On September 4, 1989, Christopher Joseph Ward would don a black leather jacket and a black-and-white bandana, throw the wide, studded strap of a cream-colored Fender Precision over his left shoulder, and play his very first show under the moniker that would come to endear him to a legion of fans and followers over the next three decades: CJ Ramone. It was during the legendary Ramones‘ appearance on that year’s Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon and it was a few days before my tenth birthday, which is a thing I remember because my birthday always brought with it two things that I always tried to find forgettable: the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon and the first day of school. In just a hair over five minutes, the band blazed through “I Believe In Miracles” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” and provided a pretty awesome and unexpected change of pace from the standard pledge pitches and Don Rickles jokes and WWF wrestler appearances.
Fast forward the tape thirty years, and yours truly had the opportunity to sit down with CJ Ramone back stage at Maggy’s Lounge in Quincy, Massachusetts. The venue is essentially a mid-century single-family house with a 125-capacity ballroom jutting out from what probably used to be the living room, and it marks the only New England stop on his US tour supporting his fourth full-length album, The Holy Spell, released last month on Fat Wreck Chords. But what’s more than the fact that it’s the tour for what’s probably his best album to date is that it also marks only local stop on his last North American tour as CJ Ramone. A fairly lengthy Australia tour next month will be followed by stops in South America and Japan next year, and then it’ll be on to what comes next. Sure, there’ll still be music made and the occasional show played, but the years of getting in the van for months at a time will have come to a successful close.
Ramone and I chatted for just about half an hour in the venue’s outdoor green room area (basically a 15×15 pop-up tent and a few food-and-beer filled folding tables on the gravel lot behind the old house) as his band members for this run — Street Dogs/The New Darkbuster colleagues Lenny Lashley and Pete Sosa and jack-of-all-trades Nate Sander — prepared and the sisters of tour-opener Dog Party geared up. In hindsight, it was a remarkably quick half hour that found Ramone perhaps a little tired from a late arrival on this particular night but more realistically from what has been roughly three straight months on the road, but introspective and engaged and thoughtful in his reflections on his own place in rock and roll history, and about what else he wants to do while, at fifty-three years old, he’s still got the opportunity. The appreciation that Ramone shows for the opportunities he’s had over the last three decades is palpable, as is the reverence for both the Ramones as an entity and his bass playing predecessor Dee Dee specifically.
I thought about different ways to format this piece, and different ways to turn it into a story. Who knows, maybe there’ll be a time and a place for a longer career retrospective piece in the future. Maybe this is a bit self-serving, but I decided to just let our conversation be the story. We covered a lot of ground, most of it involving family and music of course. Ramone has stories in spades, and it’s admittedly a bit surreal to know that when he talks about Lemmy or Johnny or Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, he’s talking about HIS experiences with THAT Lemmy and THAT Johnny and THAT Pearl Jam/Soundgarden. But then again, though his thirty-year run on the road is coming to an end and life as Christopher Ward will be resuming, he’ll always be THAT CJ.
Head below to read our conversation, and keep on scrolling to see our pictures from the night, featuring CJ and his band of luminaries and Dog Party accompanied by kick-ass local openers Duck & Cover and COB. Ramones forever.
Dying Scene (Jay Stone): So this is it, huh?
CJ Ramone: Yeah! The last go around!
And we’re about three weeks away from the thirtieth anniversary of the first Ramones show you played! That’s pretty wild. Did it just line up that way?
I said probably five years ago in interviews that 2020 will be my last year. 2019 is thirty years since I played with the Ramones, but I left that extra year in there because nothing ever lines up the way you want it to, or there might be some extra shows and I don’t wanna hear anyone going “oh, I thought you were retiring!” Sure enough, I didn’t make it to South America this year, and I didn’t make it to Japan. So next year there’ll be a trip to South America to record a live record, and then we’re hoping to do Fuji Rock next summer. If we do that, that will officially be my last touring show. I’m not gonna stop doing shows. I’m not going to stop writing and recording. I’m just not getting in the van anymore. My body’s busted up, I have other things I want to do. I started learning how to tattoo. I’ve been working on a book for years – I want to finish it.
A book of your music career, essentially?
My life up until retirement and the Ramones’ retirement. That’s pretty much it. I guess I’m like intent when I’m being creative or doing anything that involves anything other than mechanical abilities. So the book has really been kind of a struggle. I started it before my nine-year-old was born, and I busted out 500 pages in a year. What happened was once my little girl came – I write music and I was writing my book staying up with a pot of coffee and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Caffeine and alcohol, just letting it flow. It lets me get out of my everyday head, and that’s pretty much how I write. I guess my creative process is pretty intense. Once my baby girl came, I couldn’t do that anymore. I sat down a couple times over the years just to write down memories. I’m always jotting stuff down in my phone or on a pad at home. It’s not that I totally stopped writing, I just stopped writing how I was.
When I’m done touring, that’s gonna become my job. That and learning how to tattoo will become my two jobs. You know, I also always wanted to have a fishing boat out on Long Island. I’m still young enough that I could do it, too. That’s the other thing; I’ve given thirty years to being CJ Ramone. I’ve been CJ Ramone longer than I’ve been Christopher Ward, you know? I’ve given CJ Ramone a very long and fruitful life, but I gotta get to those other things I want to do. After Australia this year, I’m gonna fly back to New York and get on my motorcycle and ride back to San Francisco. I live in the East Bay now, and I’m going to do a cross-country ride. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time.
Have you ever done that, coast-to-coast?
Yeah, well I did Lollapalooza ‘96 entirely on my bike.
Oh really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I didn’t ride with the band. I had a rigid Harley that I had built – that a friend of mine had built and I assisted in – so I’ve done it before. The problem on Lollapalooza was it was just rushing from show to show, for the most part. I stayed out afterwards for a month after that tour ended and rode around a lot out in the southwest. I’ve been wanting to do it ever since, and it’s kinda fitting that I end my touring career just like I ended the Ramones’ touring career – with a nice, long motorcycle ride.
I feel like it was a little bit under-the-radar at first that this was kinda it for touring, but now that word’s officially out, does this feel like a going away party?
I really preferred it to be that way. Since Ramones retired, I quietly did my own thing. Put out four records. I haven’t been part of anything that the Ramones as an organization do. I haven’t been part of that, I never toured with Marky. I really stayed on my own.
Is that by design?
Yeah, pretty much. I just wanted to prove that, yeah, being in Ramones was great! It was awesome! But I can do stuff on my own. Even though my name will forever be attached to the Ramones and I owe everything that I do now to the band, it’s been under my own power this whole time. And that’s not to say I didn’t have support; I have my manager, my wife’s been really supportive, I’ve been lucky that a lot of really great guys have come and played in the band with me.
You’ve got a couple good ones on this little run.
Yeah, yeah! For me, the fact that all these guys come out and play with me has really given e a lot of confidence. It’s one thing to start over again, but it’s really nice when we start over again with guys who are famous in their own right but they do it because they love the Ramones and because I’ve been friends with them. It creates instant bonds, you know.
Well, yeah…some of these guys are fans of yours as CJ Ramone but they’re also friends of yours as Chris Ward too.
Absolutely, yeah! If it seemed under the radar, that’s how I intended it.
You didn’t want to go out like Jeter, on the big celebration tour and get the plaques from everybody?
Nah, nah. That’s okay. I prefer to spend it with the people who come out for me every time I come out, and play the usual places that I always play. I’ve never played here at Maggie’s before, but this is the kind of places that we play. Small, little punk rock bars. Anywhere that we could fit a hundred-twenty-five or two-hundred people a night. That’s generally what we do. In my mind, that’s always where punk rock belonged. I never really thought punk rock in a stadium…it was kinda contradictory, you know what I mean? But that’s what happens when a musical style gets very big. The outsiders become the insiders, so all the people that run the punk rock scene now were all outsiders back in the day. It’s just that people caught on! In the ‘90s, with Green Day and Rancid and all the bands that came along in that next wave after them, punk rock became accepted.
And then it never went away! I mean, we’re getting greyer but…
I don’t know if you saw “The Other F Word,” the documentary that Jim Lindberg from Pennywise did…
…there’s a quote from Brett Gurewitz in there that says something like “punk rock wasn’t supposed to get old, but it did, so fuck it! Here we are!”
Yeah! And you know, nobody wants to walk away. Everybody wants to keep the spirit alive. But I feel like in my life, I’ll always be an outsider, no matter what. That’s just a matter of fact. But punk rock is very much part of youth culture. It’s cool that all of these older statesmen have stayed around and kind of let the younger kids know what it means to be punk, but I’m at the point now where there’s so many punk bands out on tour, I don’t need to be out there doing it. I know that punk rock is in the hands of a lot of good younger bands. I don’t feel like I’m jumping ship or abandoning punk rock.
But a lot of the stuff that I’m writing now can’t be expressed by yelling and playing now. And that’s because I’m older now! I don’t have all that much to be pissed off about! I really don’t. I have a wife and three kids, a nice house, I have the freedom to pretty much do what I want, and on each one of my records, I always hinted to where I was going next, you know? “Three Angels” on the first record, “Tommy’s Gone” is on American Beauty. I’ve always dropped little hints on each record as to where I was going, and country music was really where I started out. I found out the older I get, the deeper into my influences that I’ve dipped – and not because I’m trying, I think it’s just a weird full circle thing, you know? So on the new one, “Hands Of Mine,”…
That’s one of the best songs you’ve ever written…
That’s a song that really stood out to people. It’s the song that gets mentioned any time I talk to anybody about the record, and I was really happy to hear that, because that’s more of what I’m feeling now. When I wrote this record, I wrote thirteen songs, sent them out to everybody, then realized that I didn’t like a bunch of them. I got down to the studio, drove the six, seven hours from the East Bay to LA, to Orange, where I recorded, and I got to the studio, dropped my bags, picked up an acoustic guitar, and wrote four more songs, one of which was “Hands Of Mine.” Each one of those songs made it on to the record and bumped something else off. I realized I just didn’t feel like those other few songs really were expressing anything I really felt. It was songsmith kind of stuff. It was like “oh, that’s a cool riff, I could put that together with these lyrics…”
Were they more standard, four-on-the-floor punk rock songs?
Yeah, totally. And I may release them as an EP or singles or B-sides, but for the most part, I feel like I’m happy they didn’t get on the record. I feel like the record that I did put out is much more homogenous. So that makes “Hands Of Mine” stand out even more, because everything else is full-on punk. I’m a big guy on lyrics, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. I think there’s a lot of things in my songs that get overlooked, and when I ask people “what do you think that song’s about” they have no clue, or they think it’s about something totally different. And I do build in a certain amount of ambiguity lyrically because I want people to make them their own, but sometimes people just don’t get it.
But then that song (“Hands Of Mine”) is really on the nose and raw…
That song was a really cool one, because I had the guitar riff, and the engineer/producer Paul Miner, who I did the last record with too, had his two kids at his place. I think they were seven and five or something, and I was watching them at the table coloring and playing with their toys, and I was looking at their hands and watching them manipulate things. I was looking at their hands and thinking to myself what a statement their hands are about who they are and where they are in their development, because they’re soft and innocent. And then I looked down at my own hands and I was like “my hands looked like that at one time.” So I came up with the concept of telling my life story through my hands. I wrote the lyrics probably in fifteen minutes. They came out just like that. And then I had the idea to put all kinds of instrumentation on it. It really came out good. It’s probably one of my favorite songs I ever wrote.
Yeah, I think some of that would have gotten lost if you tried to do a three-chord punk rock song with the same lyrics.
And that song really taught me that there’s some things that I want to say and some things that I see in the world that I can’t do with three chords and a lot of volume. And I realized, that’s kinda where I’m going to. I would love to say that I’m just going to follow my artists view of it or whatever, but I’ll always play punk rock. I love it. I still love the Ramones. I’m really proud of all the stuff I’ve recorded on records. I’m just not getting in the van anymore! (*both laugh*)
Was it tough to even come back out this time, or was it closure to pack up the van for one last run?
So, the thing is, I left my house May 24th. We did a west coast run, I immediately went to Europe with the Gimme Gimmes and did five weeks with them. I had a couple days off in between, and then my guys flew in and we picked up our European tour and we came home from that, had four or five days off, then started up on this. So I’m coming up on three months of being away from home and really beating myself. But I said it to these guys today – I’m really having fun. It really is fun. Some of the stuff that happens, I’m just like…”man, I’m not going to miss this part.” The first show we played in Philly, we had to carry the gear up two flights of stairs. I’m fifty-three years old, still lugging my own gear, you know what I mean? And I can suffer with the best of them and work as hard as the youngest guy in my crew, but at this point I just don’t want to do it anymore.
When did that part start to get old? Or was it a gradual thing?
It’s not that it got old, it’s just that I had that date set in 2020 long before I ever got to the point where I thought “maybe I should be slowing this down.” I never allowed it to get to the point where it got old, I wanted to be in control of how I ended. I wanted to be able to acknowledge to people that I’m going to stop touring and to have control over it rather than wait for the shows to peter down to twenty people coming out. I think this year really was a good choice. Just now I’m starting to realize that I can still sing and play like mad, but it takes a lot out of me. Like, when I get home, it’s going to take me a week in bed before I’m over three months of touring.
I’m not saying I’m really old or that I’ve had it harder than anybody else, but I’ve just had a different life before the Ramones, then I had a big break from music in the middle where my life really went sideways for a while. I worked down at ground zero and all that stuff. My life’s been a little different from the average and it’s started to catch up with me. And I feel like now, I’m really happy that I started talking about that five years ago, because I’m not like “I’m too old for this, I’m getting out.” It’s more that “I just want to get out and do some other stuff while I’m still young enough to do it,” you know?
Have you kept a tally of all the shows you’ve played over the last thirty years?
I have not. I have not, but I’ve played a lot of shows!
Do you remember the biggest one as CJ Ramone?
The most memorable show I’ve ever had was the last Ramones show, getting to play on stage with Lemmy and Dee Dee. That’s probably the highlight of my live playing. Having Lemmy write a song about the Ramones and mentioning me in it was … so huge for me, but then to stand on stage and play next to each other and sing harmonies…that was really, probably the biggest moment in my whole career. I’ve played on stage with Soundgarden, I played on stage with Pearl Jam, I’ve played with some major, major artists and crazy-great musicians, but that one song with Lemmy really was like… I guess the things that you love when you’re young and you’re passionate about when you’re young, nothing ever measures up to that.
Like, I could become a billionaire tomorrow and have a garage full of Bugattis and Lamborghinis and have the best of everything and it still would not be as cool as being on stage with Lemmy. The stuff that you love when you’re a kid, nothing else ever measures up because the magic is gone. Once you get behind everything and see how it works and you start to understand it’s just a matter of doing this and doing that… the reason I’ve stayed in music as long as I have and that those are my best memories is that music has never lost its magic to me. Everything else has. My two last loves in life are motorcycles and music. With motorcycles, it’s all mechanics. I like the other aspects, the lines and all that too. But music is the only thing that really never lost its magic for me, and that’s why I’ll still keep doing it…I’m just not getting in the van again!
Have you had other younger guys come up through the game talk about you the way you talk about Lemmy or Dee Dee?
Yeah! The big compliment always is “I started playing bass because of you.” That’s a huge compliment. The Ramones over the years, because their career was so long, influenced generations of players. I’ve had people come up and say “I saw you in 1993 and that was the greatest show of my life!” and that’s cool, but when that one dude comes up and says “I started playing bass because of you, here’s a picture of my bass” that’s really, as a musician, if you inspire somebody else to play and go on and make music, that’s really huge, you know? We know music brings happiness to people and makes them forget their bullshit and makes you feel good and can change your mood and all that stuff, and that’s all really important. But when you inspire somebody to pick up an instrument and learn how to play it and go on to make a career out of it, that’s big.
Does that stuff still seem surreal to you even thirty years down the road?
Yeah! Yeah, I start to giggle, because Dee Dee was really the guy. He was THE GUY. He started the whole style and everything else. Dee Dee is the original. He created it. So pretty much, when I came in, the Ramones were all obviously already famous. They’d done everything. So it’s still weird to hear people say “I started playing bass because of you.” But I can take a compliment and I always do and I always say “thanks a lot.” I don’t try to be overly humble, because it’s the biggest compliment I could get.
Well think about it…if somebody’s first show was Lollapalooza like a lot of kids, that’s what they saw. So they might know all the songs, but they see you and your style playing all the songs.
The funny thing is Johnny, when he told me we were going to do Lollapalooza, I said I wasn’t doing it. I said “I’m not doing fucking Lollapalooza John. We tried to get on that tour for how many years and they turned us down. Now they want you because it’s a reunion tour? Fuck them!” And I said “you know what you should do, John? Get Tommy and Dee Dee, spend the next couple months rehearsing, and go out with the original lineup. Everybody will love that. It’ll be a very poetic end to a very awkward career.”
That’s a beautiful way to put it!
And Johnny said “no, CJ, you’re an old fan. That’s why you want to see Tommy and Dee Dee. Most of the fans never saw Dee Dee or Tommy, they know you and Mark.” And as hard as that was to swallow because I was such a Dee Dee fan, I realized he was right. He was 100% right. That was one of the tough things to accept from Johnny. He didn’t do anything without giving it serious, serious thought and weighing all the options. I really respected him a lot, and that’s why I was like “damn, you’re right.” It’s still odd to hear my name mentioned along with Dee Dee’s name. I never compare myself to Dee Dee, I never tried to be Dee Dee, I just got hired to do a job, and I did it the absolute best that I could. Some of the stuff I did of course was influenced by Dee Dee, because I was a fan before I was in the band. So there’s some stuff I could not separate without making an effort, and then I’m not being genuine. My thing always was “I go on stage, I turn off my brain.” I’m glad I did it that way because it turned out good, and if I looked or sounded in any way like Dee Dee, it was not by design, it was completely because of his influence. Every other kid that grew up watching Dee Dee was influenced by him.
I will say that I’m glad that you didn’t stick with the Ramones look as CJ Ramone. I’m glad you’ve got the beard and the Yankee hat. Would you have done this thirty years ago if you could have?
Oh yeah. When we weren’t on tour, I always had a big giant red beard. Johnny hated it so bad that when we were in the studio recording, there was a guy coming down from Rolling Stone magazine to take pictures. Monte (Melnick) was like “you have to shave, we have a photo shoot tomorrow” and I was like “we don’t have any shows for months Monte. I’m not shaving.” So I showed up with the beard and Johnny was like “I’m not going to be in pictures with him looking like that.” So I was like “whatever, I don’t have to be in pictures, I don’t care. Doesn’t make a difference to me!” So it’s not to make a statement or separate myself from the band or anything like that, it’s just how I look when I’m not on the road. I’m still CJ Ramone, but I’m not in the Ramones anymore, so I can look however the hell I want!
DUCK & COVER