The Tragic Truth About Johnny Ramone’s Childhood
With a no-frills playing style that exclusively consisted of downstrokes, the late Johnny Ramone was arguably the blueprint for generations of punk guitarists to follow. He didn’t need to play flashy leads or engage in over-the-top theatrics to stand out — as the sole guitarist of the Ramones, Johnny epitomized his band’s minimalist approach from their formation in 1974 to their disbandment 22 years later. He was, however, unlike the average punk rocker in more ways than one. While most of his contemporaries made no secret about their love of getting wasted, Johnny was proudly straight-edge before the term became a thing (via Rolling Stone), eschewing drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes and living a healthy lifestyle. He also made no bones about his conservative politics, further making him a rarity in a largely liberal-friendly genre.
While Johnny Ramone deserves kudos for his dedication to clean living, there were other not-quite-praiseworthy aspects of his life that mostly emerged after his death from prostate cancer in 2004. Most notably, Ramones drummer Marky Ramone alleged in his 2015 autobiography that Johnny frequently used racial slurs in casual conversation and was physically abusive toward his girlfriend, as cited by Vice. Then there’s his contentious relationship with Joey Ramone that lasted until the frontman’s death in 2001. These things all beg the question — did the guitarist’s formative years influence how he supposedly turned out as an adult? Based on what we know, his childhood and teenage years were, indeed, less than ideal.
Johnny Ramone grew up around tough, abusive authority figures
Born John William Cummings on October 8, 1948, the future Johnny Ramone had a working-class upbringing as the son of a construction worker father and a waitress mother, as noted by Rolling Stone. A separate article from the publication described the guitarist’s dad as a hard-drinking individual who was very tough on Johnny, going as far as to force the young boy to pitch in a baseball game despite having a broken big toe; he also mockingly asked if he had raised a “baby” while doing so. But his father was just one of multiple authority figures Johnny didn’t always get along with. In his posthumously published autobiography, “Commando,” he wrote that during his time in Catholic school, the nuns would “smack [him] around all the time” even if he felt he wasn’t doing anything that merited corporal punishment.
Not all of Johnny’s childhood memories were unpleasant ones, however, as the would-be Ramones axeman recalled being a rock ‘n’ roll fan from a very young age. He was an especially big fan of Elvis Presley, much to the chagrin of his parents, who purportedly thought the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was a “dope fiend.” Johnny was also into the music of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, Ricky Nelson, and Little Richard, and he loved how Richard’s status as a gay Black man “made everybody crazy” back in the day.
He had a violent temper as a teenage musician
Just about everyone goes through some sort of rebellious phase as a teenager, but in Johnny Ramone’s case, his teenage years were rebellious and violent as he became a “tough and domineering” carbon copy of his father, according to Rolling Stone. It probably helped that he attended two military schools — Staunton Military Academy in Virginia and the Peekskill Military Academy in New York — before transferring to Forest Hills High School in his hometown of Queens (via Washington Times).
While attending Forest Hills, Johnny and Thomas Erdelyi — later known as Tommy Ramone — were part of a band called Tangerine Puppets. Although the name may give off peaceful, flower power-tinged vibes (they were, after all, named after a Donovan song), they were notorious in the local scene because of Johnny’s explosive temper. One particular incident saw Johnny randomly hit the class president with his guitar neck during a gig; according to an unnamed bandmate who spoke to Rolling Stone, he “told the kid that it was an accident, but we knew John hated this kid.”
During another show, Johnny and the lead vocalist got into a fight on stage, with the guitarist furiously beating down on the singer until their bandmates intervened. “We all liked Johnny,” Tommy Ramone later recalled. “That anger is pure.”
He turned his life around after a 'spiritual awakening'
Johnny Ramone’s penchant for violence continued in his late teens, as he wrote in “Commando” that he would drop TV sets from the top of apartment buildings — much like your typical rock star, only he wasn’t one yet — and hurl bricks through windows, all for his personal enjoyment. He was also a bully who “strong-armed” people, as cited by Rolling Stone. Also citing the aforementioned memoir, Vice wrote that Johnny, the future clean-living punk, was a regular marijuana smoker who drank on occasion — no more than one or two beers, but he definitely wasn’t straight-edge at this point in his life.
That all ended when Johnny was barely out of his teens and, as he claimed in his book, had a spiritual encounter that convinced him to turn his life around. “All of a sudden, one day everything changed,” he wrote. “I was twenty. I was walking down the block, near my neighborhood … and I heard a voice. I don’t know what it was, God maybe … It asked, ‘What are you doing with your life? Is this what you are here for?’ It was a spiritual awakening. And I just immediately stopped everything. It was all clear-cut right then.”
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