We sent our writer Kami Provan to catch up with CJ Ramone ahead of his Edinburgh gig recently…
The Punk Archive: What made you choose the bass guitar to start learning rather than another instrument? Who were your influences in those early days, did they come from the metal bands such as Geezer Butler and Black Sabbath?
CJ: When I was a kid I was an athlete. I played ice hockey and played soccer and that was pretty much my whole life. I was baseball: I was really an athlete and the year before I went into high school I had a growth spurt and it wrecked the connective tissue in my knees so I had to wear knee braces for 2 years which meant no more sports. So I was sitting around not doing a lot and my old man said “you can’t sit around moping all the time. You’ve gotta get up and do something”. I had friends who had a band but they didn’t have a bass player so I said to my old man “pick me up a bass and I’ll get on it” and he did. He brought home a bass and I sat down and started teaching myself how to play. I figured out whatever I could physically figure out and I went down to my buddy’s rehearsal one day. I walked in and they were like “Sit down. Cool, you got a bass, we will show you how to play something!” I said “I know a couple already, I think I can get through them…” and that’s how it started. It was really more of a necessity than anything. I was into every music back then, my mum and dad listened to everything from country to classical, but at that point I was probably listening to a lot of rock, metal, [and] a lot of different things. The first band that ever really hooked me was Black Sabbath. I bought all their albums and tried to figure out as many as I could so that was my first big influence on the bass.
The Punk Archive: How has having the name Ramone changed your life since 1989: from being in the band until present day? With the band’s popularity going stratospheric around the globe in recent years, have you noticed a difference?
CJ: There is probably no aspect of my life that has not changed. There was one day when I was younger we lived out in the countryside, the area where we lived was a big wooded area and there was a burnt-down estate that I used to go back and look through the wreckage for whatever I could find. I used to find coins, pottery and all kinds of stuff. I went back there one day and there were two good looking girls hanging out there, real 70s-like, blonde, bell bottoms, tube tops, dream girls! One of them said to come back to her house and I was like “OK”. We went back to her house, went to her room and sat on her bed, she turned round with an album and asked “Have you ever heard of the Ramones?” She was holding up their first album cover. I had heard the Ramones before through my cousins but had never really sat down and listened to a record and that was the first time I had really heard them… That was the first time I had kissed a girl and smoked weed all in the same afternoon! That was one of the first stories I ever told Johnny when I was in the band and we got to be friendlier.
The Punk Archive: You spent seven years in the band until the last show. The members were all very different characters that shouldn’t really have worked together but did. What would you say was their strength as a collective force that made such an impact on music, and as individuals?
CJ: The architect of the Ramones was Tommy. Tommy was the one who recognised the personalities and even came up with the look of the band and told each guy what instrument they were going to play. Tommy was really the man, he was the architect of the Ramones, realistically without Tommy there is no Ramones. DeeDee of course went on to become the major song writer, Joey less so but his songs were really great too, but Tommy was the one that recognised the individual talents and kind of pushed the band in that direction.
The Punk Archive: Having seen you play on October 2nd 1989 at the Barrowlands, I can confirm there was a surge of energy injected into The Ramones from your arrival. Was it difficult to win over the audience in replacing such a presence as Dee Dee, did you come up against some difficulties at that time?
CJ: There was never really any animosity but Dee Dee was definitely that type of person, it depended on what day you caught him on. I was definitely friends with Dee Dee and I always had a good time with him but there were definitely days when he went out of his way to make me feel uncomfortable. I even had [him] threaten me and Johnny to get my face punched. You have to understand they were heroes of mine. When I grew up Dee Dee was my guy in the band from when I was young and everything. These guys were rock stars to me. They weren’t tough guys. I got into the Ramones right out of the Marine Corps, I know that makes me sound a tough guy but that definitely makes me not fear violence all that much. So when DeeDee used to threaten me I used to keep my mouth shut and let it go, the same thing with Johnny cause I didn’t want it to become known as that guy that beat up Johnny or DeeDee, y’know what I mean? That doesn’t do much for your legacy but not only that I had too much respect for them. That was parts of their personality and who they thought they were but in reality I wasn’t too afraid of them. But it depended on the day with DeeDee, I had him threaten to break my jaw in front of the guys from Rancid at the last show in the last public appearance we ever did. I went to the show and he went into a tearful thing about how I always treated him good and how I always treated him with respect. He had a legitimate mental illness. He was legitimately fucking crazy! You know everybody has got that friend, everybody knows somebody that is like that, and you just gotta take it.
The Punk Archive: How daunting was it go out on your own after The Ramones ended? They seemed to have guided you in your younger years, especially Johnny and Joey…
CJ: I didn’t do a ‘Ramones style’ band after the band were gone. Most of the songs were different. I picked up a guitar and had never played a guitar before. I got together with guys who were mostly from heavy mental, rock’n’roll, punk rock backgrounds and did something totally different. I didn’t try to be in a Ramones band so I didn’t really feel all that much pressure and that’s why I always listed myself as CJ Ward and not CJ Ramone. I figured out maybe at one point when I felt comfortable with the songs and lived up to the Ramones name then I would do something
The Punk Archive: What about the organisation of everything, was that a pressure when it had all been done for you by the band previously?
CJ: It was tough; it was my responsibility for everything. It was my band, it was my equipment, I had to book shows, I had to book hotels, contacts…it was all me. It was difficult but I love doing it and it’s a good time.
The Punk Archive: You stayed away from music while having your family. What was the main inspiration to get back in and play again and did you have a plan of action for a return?
CJ: Well, I made a conscious decision to leave. I stopped touring when my boy was diagnosed with autism. I tried to stay out and even tried to bring my son’s Mom out on the road with me with my boy. We tried it but it was just too difficult. He needed to be in one place and I made a conscious decision to stay home and that was it. It wasn’t a hard decision to make, if your kids need something, you gotta provide that’s just how life goes so I didn’t cry over it. I just went back to work and what you call normal lifestyle. I had a lot of good years at home with my son. I worked all night so was home all day. At some point my daughter was born and I ended up a single Dad so it was just me and my two oldest. I did that for a while and loved it. I loved being a Dad. So got to say I was just doing that. I had a girl who I had been friends with for seventeen years who always helped me out with my kids and I was going to her for so much advice as my daughter got older that eventually we just ended up getting together. She said to me that if I wanted to get back on the road she wouldn’t mind. I just laughed and said careful what you wish for! Eventually I said yeah that would be okay with me; that was 2008, [so] I guess I got out and did a little bit. 2009 I did a little bit more, 2010 I went out and did a big celebration and I started writing songs. 2011, 2012 I recorded songs for the first album; I put that record out as CJ Ramone. Those were the songs I chose, I felt like if I had these songs written while the Ramones were still together they probably would have made the record. So that was the first one I put out and since then I have just done more and more touring every year. This year has almost been non-stop.
The Punk Archive: Was going under the name CJ Ramone something you gave a lot of thought to, or did this seem natural having spent seven years playing in the band and establishing yourself?
CJ: Part of what brought me back was after Johnny died pretty much, there was this whole flood of books, movies where everybody just talked shit about The Ramones, like really mad. I mean it was always about their personal lives, Johnny was a prick, Joey had mental problems, Marky was an alcoholic. Tommy had his own problems couldn’t take the road whatever, and to me the Ramones legacy was getting turned into a cheap soap opera. I said to my wife one day “I’m so sick of reading this crap on the internet!” My wife being the pragmatic and very practical person that she is said “why not do something about it?” That kind of put it in my head that maybe I should go out and remind people why The Ramones are famous, what made them great. I know Mark was out on the road, Ritchie was out and everybody else but after Joey nobody sang more songs in the Ramones than me, so I felt like I could go out there and put together a good band. I didn’t try to re-capture the Ramones live show as I didn’t want to play the songs a million miles per hour, I wanted to play them like they were on the record with all the itsies, guitar fills and all the background vocals. I wanted to recreate what I wished The Ramones would have been like, ‘coz I even told Johnny back in the day that he played too fast, Joey can’t take a breath between lines, he sings every other word and barely gets through the choruses. I was like “please slow it down a little bit, I can sing the harmonies, you can get another four years out of Joey”. He was like “nope the kids like it playing fast!” So I wanted to do the Ramones the way I would have liked to have done it with the band and that’s why I put songs like Baby I Love You, I Wanna be your Boyfriend, Sitting in my Room and Outsider in there. Like the fan’s favourites and not just the hits that everybody knows, I really dug deep into the catalogue for the songs that the heartfelt, the more heartfelt songs if you know what I mean. I was lucky enough that there was a guy, Johnny’s right-hand man Gene, who got in touch with me and said I should get back out there and make it happen. I was like “if you get the shows booked and take care of all the business I will go back out. But I don’t want to be a business man, I don’t want to be handling money and doing contracts and all that. I have no interest in that, I don’t ever want to do that!” and he was like “deal!” It was a combination of a few things that set it all off.
The Punk Archive: Before I had seen you live I was under the impression you kept the Ramone name as a way of getting more exposure for your band, but when I saw you at Rebellion 2016 I totally changed my view. I now view your music as your own, with a heavy influence from being in the Ramones for the last of the seven years of their existence with the energy and excitement you brought to the band back then in your own songs. Is this an opinion you agree with?
CJ: The thing I always try to get across to people is when they say “Oh CJ is doing a revival band, a cover band” I always said that’s totally not what I’m doing. It don’t feel or sound like a cover band, my background is so similar to The Ramones. I’m originally from Queens; Johnny went to military school [and] so did I, all the stuff those guys listened to growing up was the same as when I was young. I also lived only a couple of neighbourhoods away from them in Queens. I don’t have to get up on stage and make my accent sound like The Ramones, I played in the band for seven years; I was a fan from age 13; I lived, slept and breathed the same air they did! I’m just a product of the same environment. I know we are not a covers band, [but] we really carry the spirit of The Ramones. Mark is doing his thing and it sounds really good but it don’t sound like The Ramones; there ain’t the Ramones spirit there. Him and Richie talked so much shit after The Ramones were gone in tons of interviews, they wanna play all these songs, c’mon guys eh! I wanna make clear I’m not talking shit about Mark and Richie here, it’s not opinion it’s facts, but I don’t have anything bad to say about those guys. Richie is a great drummer and Mark made my time in The Ramones a lot easier because as you can imagine at times it was difficult.
The Punk Archive: There are a few stand out tracks for me on the new album American Beauty. They include You’ll Never Make Me Believe, Before the Lights Go Out and Steady as She Goes. Which are the highlights for you and why?
CJ: Every record previously, I’ve found there have been one or two tracks that I wrote, when I’m working them out I can hear Joey’s voice on those like he’s influencing me. Like from years of being in the band that’s how much I’m influenced, I really wish I had some of these songs written for the Ramones at that time as there was a lot of filler from my time in the band that maybe better suited to say Joey’s solo albums. The song you mention? Those songs are representative of the more poppy side of the Ramones, not so much the first album which was fast, heavy and aggressive, but Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, Road to Ruin when they sharpen up their more poppy songs that’s kind of what I’m capturing there. It’s not all necessarily from the Ramones: I grew up listening to all that 50s and 60s stuff, even now I put out out on social media songs from The Shirelles, Diana Ross. That’s where that stuff comes from.
The Punk Archive: I think the cover version of Tom Waits’ Pony is an unusual choice to up the tempo on, but it turned out to be a great choice to cover for the album. What made you choose such a great but difficult song to cover and put your own style on it? Are you a fan of Mr Waits?
CJ: I really wanted to cover that song because I liked the lyrics. I love the lyrics; I related to them real heavily and I’m a big Tom Waits fan. I knew it was gonna be a difficult one to do, after we recorded it but it was just a standard sounding song. Driving home after we recorded it I heard the mariachi horns sound in my head, I knew that that’s what it needed, that’s gonna make the song. The mariachi guys just wrote their own part, I just asked them to put on it what they think it needed and think it turned out really good and is probably my favourite track on the album. I’m actually in the process of doing an animated video to go with it at the moment, so hopefully by Christmas it will be out.
The Punk Archive: How hard was it to start writing a song about Tommy Ramone? After writing Three Angels, it comes over as an emotional piece of work? Was this the case when writing it?
CJ: I said I was going to do a song for Tommy. I wanted to explain to everybody that Tommy was the architect because he never got any credit for it, but telling people this in an interview compared to a song is very different. If you deconstruct The Ramones’ recording history and look at the high and low points, the high point always has two things in common which are Tommy Ramone and Ed Stasium. Everything up to Road to Ruin is classic Ramones; then they change things for End of the Century working with different producers. Their comeback album was Too Tough to Die after that and Tommy and Ed were back. Mondo Bizarro was the next best album and Ed Stasium was again in the chair. I was at a total loss for what to do on the song, until I was staying with a friend of mine sleeping in the room he keeps his guitars. I started messing around with one of his Dobro guitars and came up with that little riff, and I got most of the music and lyrics done then. Next day in the studio I just sat down with a mic and completed the rest of the lyrics. But I just didn’t know how I felt about it, it was just so personal but so different to anything else I have ever written. I didn’t even know if I wanted to put it out but the other band members an our producer and engineer said you have to put it out, so I thought about it and agreed. But where to put it on the record was difficult, we thought about the last song, but I didn’t know if I wanted the last song on the record being that deep. I thought it would be great to end the first song on that side as with vinyl, and Pony closing the album. I feel that that this record was a huge step for me from the last album Last Chance to Dance, I really feel that this one is totally legit.
The Punk Archive: Given the rise of punk music in the 70s when the world was a bleak place and angry music voiced opinions, do you think that because the world is in turmoil once again it is time for another youth movement to rise up and make a statement? Or are the youth of today less motivated to adopt the same stance?
CJ: Well a couple of things…in New York punk was not political, it was more about doing things your own way [and] having your own voice: there was no politics in it. California totally political, although Green Day only really became political with American Idiot. Now, political punk rock overshadows everything else, and if you’re not political they don’t want you in their camp. Punk is being used to push a political agenda and I don’t fit in there but I don’t want to fit in there. It’s become very political influencing young people to join a way of thinking but that is so not punk: punk was about the outsiders being included and you could fit in. Now you need to be identified by how you look, or by your political stance which is so un-punk, but it’s a different generation and I don’t speak for them.
The Punk Archive: What are your favourite Ramones tracks?
CJ: Outsider and Judy is a Punk
The Punk Archive: What are your favourite songs of all time?
CJ: Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter, and Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.
The Punk Archive: What is your favourite album?
CJ: Black Sabbath: Paranoid.