The Ramones (photo: Plismo via Wikicommons)
Jim Bessman’s 1993 biography about New York punk legends the Ramones is called An American Band. It’s also one of the better books about the “da bruddas” on the shelves, alongside Monte Melnick and Frank Meyer’s On the Road with the Ramones. But putting literary quality to one side, it’s the title which is fascinating. You look at the Ramones’ classic logo — the presidential seal edited to include a baseball bat, arrowheads, and the words “Hey ho, let’s go” — and the fact that they were positioning themselves, even early on, as national treasures while parodying that which they love seems undeniable.
But there was so much more going on with the Ramones. And the more you learn that the Ramones were a microcosmic version of America itself, warts and all, the more you want to learn. Some might say that the Ramones are what America should aspire to be. We’ll see.
The four original Ramones: Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee have all left this mortal realm now. They’re all beloved figures and they all left family behind who miss them greatly. None of them were politicians and, to our knowledge, none of them had degrees in a politics-based subject. So it’s up to the listener how harshly they choose to judge them for mostly privately held views but it’s a fact that Johnny Ramone had very conservative beliefs.
In 1983, Johnny told Musician Magazine, “Punks should have no politics or be right wing. Otherwise, they’re just hippies dressed as punks. . . . Punks should stand on the corner and do nothing, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One.”
That’s particularly fascinating when you consider the fact that the rest of his band, for much of its existence, veered to the left. Joey and second drummer Marky were staunch supporters of the Democrats; Marky in particular (still alive, by the way) has been very critical of Johnny’s views over the years.
“Johnny was a conservative and Joey was a liberal Democrat and I’m a Democrat, but you know I have a lot of conservative friends,” Marky told The Steve Malzberg Show in 2015. “It was conservative Republican against Democrat, Johnny always loving Ronald Reagan and he was very happy that George Bush won. And then it was Joey supporting Democratic candidates. So the arguments would go back and forth about why, what for, what’s the reason, you know the usual generalized stuff, but then they would get very specific.”
In that same interview, Marky also pointed out that the band members enjoyed the freedom to debate: “That’s the country we live in, thank God, and we’re able to do that. So I respect people’s politics.”
That same year (he was promoting his book), Marky told Doug Elfman of the Las Vegas Review Journal that: “I would say 99 percent of conservatives who would have come to our show and saw us, they wouldn’t have liked us at all,” addressing a question about punk as a movement being anti-establishment.
So there’s that side — the utopian ideal that people of different political persuasions can work and practically live alongside each other and put their differences aside, but dig a little deeper, read those aforementioned books and a few more beside, and the water gets much more muddied.
Famously, Johnny’s widow Linda dated Joey first. Details of when she started seeing Johnny and whether there was a crossover period remain vague. What we do know is that Joey never really got over it. That’s not relevant to the band members’ politics at all, except for the fact that Joey wrote a song for the 1981 album Pleasant Dreams called “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” Tour manager Monte Melnick believes that the song simply has to be at least inspired by the episode with Linda. A sly dig at the bandmate who he perceived as stealing his girlfriend. It’s worth noting that both Marky and Joey’s (actual) brother Mickey Leigh believe that the song is written about something else though both come up with a different story of the song’s origins.
But it’s bigger than an inter-band love triangle. In On the Road with the Ramones, a picture is formed of just how insular Johnny was. When touring internationally, he would often moan about the food in other countries (culinary experiences that many musicians consider a perk). He would refer to foriegn food as stupid, and hope to find a burger place.
More worrying, he would throw out racial slurs. Marky says in the book that Johnny would do it to shock and annoy his liberal bandmates. He was joking, Marky says, but “does that matter?” No.
So that’s what we know. Johnny loved Ronald Reagan and he praised George W. Bush in front of his bandmates while being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. But by that point, the surviving members: Tommy, Marky, and Dee Dee (later-era bassist CJ and drummer Richie weren’t inducted) wouldn’t have been surprised by Johnny’s statement. They probably expected it.
That brings us back to the idea that the Ramones represent an ideal for America. Because, while Johnny’s conservative views might have been odious to his bandmates, they were still able to work together, even tour together in a van, and figure out a way to put aside their differences for something bigger than their individual selves.
Meanwhile, if “The KKK Took My Baby Away” was directed at Johnny by Joey, then Johnny stood on stage and played the song night after night without visibly flinching. Similarly, the 1986 song “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg (My Brain is Hanging Upside Down)” is about Reagan, Johnny’s political hero, yet again, the guitarist played the song countless times.
Maybe that works in a band setting. Maybe. But the question we have to ask ourselves is: What are we prepared to accept in order to achieve what we want to achieve? By living with some of Johnny’s more insular, even hateful, views, were the Ramones able to get songs such as those previously mentioned out and maybe subvert a few minds for the better? Or were Joey, Marky, and the guys guilty of reluctantly accepting racism for their own sakes?
You have to make up your own mind.