Here Was Johnny: Henry Rollins x Linda Ramone


Henry Rollins, musician, ex-frontman of Black Flag, and self-confessed huge fan of the Ramones, isn’t going to be able to make it to the Ninth Annual Johnny Ramone Tribute, which is being hosted by John Waters this weekend at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Rollins doesn’t normally miss the Tribute, which has been held each year for fans since Ramone’s untimely death of prostate cancer in 2004 and which, this year, will feature host John Waters screening a director’s cut of Cry-Baby along with vintage concert footage and music videos projected on the 42-foot mausoleum wall.

This year, Rollins will be in Seoul, South Korea, during the festivities. The first thing he did when he hopped on the phone with his longtime friend Linda Ramone, Johnny’s widow, Ramones archive custodian, and the organizer of the Tribute, was offer to “go on garbage detail and clean up after all the partiers who’ve left” as soon as he returned to the States. From there, Rollins and Ramone embarked on a wide-ranging trip conversation in memory of the inimitable Johnny Ramone.

HENRY ROLLINS: You and I have never talked about this before, Linda—and we’ve talked so much over the years—but do you remember when and where you were when you first heard the Ramones?

LINDA RAMONE: Yes. I heard them and saw them the first time at CBGB’s. I went to CBGB’s with my friend Justin who was in this band called Milk ‘N’ Cookies and he took me to CBGB’s to see the Ramones.

ROLLINS: You and the Milk ‘N’ Cookies guy, I know from editing the biography, you guys were friends at that point, but was he friends with the Ramones?

RAMONE: Yes. He hadn’t opened for the Ramones yet, because it was really the early days of the Ramones at CBGB’s—like the bottom stage before the other stage.

ROLLINS: The Ramones were an opening band.

RAMONE: The Ramones just played five songs. So no one opened up, they just played like five songs. It was crazy to see it. Johnny was still wearing his New York Dolls kind of glitter-punk look. And Joey was still doing his Alice Cooper thing—not standing at the microphone. It was pretty crazy.

ROLLINS: What was in your record collection? What records did you play in the week before you saw the Ramones?

RAMONE: I had an older brother who was in love with rock-‘n’-roll music, but he loved Mountain and Black Sabbath. He was a big Ritchie Blackmore fan. He was more into that. He did like Alice Cooper and Iggy and all that, but he was really more heavy metal.

ROLLINS: Where were you at?

RAMONE: One day I was sitting in my living room and my brother comes out and he goes, “I found a band for you.” And he shows me a picture of the New York Dolls and from that moment on, that was my life. And when people say, “the Ramones changed my life,” well, for me, the New York Dolls changed my life.

ROLLINS: So you walked into CBGB’s being a Dolls fan?

RAMONE: Huge Dolls fan, huge T-Rex fan, huge Bowie fan, huge Slade fan, huge Sweet fan, huge glitter-rock fan. I had listened to all the great stuff, like Led Zeppelin and all that, but it wasn’t my forte.

ROLLINS: So knowing that, when you saw one of the first-ever Ramones shows, what were the Ramones saying to you? What did you walk out thinking?

RAMONE: That they’re crazy.

ROLLINS: But you wanted to see them again?

RAMONE: I wanted to see them again, and I have to tell you the truth. When I first saw the Ramones, I was more attached to looking at Joey than the other two or three at that point, only because Joey was so different looking and so unique. I had never envisioned a singer like that before. Don’t forget, I saw the Ramones constantly—every time they played at CBGB’s. Milk ‘N’ Cookies started opening for them and I was also really good friends with this girl Janice, who wrote a New York Rocker gossip column. I was still in high school, but every weekend me and Justin would drive into the city.

ROLLINS: At what point did you meet them?

RAMONE: It was funny; I never met Johnny right away. No way. The only one I met right away was Joey, because CBGB’s was such a small crowd at that time, everyone was playing Blondie and the Talking Heads, and everyone just hung out in the club. You could not not meet somebody if you just went to the club every week, because everybody would be hanging out all the time. So, I met Joey immediately and I was always friendly with him. Johnny never stayed at the club. Johnny always went home, at that point. But Tommy would always be there and Dee Dee—everybody. All the bands just hung around. And since Justin, who was my best friend at the time, was opening for the band, I was friendly with everybody.

ROLLINS: Now that CBGB’s is gone and Hilly has sadly passed on, CBGB’s for a lot of people is a very special place. I still have dreams about CBGB’s. I still miss the place. Whenever I visit New York, I never walk down the Bowery. I just don’t want to walk by what was; I think it will hurt too much. When you were hanging out between bands on a night at CBGB’s and you would look around the room, tell me some of the people who were just hanging around there.

RAMONE: Oh it would always be Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke—all the bands. I never really saw the Talking Heads that much, but Tom Verlaine would always hang out, all of Television, The Cramps, Brian Gregory. People went out every weekend to CBGB’s whether they were playing or not, because it was a place to go. From CBGB’s, we would go to Max’s. The first time I went to Max’s, Devo was playing. Everyone was there. I was really good friends at that time with Walter Lure, who was in the Heartbreakers. Johnny Thunders would hang out, Richard Hell would hang out—it wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to go meet a band.” Everybody was just hanging out in the club because there wasn’t really that big of a scene yet. 

ROLLINS: During the time you were young and just part of it, you never really think about what it’s going to mean—and why should you? Young people, in my opinion at least, should just be in the moment and enjoying themselves.

RAMONE: Yeah, Henry. It’s all about having fun. You know what the other cool thing would be? You would have bands from England coming over, so then you had a weekend of the Dead Boys and the Damned. I’d go home and I’d think, “Oh my God, I don’t know who’s better. I think the Dead Boys were better tonight.” And then you’d go the next night and the Damned would be better. And then the Damned would hang out. Then X-Ray Spex came over and then The Jam came over. AC/DC even played CBGB’s.

ROLLINS: Do you remember the first time you met Johnny, and what that was like?

RAMONE: I would see him at CBGB’s, but he would never say hello to me, nor my friend Janice. Janice wrote that gossip column, and she would gossip about Johnny, because at that time he had a wife and a girlfriend. [laughs] Janice wrote that in the gossip column, and Johnny said he had to go out to Forest Hills and buy up all the New York Rocker magazines so his wife wouldn’t see it. I met Johnny and spoke to him for the first time when I started hanging out in Los Angeles. I came to Los Angeles with Justin at 17, and we were having a vacation. Our parents sent us on vacation together, and we stayed at the Tropicana. I met Joey in the parking lot of the Tropicana. Years later, Joey says that’s where he fell in love with me—in the parking lot.

ROLLINS: A lot of people don’t know that you dated Joey before you ever really connected with Johnny, right?

RAMONE: Yeah, three and a half years I dated Joey.

ROLLINS: So you have this amazing relationship with the Ramones. When you’re dating Joey, obviously you’re spending time with the Ramones, you’re at a lot of shows, you’re perhaps on the road with them, and so, what happened? You went from Joey to Johnny. Do you feel okay talking about it?

RAMONE: I don’t care, Henry. It’s part of my history. It’s a love triangle; who knew!

ROLLINS: What happened?

RAMONE: I was totally in love with Joey, and Joey was totally in love with me, but Johnny Ramone fell in love with me during this time, and Johnny never gives up. So Joey had to fight for me with Johnny. He tried for a little while, but basically he didn’t want the band to break up. That’s the one thing that people don’t realize: the Ramones were the most important thing to Joey and Johnny. Joey tried, and he would tell Johnny not to talk to me, and Johnny would say, “I don’t care what you say, she’s my best friend.” So one day Joey said to me, “Johnny’s in love with you. Monty told me.” And I was like, “I don’t think so.” And he said, “But I can’t get rid of Johnny.” Me and Joey had our time together, and we taught each other a lot. He was really my first boyfriend that I moved in with, but I realized at that point that Johnny was never going to let go. I guess I was attracted to Johnny because he was so powerful and he was in charge.

I was 21 at this point. I met Joey when I was 18. I’m not blaming that; you know what you’re doing. But you don’t really think about what you’re doing. You always heard about Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones, but you don’t realize once you go from one to the other it isn’t going to be pink and rosy. It’s going to be pretty bad. And Joey was pretty upset, but it was my destiny to be with Johnny.

ROLLINS: It seems to me Johnny was like the rock so everybody else could be crazy at times. The rest of them were kind of like maniacs sometimes. Johnny was like the mast on this ship.

RAMONE: Yeah, Johnny loved being in charge. He went to military school when he was a kid; he loved being in charge. It was really easy to be in charge of the guys, because Joey and Dee Dee didn’t want to be in charge.

ROLLINS: Let’s fast-forward to when you and Johnny are an item. The Ramones basically turned into a worldwide phenomenon on your watch. You saw them from the first album all the way to the last show in Los Angeles. So as your relationship deepened and get more intense with Johnny, what was it like for you as you realized what a huge force in music the Ramones became? At least part of the time, you had to share your boyfriend and future husband with the fans, the press, radio, the record label, and the rest of the world.

RAMONE: The truth is, you never really felt it, because they got big much later on. We were happy, and we had a one-bedroom in Chelsea and stuff like that, but you never felt it. For some odd reason, when punk rock came out and all of a sudden it went right into New Wave—you always felt like it was going to end any day. Everybody wanted a hit single, and we couldn’t get a hit single. Don’t forget, we had Phil Spector to produce “End of the Century.” We thought we were going to get a hit single, and we didn’t get one. Yeah, all around the world—the band realized later on they influenced all these kids to be in bands.

It wasn’t until much later on, when people like Rob Zombie and Kirk Hammett started saying how important the Ramones were to them and influenced them—you just don’t know the effect you had on anybody until later on. The first time someone said to Johnny, “How does it feel to be a legend?” He goes, “A legend? I’m not dead, why are you saying that? What do you mean a legend?” Then he looked to me and goes, “Linda, did you hear that? He said I was a legend. Wow, legends live in a one-bedroom? Wow, this is pretty weird.” [laughs]

And plus, don’t forget, all of a sudden New Wave comes in, and you have everyone playing Boy George and Blondie does a disco hit—and punk is gone. You have to travel the world and play clubs—you’re not playing Madison Square Garden. I mean, Johnny is one of the most influential guitar players of all time. He didn’t really even realize that until everybody later on kept coming over to him and saying, “I want you to know how much you influenced me.”

ROLLINS: When the Ramones finally called it a day in Hollywood at the Avalon all those years ago, what was your housing situation at the time? Had you already moved in and become Californian residents?

RAMONE: We were renting the house that I own now. We had moved out here because we wanted to get away from New York—we didn’t care. We wanted to have a pool and we wanted to see sunshine. So we moved out here and rented the house and we were out here for three months before the last show. At the time, we had Vincent Gallo and Eddie Vedder as our guests—we all stayed in the house together. When we first walked into the middle room, we knew we were always going to have a theme room, so we both look at each other and go, “Elvis room.” So we immediately knew it was the house for us. Rob Zombie actually convinced me and Johnny to moved out here.

ROLLINS: Did anything prepare you for what you’re doing now? The passing of your husband is unimaginably tough, but beyond that now you’re this caretaker of the legacy of one of the most popular bands ever. How do you prepare for that?

RAMONE: Well, Johnny started preparing me, because he knew he was dying. So every day he’d say to me, “Whatever you do, my legacy and the Ramones legacy is the most important thing.” He goes, “I’d rather be here alive keeping my own legacy alive, but if I couldn’t, I would never find a better person than you to do it.” I knew right away that Johnny trusted me, and I had learned so much from him at that point. He was just so super smart and I learned how important the band is. The band always came first in our life—the whole time until he retired and then finally it was us. I really took it to heart.

ROLLINS: How much of your week is spent doing Ramones business?

RAMONE: Every day is a little something. Now the tribute is coming up, so it’s always constantly doing something. It’s funny, Johnny always said, “Every day of my life, Joey comes up.” When Johnny died, every day of my life The Ramones come up.

ROLLINS: How do you feel about that?

RAMONE: For me, it’s the best legacy in the world to have. I think they are by far the coolest and most influential band. God, who wouldn’t want to be left this legacy.

ROLLINS: You know, there are a lot of bands that in their day sold a lot of records and then no one thinks about them anymore. But there’s a permanence to the Ramones music. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m willing to bet one of my arms right now that as long as there’s electricity, Ramones music is going to be relevant. There’s never more than four days that go by where I haven’t heard a Ramones song.

RAMONE: [laughs] I definitely feel what you mean, because this house is full of Ramones.

ROLLINS: You saw one of their ever first shows at CBGB’s—did you have any idea what it would end up meaning later? At any point in the beginning, did you think we’d be having this kind of conversation now?

RAMONE: No, Henry, I didn’t even think of it 20 years ago. I don’t think anybody from the scene actually ever thought how important it would really be. At that time, it was still really underground. The Ramones are still underground and cult. That’s the thing about other bands, they do try to change and fit in. The Ramones couldn’t even try to fit in even if they wanted to. Dee Dee would go around and say, “I want to be normal.” He’s the furthest thing from normal ever! [laughs]

ROLLINS: There’s nothing else those guys could’ve done besides be the Ramones.

RAMONE: That’s the whole thing—that’s why they are the Ramones. That’s why nobody could ever touch them. They are all four unique personalities. Somehow they all clicked—this was meant to be.