Johnny Ramone, who died Sept. 15 in L.A. after a long battle with prostate cancer, wasn’t rock’s most virtuosic guitar player, but he was certainly one of its most significant. ”He was so influential that he was completely taken for granted,” says garage-rock guru and staunch Ramones fan Little Steven. Certainly, any ax player working in the punk or post-punk vein owes a direct debt to Johnny’s ferocious hyperspeed strum, which he could have trademarked.
Born John Cummings in 1948, he cofounded the Ramones — the band that effectively launched punk — with three other Forest Hills, Queens, misfits in 1974, continuing with them until their 1996 breakup. The third group member to die in the past three years, Johnny was easily the least cuddly Ramone: While Joey (who died in 2001 of lymphatic cancer) was a lovably goofy naïf, and Dee Dee (who OD’d in 2002) a charmingly addled burnout, Johnny was a clear-eyed hard-ass with a sound business head and miles of take-no-bull attitude.
He was also the group’s resident right-winger. ”God bless President Bush and God bless America,” he said when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. In recent days, illness had mellowed Johnny, according to Steve Miller, with whom he had been working on his memoirs. ”It has softened me up, and I liked the old me better,” he told Miller. ”I don’t even have the energy to be angry. I liked being angry.” For our part, we’re just angry he’s gone.