Rarely does a rock autobiography offer unflinching access into its subject's personal metaphysics. More often than not, such tomes are compiled by co-authors from miles of interview tape, and condensed into a readable whole with, one hopes, some semblance of a narrative arc.
But "Commando," the autobiography of John Cummings, aka Johnny Ramone, founder, guitarist and scowling iconoclast with punk pioneers the Ramones, proves to be the exception to the general rule.
In frills-free language, sans anything resembling a ghost writer or co-author, Ramone tells the story as he remembers it. Like the man himself, "Commando" spares no one. It's a warts-and-all view of one of the scruffiest, strangest and most influential American rock bands of all time.
Apparently, tough guys don't dance around with preambles, for Ramone bursts into his story with twin six-guns drawn from Page One, assuming you already know who he is, what he accomplished, and the depth of his disdain for suffering fools.
"It was the power of the guitar. I walked out there knowing we were the best. There was nobody even close. Volume was my friend and I never wore earplugs. That would have been cheating."
This opening salvo sets the tone for what's to come, nearly 200 pages penned in a language that might best be described as "Anti-Romantic," by the man most punk connoisseurs consider to be the finest rhythm guitarist in the form's history. At various times grumpy, taciturn and unapologetically candid, Ramone's narrative voice is, like his primal guitar playing, completely fat-free.
Tracing his childhood in Queens, from the time he fell in love with rock 'n' roll, through his first efforts at performing, and his rather rapid reinvention as a tough guy and devil-may-care hoodlum, Ramone is hard on everyone, including himself.
We learn that he worshiped his Irish tough of a father; loved baseball; and fell hard for early rock 'n' roll, courtesy of the man who stocked the jukebox at the bar his parents owned -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley did the trick. We also learn early on that, for the most part, the Ramones would be a marriage of convenience, with a honeymoon that was pretty much over before it began.
You see, as it turns out, Ramone would prove to be a rock 'n' roll anomaly of his era, a loud and loyal Republican with a milewide conservative streak that belied his slacker-dude in ripped jeans and black leather biker jacket image.
That image was not arrived upon accidentally, by the way -- like so many significant events in Ramone's life, the "band of brothers" mystique and matching holey Levis, black jacket and Converse All-Stars stage gear worn by all four Ramones was indeed more uniform than anti-establishment stance, at least when it was originally conceived by Ramone.
We learn that Ramone took copious notes on every gig the band played, how much money was earned, who opened, and so forth. A sample entry for April 1976 reads: "Played C.B.G.B.'s with Milk & Cookies, collected $950." He also took notes as well on every movie he attended, and instrument he purchased. He had a plan from the beginning -- to make enough money to retire relatively young, and perhaps pursue other interests.
This last fact is made more poignant when one realizes that, as he was writing his memoirs, Ramone was battling prostate cancer, a fight he eventually lost in 2004, two years after the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He knew he was dying while he assembled the book, work on which was finished via Ramone's instructions by friend John Cafiero following the guitarist's death.
"It changed me," Ramone writes of his battle with cancer. "And I don't know that I like how. It has softened me up, and I like the old me better. I don't even have the energy to be angry. It has sapped my confidence. I fought it as hard as I could. I figured it would win in the end, but I hate losing. Always did. I liked being angry. It energized me and made me feel strong."
Such a statement from a dying man is about as punk rock as punk rock gets. Far less so is the realization that Ramone was a collector -- of baseball cards, comics, autographs -- and a list-maker who craved organization of a sort that the Ramones as a band would never provide.
Ramone wasn't into drugs, but his bandmate, bassist Dee Dee, certainly was. Ramone held very little in the way of love for band frontman Joey Ramone, whom he seems to have regarded as a bit of a hippie, a soft guy. In fact, the only Ramone who seems to have earned Johnny's enduring respect was original drummer Tommy.
Included in the book is an enlightening and often hilarious album-by-album assessment of every Ramones album. ("Rocket to Russia" gets an A , "This was the best Ramones album, with the classics on it"; "Mondo Bizarro" gets a C, "The songs are the weak spot on this album.")
Ramone also offers lists titled "Best Ballplayers of the Eighties;" "Top Punk Groups," (You don't need to ask who holds the No. 1 spot, do you?); "Top Singers," (Elvis is No. 1, natch) and "Top Guitarists."
This is all cool, fun stuff, but one list provides a bit of a head-scratcher. "Favorite Republicans" offers Ramone's rankings of the "Top 10" right-wingers of his lifetime, and includes Ronald Reagan in leadoff position, Vincent Gallo batting cleanup and the likes of Richard Nixon, Charlton Heston, Rush Limbaugh, Ted Nugent and Sean Hannity filling out the lineup.
Perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising, after all -- when Ramone accepted his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, he led with "God bless President Bush, and God bless America."
But then, that was Johnny Ramone, irreverent and a little bit ticked off right until the end. As longtime friend Lisa Marie Presley writes in "Commando's" epilogue, "He was grouchy, he was loyal, kindhearted, soft on the inside, set in his ways, and, well grouchy."
Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone
178 pages; $24.95