many millions of dollars’ worth of T-shirts every year,” he says, with millions more for song placements in movies, TV and commercials.

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The Ramones
The Ramones in 1978, from left: Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey.
(Los Angeles Times)

If creative and business divisions can sometimes mirror old conflicts within the original punk quartet, band business mostly rolls forward.

“I never let anything get in the middle of business. Johnny Ramone didn’t and I don’t,” Linda says. “It doesn’t matter who I like or what I like, business is business and that’s what Johnny taught me.”

Despite several classic albums for Sire/Warner Bros. Records and some of the most hook-filled songs of their era, mainstream succes and rock radio airplay largely eluded them. The Phil Spector-produced “End of the Century” was supposed to be their pop breakthrough but wasn’t.

“Joey always thought he was going to have a hit. After ‘End of the Century’ and they didn’t have a hit, Johnny gave up,” says Linda, adding that the guitarist remained committed to live performing, where “he felt like he was king of the hill.”

It was only after the band was over that it became clear what they had achieved, as friends like Cornell, Eddie Vedder and Kirk Hammett insisted. “He’d go, ‘But no, you sold more records,’” Linda recalls of her husband’s attitude. “And they would go, ‘Oh, that’s not important. You were more influential,’ and he’d say, ‘I’d rather be both. Both is good.’”

Much of Ramone Ranch is exactly how Johnny left it. The Elvis room is still covered in old movie posters starring the King of Rock ’n’ Roll: “Harum Scarum,” “Clambake,” “G.I. Blues.” Presley’s old Union 76 credit card is framed on the wall, near a snapshot of Linda with Elvis’ widow, Priscilla Presley.

In the kitchen, a large painting of Johnny shares wall space with the image of John Wayne and a sign reading “Reagan Country.” Down the hall are a Disney-themed bathroom and a Horror room, which holds artifacts from both Hollywood and real-life horror, including Tim Burton drawings and an Adolf Hitler autograph.

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Born Linda Marie Daniele in 1960, she first saw the Ramones perform at CBGB in the mid-1970s. But it was during a trip to Los Angeles, and a chance meeting at the Tropicana Motel in West Hollywood, that she connected with Joey Ramone. They dated for three years, and she traveled regularly in the band’s tour van.

She was with them every day in a Los Angeles recording studio during the making of “End of the Century,” and during the filming of their 1979 cult movie “Rock ’n’ Roll High School.” By the time Linda was 21, she and the singer were growing apart. They broke up and she began dating Johnny, causing a rift that lasted through the life of the band.

Photo of Johnny Ramone & Ramones
Johnny Ramone, circa 1980.
(David Corio / Getty Images)

“You know, Johnny thought it made him play better, being angry and aggressive,” says Linda. Joey responded by writing the angry love songs “The KKK Took My Baby Away” and “She Belongs to Me,” among others.

The love triangle wasn’t widely known about until surviving band members discussed it openly in the documentary “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” released in 2004. The revelation made Linda a controversial figure to some fans.

“Honestly, no one really knows what went on besides me, Johnny and Joey,” says Linda, who notes that she remained in touch with Joey until his death in 2001 and now keeps a Shepard Fairey portrait of the singer hanging near the kitchen. She will soon begin work on a memoir of her days with the Ramones.

“I think right now is my time,“ says Linda. “It’s a good time for women in rock ’n’ roll. There’s not that many women that actually got to see what I saw.”

Johnny Ramone Tribute at Hollywood Forever
When: 6:30-11 p.m., Aug. 11

Where: Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Cost, info: $20 (under 10 free), hollywoodforever.com/event/johnny-ramone-tribute


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