Book Review: Commando – The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone

Book Review: Commando – The autobiography of Johnny Ramone

Commando, released in early 2013, is a good read for anyone interested in the Ramones, Punk Rock and the music business in general. Johnny Ramone, (real name, John Cummings), is succinct and to the point in this telling, the recollections fast and rich. The march through the years is brisk, unsentimental and the reader gets a sense of the real deal. This is the most definitive inside account of the Ramones - by default - seeing as Joey and Dee Dee died prior to the book coming together. Johnny himself was presumably on his deathbed at the time of writing, but illness didn’t dull his edge. Johnny Ramone had a strong point a view and he kept it going until the end. He could be boorish, but there is plenty of intelligence and humor in this memoir to lift the infrequent moments of mono vision.

The Ramones are on the short list of Punk’s greatest innovators. The influence of their music, style, attitude and pragmatic approach to the business behind it all is growing with time. They were original; an antithesis to institutionalized sounds and behaviors that water down most attempts at commercial music, and they were stronger because of it. As a band, they always intended to be great, even dreamt of being the greatest of all time. Their aspirations were sincere and raw, and it took real drive to overcome a lack of traditional musical ability and make it as far as they did. In the book, Johnny is candid about his expectations and goals, and his disappointment upon realizing the Ramones would be fated to something less than the rarified air of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The Ramones recalibrated Rock music for the modern age. They kept songs tight and on point, eliminated the Blues and guitar solos; toured a no-nonsense stage show relentlessly, and they wore a uniform of leather and long hair throughout their career. They were geeks underneath it all, but cool as can be. Johnny Ramone was the architect behind the band’s operation; he was the Task Master, the aesthetic guide (or despot, depending on who you ask), and the main money manager. To hear him tell it, they kicked more ass than just about anyone despite certain limitations posed by his band mates: Dee Dee’s self-destructiveness and inability to take an order, Joey’s insecure “front man” prima donna prerogatives, and a series of drummers who were grating complainers, if not outright drunks. Tommy Ramone, the band’s original drummer, is the only person connected with the band to consistently receive high compliment from Johnny.

It was Tommy’s idea to start the band, and it was Tommy who would be the first to leave, after their third album, in a desperate attempt to reclaim his sanity. The Ramones were truly strange – and I don’t mean in a gimmicky way. The showbiz shtick stayed on the surface. Just below, the Ramones were four singular individuals who were often at odds with each other. Johnny was as unapologetically right wing as they come, (and if today’s right-wingers had good taste in music, this book would provide evidence that their ideology had a notable cultural legacy – at long last). Dee Dee Ramone, the band’s principal songwriter, was a sensitive soul with a hard drug problem, as well as a determined non-conformist. Joey, for his part, ran regular interference with band logistics and productivity stemming from his severe OCD and debilitating self-esteem issues. Marky Ramone, the second and longest tenured drummer, could be a melancholy alcoholic. You get the idea…

The Ramones took on piety in all forms with unrelenting humor. Deconstructing self-righteousness was about the extent of their musical statement, preferring instead to just rock and have a good time. But, the band’s inner mood was often sullen and sour. The band’s internal dialogue – both publicly and privately – was terse. To quote Johnny, Dee Dee was the “craziest guy you’re ever going to meet.” Johnny lacked sympathy for Joey’s OCD; instead dismissing him as unorganized and bothersome. Dee Dee would purposely write lyrics and act in ways that mocked Johnny’s conservatism and controlling nature. Johnny, in turn, would force everyone to listen to Rush Limbaugh in the touring van (they toured together in a single van through the course of their career - comrades). Joey would accuse Johnny of managing missteps, and characterize him as being a fascist. Johnny married Joey’s girlfriend. As so it went, on and on. The band was certainly beset with mental illness from the get-go, and all that heaviness went unsaid and largely unresolved within the Ramones.

They were dysfunctional, but it fell away somehow when they were on stage. The Ramones were remarkably tight as a performing outfit. Anyone who ever saw them live – whether they be punks, rockers, or metal-heads – will attest to the non-stop fierceness of their set. Always on time, (and only postponing a hand full of shows across a twenty-five year career), the Ramones were tougher than platitudes and rock star pretensions. They didn't pander to the audience, which I appreciate and admire the more I think about it. They charged into an uphill battle against a dull and slow-turning industry and managed to bring hilarity to the game. They held on to their integrity too, which may be their greatest legacy. To those who don’t understand Punk music – where it came from, how it has evolved (or not), over the years, and why it is still relevant today – the Ramones might appear one dimensional and cartoon-like. In truth, their path to greatness was anything but.

Commando is a rare telling from the inside of one of the best rock bands of any era. You don’t have to be a Ramones fan to appreciate, but it helps to know the scene from which they came. Johnny doesn’t mince words in his assessment of any and everything, and to his credit, he keeps things on point. He is unfair at times. One has to keep in mind the equally strong personalities of Dee Dee and Joey, who probably roll in their graves with this book. But, since they have all passed on, this is as good as it gets. Johnny’s shell cracks a bit when forced to come to terms with the death of his band mates. He offers touching reflections on Dee Dee and Joey, and it’s a little bit of emotional truth that goes a long way. Taken as a whole, Johnny Ramone’s Commando doesn’t take the posterity format too seriously. It seems like he had fun putting the book together, and I enjoyed reading it.


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