Johnny Ramone purses his lips in twisted thoughtfulness, visibly, physically thinking, trying to come up with an answer. It's the 21st century, yet John "Johnny Ramone" Cummings looks like it's the Bowery circa '74: fringed black bowl cut, T-shirt, black leather jacket doubtless nearby. After a few painful seconds brain-racking, he admits defeat: "I don't know." Documentary filmmakers Michael Gramaglia and Jim Fields haven't asked Johnny for the atomic weight of zinc or the zip code in Peoria -- just the reason why this pragmatist cares about the death of singer Joey Ramone. Cares? It ought to be easy: Johnny and Joey had known each other for nearly 30 years; lived in a tour van together for 21 of them. Yet they'd essentially not spoken since the early '80s.
"I guess because he's a Ramone," says Johnny, finally.
It's a defining picture of Johnny Ramone, arguably the key figure in End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones and the story it tells of the Forest Hills, Queens, punks who became one of the most important pieces in the puzzle of late 20th-century popular music while somehow avoiding mass-scale commercial success. Through interviews both old and new with the Ramones, their entourage of managers, artists, fellow punk rockers and musical descendants, Gramaglia and Fields paint a picture of a rock band as full of contradictions as its image was of unity. A group of individuals lassoed by Johnny Ramone's near-fascistic dedication to the Ramones concept.
When the Ramones came along, at the height of 1974's progressive-rock arena-concert spectacle, one of the most radical things about the band -- besides its dirty, very un-rock-star image -- was its brutal brevity. So it's particularly ironic that the half of End of the Century covering those early punk days is so tediously slow, dragging through interview after interview of the punk-history mantras. New York was a dying city; CBGB's rock bar was a Bowery hole turned hipster haven; punk was a response to bloated overblown rock; seminal proto-punk rock bands like The New York Dolls and The Stooges provided an inspirational, primal rock spark; punk bands like the Ramones couldn't really play. It's all driven into the ground as if it's never been said before, and yet without truly exploring what could be the most interesting thing about the Ramones: the bizarre confluence of these city street-tough personalities into a unified, aesthetically cohesive artistic unit.
These tidbits are there -- Debbie Harry of Blondie, one of the Ramones' Bowery-scene colleagues, points out that from the first time the band stepped on stage, it had been fully conceived: the adoption of the Ramone last name, the leather and bowl cuts, the stripped-down '60s pop songs played hard and fast, the glorification of the ugly and the bad. And throughout End of the Century, this vital facet of the Ramones' enduring influence rears its head -- thanks largely to Johnny's stubbornness, the band remained endearingly consistent. But it's so rarely discussed that the artistic reality of "the concept" is never examined.
What is most interesting in End of the Century are the twisted relationships between Ramones -- the original four, singer Joey, guitarist Johnny, drummer Tommy, and bassist Dee Dee; the later drummers Marky and Richie, and Dee Dee's eventual replacement, CJ. When Johnny is asked whether there was a "power struggle" between him and Joey in the 1980s, Johnny refers the question off-camera to his wife, Linda. It's a very Johnny Ramone, power-play moment: Linda entered the Ramones' world as Joey's girlfriend, only to become Johnny's girl and, eventually, wife -- a permanent reminder to the awkward Joey of his own shortcomings, and the wedge that remained between the singer and guitarist until their deaths.
End of the Century's greatest triumph is in painting the individual Ramones as unique personalities, each with personal crises to which the band provided the only real answers. Joey, the sickly shy loser, diagnosed as a child with severe obsessive-compulsive disorders, who only really came to life onstage. (Danny Fields, the band's first manager, illuminates the frustration of being on tour with Joey, who would, for example, have to walk back blocks if he thought he'd missed touching one post on a picket fence.) Johnny, the military-style leader whose identity was so completely wrapped up in the band. Dee Dee, the violence-prone addict whose drug problems probably would've killed him earlier were it not for the strictness of his bandmates. Tommy, the dedicated musical artist; the smart one who Johnny made into the spokesman to keep things on message.
Of the original four Ramones, since Johnny's passing last week, only drummer, producer, and first-to-leave Tommy remains alive: Joey and Johnny gone to cancer, Dee Dee to an overdose. End of the Century makes it clear why: After the band's 1995 retirement, none of the musicians could escape the identity crisis of being Ramones without the Ramones. The Ramones were romantics in the truest sense -- fuelled entirely by passion, kept alive equally by love and despair, and at the end of their century, there was nothing left to keep transforming their individual shortcomings into the powerful fight and fury of the whole.