Saturday, March 23, 2013

CJ Ramone: Punk, Family and a New Album

 Editor's note: A different version of this story appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 22, 2013.

Chris Ward was in the midst of trying to learn 40 songs at break-neck speed. It was 1989 and five weeks after his release from a Marine brig in Virginia, he was about to go on tour as the bass player for one of the most influential, and by many accounts, the first punk rock group of all time: The Ramones.
“It was like ‘how did this ever happen?’ It was the ultimate … rock star dream,” he said in a phone interview from his Long Island, N.Y., home. 

He was in his early 20s and had been a fan of the band that was formed in Queens, N.Y., in 1974 by Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, Jeffry Hyman and Thomas Erdelyi, better known as Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, and Tommy Ramone. 

By 1989, Dee Dee, Johnny and Joey were still playing together, but had gone through several different drummers. Mark Bell, AKA Marky Ramone, was the drummer at the time. 

Dee Dee was burned out from the road by this point, but continued to write songs for the Ramones while Ward was hired to replace him as the band’s bass player and sometimes-singer. Ward was reborn CJ Ramone and would end up in the band until their retirement in 1996. 

He said it was a strange sensation going from watching them from the audience to being on stage playing with them. 

“One day I'm bouncing up and down in front of Johnny, and the next I look over, and there's Johnny and Joey and I'm playing on stage with them,” he recalled. “I was 21 or 22. I grew up listening to them. It was tremendous … overwhelming.”

CJ Ramone’s first show with the band was on Sept. 30, 1989, in Leicester, England. 

“Whenever I'm in a situation that's stressful … I just get out of my head,” he recalled of his early days with the band and of his first show in particular. 

“Yeah, I made some mistakes that night. … Johnny was mad as hell and yelled at me for five solid minutes after the show. I stood there listening and then I ran back stage, drank some beer and celebrated. I knew I had it. I got the whole Ramones thing on stage," he said.

For the other band members, the rock and roll lifestyle was commonplace, but for C.J., who was younger by nine years and unused to it, he was enthralled by the famous people they hung around with. 

“I was so not cool when I was in the band. … I was going on pure instinct,” he said. “When I met Lemmy (the lead singer of English rock band Motörhead), I was out of my mind. I told him, ‘We have to party!’” They did, he said. 

But even in the midst of rock and roll excess, he never “fell into the rock-star thing” he said, keeping the same friends he had always had, living in a small house and refraining from splurging on extravagant purchases. He did buy himself a motorcycle, he admitted. 

Following the break up of the band in 1996, Ramone stopped playing music altogether for a short time. 

“My son [Liam] was born in 1997 and a year or two later was diagnosed with autism,” he said. 

Ramone said he was told by his son’s doctors that his son needed him to be at home. Ramone is heavily involved in the autism community. 

He said Metallica asked him to play bass for their band twice, but he turned the mega-selling and multi-Grammy-winning heavy metal band from Los Angeles down after he was told by his son’s doctors that he would be doing his son a great disservice if he took the job. 

“So I packed it in,” he said. 

He said he doesn’t regret the decision. 

“I had already done it all. Playing with Metallica would have been amazing, but I already played with the greatest rock and roll band in history,” said Ramone.

While he later started two other bands, Los Gusanos and Bad Chopper, both now defunct, before recording and touring as CJ Ramone he had always hoped The Ramones would re-form. 

“I had always waited for the [phone] call telling me we were going to get back together and going on tour. … Instead, I got the other calls,” said Ramone. “With Johnny and Joey, they were both sick [so] it was expected. … Dee Dee’s death was probably the biggest blow because it was sudden.”

Joey died from lymphoma in 2001. Dee Dee died from a heroin overdose the next year. And Johnny lost his battle with prostate cancer in 2004.

Ramone said he was one of the last people to see Johnny before he died. 

“I got the chance to say good-bye and thank him,” he said. 

He also saw Dee Dee before his death in 2002. According to Ramone, in the past Dee Dee hadn’t always been nice to him, but that night was different. 

“He told me, ‘You were always cool to me.’ It was out of character for him. I waited for him to crack a joke. He didn’t and I didn’t know what to say. A couple of weeks later, he was dead.”

The dynamic of “fan/friend, friend/ mentor” between himself and the other members was “like the ‘Twilight Zone.’ It was so odd. I’m still trying to get my head around it,” he said. 

His first solo album recording under CJ Ramone, “Reconquista,” Spanish for reconquest, is meant as a tribute to Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, and was influenced by that band’s sound, but, he said, there are hints of his two later bands that come through on the album as well. 

“Reconquista” was recorded three times, said Ramone, and was released digitally last year. After two attempts that ended in results he just wasn't satisfied with, he called up his friend Steve Soto of The Adolescents, a punk band from Southern California, who helped him produce the album that he had intended to make.

Recorded in Orange County, Calif., with the help of a who’s who of punk and new wave musicians from such famed bands as X, Bad Religion, Blondie and Social Distortion, among others, Ramone said it was fun to record and the results made him proud. 

Before the recording session when Soto mentioned the list of people who wanted to help out on the record, Ramone was at first a little taken-aback. 

“In the back of my mind I’m thinking: ‘How much is this going to cost?” he said. “None of them asked for a dime. They did it because of The Ramones name. In honor of them. That's the power of the Ramones.”

The album was released through PledgeMusic, an online direct-to-fan, fan-funded music platform which bypasses record companies. 

“It’s about as DYI as you can get,” said Ramone. “It's anti-corporate music business.”

With a wife, Denise, and three kids — Liam who is 15, Lilliana, 12, and 3-year-old Mia Dove — he has scaled back his touring schedule and when he can, brings the family on tour with him. 

“We're playing at Fuji Rock Festival in Japan this summer and I'm bringing the family,” he told The Eagle. 

As if on cue, his 3-year-old daughter broke in to the interview with a question for her father about “Dora the Explorer,” a children’s TV show. And by the sound of it, Ramone was washing dishes as we spoke by phone. 

Ramone’s two older children were with first wife, Chessa, Marky Ramone’s niece from whom he’s divorced, and his youngest was by his second wife, Denise. 

His oldest daughter, who herself is a multi-instrumentalist, was into punk, but is listening to progressive music these days. “But every once in a while, she breaks out some Green Day,” said Ramone. 

He was happy to see punk attain such popularity in the 1990s with bands like Rancid and Green Day, but inevitably, the music industry got its hands on it and helped produce mediocre music, said Ramone. 

Punk rock was originally created by and for disenfranchised youth, he said. 

“As long as their are young, angry and alienated teenagers their will be punk rock,” he said, 

Beyond that, punk surmounts age differences, he said. At his shows he has fans both young and old. 

“I don’t think there is another type of music that transcends the generations, … and that’s a very wonderful thing.” 

He said when he played in Glasgow, Scotland, he met several people in their 50s who were had been in the scene since the 1970s and were still dedicated to the punk ethos.

“For them it’s not a musical style, it’s a lifestyle,” he said. 

Ramone hopes to continue to play and record for “the rest of my days.”
“I’ll always play The Ramones’ songs live. [The fans] love to hear it,” he said. “I do The Ramones justice.”