Pinhead No More

Johnny Ramone put in his 22 years. Now he's content to bask in early retirement.

Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) was a punk rocker. But not anymore. Unlike many of his never-gonna-give-it-up peers, he knew when it was time to hang up the leather jacket and trade in the faded blue jeans. He did after the Ramones' final tour in 1996. By that time, he had reached the two goals (play together for at least 20 years and perform at least 2,000 concerts) he set for the group, which formed in Queens, New York, in 1974.

"I probably enjoyed my last year more than any other year," Ramone admits via phone from his home in L.A. "But I didn't want to get up there as an aging rock and roller. Twenty-two years is a long run. I wanted to get on with the rest of my life and have people think fondly of the band and see the band while we were still performing relatively well. I'm not that crazy to think that we were at our peak 22 years into it. I know you reach your peak somewhere in your first five years. But I could get up onstage and still feel that we were the best at what we were doing, and I wanted to keep it that way."

Now, the retired punk rocker spends his days relaxing. He says he's seen four concerts this year -- AC/DC, Marilyn Manson, U2, and Tom Jones. That, he says, is a high number for him, but "they were all enjoyable." "Tom Jones was a little bizarre," he says. "At 60 years old, he still gets up there and bumps and grinds and grabs his crotch. I found that a little offensive."

While other members of the Ramones have pursued solo projects, Ramone says he has no interest in continuing to make music.

"I'm perfectly content with retirement," he says. "In the summer, I'll watch the Yankees game every day. I'll watch a movie or two. I go out to dinner just about every night with my wife. I either have friends over and watch a movie or go over to a friend's house and watch a movie. I do a lot of movie watching. I'll sit by the pool. Friends will ask me, 'Why don't you come and play here or there?' I got so spoiled with the reaction the Ramones got, and anything less than that would not be as good."

Even Ramone's involvement with the new reissues of the band's first four albums (Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin) was minimal. Ramone says he essentially fielded occasional questions and let the record label do the rest of the work. But when he heard from the label that My Generation, an independent Westlake record store, was hosting a five-day celebration to coincide with the release of the reissues (and giving away T-shirts, flasks, and posters), he decided to do some phone interviews to promote the event. To his knowledge, the event is "unique." The reissues, which come with new liner notes and demo versions of songs and live material as bonus tracks, are getting more attention than normal because of the April death of singer Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman). Johnny wasn't on good terms with Joey when he died, but says he initially agreed to get together with former members to play at what would have been Joey's 50th birthday party in May. Then he changed his mind.

"I didn't wanna play," he admits. "But I thought it would be nice, and the fans would like it. We got pressure from family members to do things the Ramones wouldn't be doing, and we just said forget it. I didn't talk with Joey, but the other two guys have always talked to him. It's difficult being in a band for 22 years with people. You have disagreements and different egos. We just couldn't see eye to eye on anything."

Given that the Ramones formed a couple of years before the Sex Pistols and the Clash, they're often considered to have invented punk. But Ramone won't take credit for launching the punk revolution.

"Nah," he says in his still-strong New York accent. "Punk rock was there since rock and roll started. Rebellious rock and roll was punk rock. Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley. That was punk rock. The Beatles in Hamburg, before they put on their suits and were wearing their leather jackets. But by 1974, progressive rock had diluted rock and roll. Everyone had gotten so overindulgent. All of a sudden, we started playing, and other bands saw us play and were inspired. Our main influences would have been the early and mid-'60s British movement, the Beach Boys, and surf music -- pure rock and roll."

Perhaps it's the result of too many hours spent basking in the poolside sun, but Ramone doesn't even get worked up about the corporate nature of punk rock these days.

"I'm just happy to see kids out there playing rock and roll and trying to write songs that are songs," he says. "I'm happy to see bands like Green Day and Offspring and things like that. I'm not happy when I see everyone up there playing to tapes. That's the only thing that bothers me -- too many bands don't know what a song is anymore."

(Thanks Jeff Niesel)