Remembering the Ramones in the documentary ‘End of the Century’


By Steven Rosen
(From The Denver Post, 2004)

The Ramones documentary is called “End of the Century” – a tribute to a troubled record of the same name that the groundbreaking punk band made with the ultra-difficult producer Phil Spector.

But it could be called “End of the Ramones.” The film arrives in Denver like a celluloid epitaph.

Three members of the original quartet that started in 1974 and split up in 1997 are now dead – guitarist Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer last month. The lanky, rail-thin lead singer Joey Ramone died of lymphoma in 2001; colorful bassist Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose a year later, shortly after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only drummer Tommy Ramone survives of the original quartet.

“He wasn’t the friendliest guy in the world,” said “End of the Century’s” co-director Jim Fields, in a recent E-mail following news of Johnny’s death. “But I didn’t care because he was straightforward and authentic, and you always knew what he said is what he meant. In the film and music biz, that is invaluable. I just feel honored to have been able to work with the Ramones and with Johnny.”

The Ramones, on stage and on albums, projected such an image of brotherly solidarity – often-funny three-chord songs kept short and played buzz-saw fast by guys who always looked alike in their “Wild One” gear – that it still comes as a surprise for many to learn they weren’t actually brothers. Joey’s real name was Jeffrey Hyman, Johnny was John Cummings, Dee Dee Douglas Colvin, and Tommy is Tom Erdelyi. (According to websites, the name is a tribute to the pseudonym Paul McCartney used – “Paul Ramone” – when appearing on albums by his brother Mike’s band, Scaffold.)

And the Ramones never seemed to get old. They were – are – rock in the way that Mount Rushmore is. They projected an image of family and a code of loyal solidarity. At first dismissed by many as cartoonish, the Ramones grew to be considered heroic in their unbending “true believer” stance.

As Rob Zombie observes in “End of the Century,” the compelling film by Fields and Michael Gramaglia, “No matter what weird trends came and went, you’d go see the Ramones and it’d be like, ‘What year is it, anyway?’”

And yet, the Ramones most decidedly were not family – or at least not one big happy one. This is the shock and wrenching poignancy of “End of the Century” – it reveals that the true story of the Ramones was a tragedy long before the early deaths.

Key to the band’s tension, and painstakingly documented in “Century,” was the estrangement of the band’s two leaders, the romantic Joey and the blunt Johnny, who together owned Ramones Productions. Johnny had married Joey’s beloved girlfriend, Linda, and Joey never forgave him.

“When he (Johnny) saw the film, he called up and said, “I come across as pretty bad,’’ Gramaglia said, in an earlier telephone interview from his New York editing studio. “He showed it to a lot of his friends and they said, “But that’s the way you are.’ And he said, “I guess that’s the way I am. Leave it the way it is.’’’

Gramaglia, who had long worked for Ramones Productions, and high-school friend Fields earlier had made a more celebratory, music-oriented documentary about the band, 1997’s fan-oriented “We’re Outta Here.” Like the Ramones, they are New Yorkers. Being privy to the closely guarded story about the rift between Joey and Johnny, they pushed for a more personal, revelatory film.

“I called up Joey and said I don’t even want to start if he’s not interested,” Gramaglia said. “They both were partners in the company and they made 50-50 decisions on everything. He said, ‘I’ll do it if John talks about Linda.’

“This is something they’ve never talked about – they’ve never talked to each other about it,” he continued. “They never aired it and cleared it up. Joey said, ‘I don’t want it to be a whitewash, I want the real story. Ask John if he’ll do that.’ I called up John and said, ‘Joey has presented this challenge – will you talk about Linda?’ John was silent for a while and then he said, ‘Yeah.’ That opened it up.”

But because of Joey’s illness, he delayed talking to the filmmakers – until it was too late. “He was sick and that prevented it,” Gramaglia said. “We had a lot of interviews scheduled that he’d cancel because he had a bad day. Then things dragged on, so we decided to interview everyone else and go back to him.”

Fields, sharing the phone with Gramaglia, continued: “There was also a problem (interviewing Joey) because the first person interviewed was Dee Dee and then we went to L.A. to interview Johnny, so he felt a little paranoid that we might be in league with (Joey) and we had a hard time getting his trust. After about a year, we put together a short idea of what the film would be like, and he really liked it. That was a short time before he died, and that’s when he got excited about it.

“He sent an E-mail that he was ready to schedule the interview and was feeling good,” Fields said. “We had seen him perform at a Christmas (2000) party and he was in great voice and looked good and he was feeling really good. And then he slipped and broke his hip going out, and that was it.”

Yet at the same time as “Century” reveals this tragic rift and more, the film consistently celebrates the power of the music. It offers extensive footage from the band’s earliest days at New York punk club CBGB’s to a later tour of Brazil where they were received like superstars. It also shows Dee Dee to be a hilarious down-and-out junkie raconteur; an over-the-top, self-destructive figure who knows his weaknesses yet always conveys a sensitive and romantic side.

During the making in 1980 of the album “End of the Century,” producer Spector pulled a gun on the band during recording sessions. Given Spector’s current legal problems, this episode is extremely timely now and is recalled at length in the film.

Last year, Spector initially was charged with murder after a 40-year-old actress was found shot to death at his L.A. mansion. He has pleaded not guilty and been free on bail during an extensive investigation of the circumstances surrounding the event.

Johnny’s comments in the film about Spector – himself a legend from the 1960s for his “Wall of Sound” productions for the Ronettes, the Crystals and Righteous Brothers – are typically unsentimental and caustically direct: “A little man with lifts on his shoes, a wig on his head, and four guns.”

That was Johnny Ramone. Like the band, itself, no-nonsense.

(This story is adapted and updated from an article that originally appeared in Harp magazine. Tommy Ramone died in 2014.)

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