The Ramones are an indisputable hallmark of rock n’ roll. Though the group strummed its final chords decades ago, its spirit lives on, most recently through American Beauty, the new record by former bassist and vocalist CJ Ramone. I recently caught up with CJ to talk about the album, Tommy Ramone’s underappreciated influence on the band, and CJ’s favorite misheard Ramones lyric.
Let’s dive straight into your new record, American Beauty. What do you want fans to know most about it?
Realistically, one of the things I want everyone to understand is that I had a much different album cover and title when we first started out. I’m not the type of person that likes to put my political stuff out there, but with the way things have been going since the election, I wanted to put something out there that was a little more positive. There are so many people putting gas on the fire right now. Believe me, I understand it. There are a lot of people who are really upset on both sides. I chose the title American Beauty to give everyone the opportunity to just take a breath for a couple minutes when they put the record on. That’s really what I was hoping people would do. Not that the whole record is positive or that I think we live in a perfect utopian world, but you’ve got to get a break sometimes. You can’t constantly be hammered with all of this stuff. What’s going on right now is a lot of brainwashing. Every side is trying to convince you they are right and I don’t buy into any of it. I’ve always been an independent thinker. To me, doing it your way and having your own thoughts and ideas is what being punk is all about. It’s not about choosing a side. There’s a lot of fun stuff on the album, some serious stuff, some autobiographical stuff – it’s a mix of everything. In my opinion that’s what life is. It’s a mix of things. It’s not always good, it’s not always bad, and it’s not always fair. That’s just the way life is and I think my record reflects that.
Talk about the autobiographical stuff you just mentioned. What song specifically are you referring to?
“Moral of the Story” is a really personal one. It’s about three guys I knew growing up that all died when they were pretty young. It sounds like a depressing tale, but it’s really not. The song is about keeping your friends’ memories alive by talking about them and remembering the good times. It’s really to celebrate their lives.
“Tommy’s Gone” is another one. That song I wrote for Tommy Ramone. I was just trying to imagine how he must have felt when he left the Ramones to have been pretty much written out of their history and never given credit for most of the work that he did. In reality, the Ramones are Tommy’s creation. Tommy created the look, the sound, the image – he created it all. He even told the guys which instruments they were going to play. He’s the guy that moved Joey from drums to being the frontman. I mean, in what weird universe does someone look at Joey Ramone and go “That’s a frontman!” (laughs) He wasn’t exceptionally good looking, he was tall and awkward and shy and very much not a frontman. But Tommy recognized something in Joey and it takes somebody with some special talent to do that. I wrote the song on a Dobro [guitar] completely by accident, but when I remembered Tommy had spent the last years of his life doing country-bluegrass music, it made sense to me that it would have happened that way. I just walked in the last day with the Dobro and said to the producer “Hey, do me a favor leave a room mic on and let me run this idea down.” I kind of flip flopped with whether I’d put it on the record but I realized I had to. It was important to me to do it.
In another interview you said you “wrote this album in two weeks with some assistance from a never ending pot of coffee and a generous supply of whisky.” What’s your go-to whisky?
My everyday drink is Jack Daniels, but if I’m out drinking good stuff I usually stick to anything Irish – Paddy, Jameson, anything like that I usually stay with.
You’re on the road a ton this year. How do you balance your life as a musician with being a father to three children?
I took a lot of years off after the Ramones retired and stayed home when my kids were young, so I got to spend a lot of time with them. Even with the amount of time I travel, I still probably see my kids more than the average dad. The average dad is up and out of the house before his kids get up for school. The amount of quality time I actually spend with my kids is pretty good. Plus, I’ve brought them out on the road with me. My kids have traveled with me to Europe and Japan and tours throughout the United States. I really make sure that I spend the time with them that I need to. It’s important to me. I’m sure anybody in a band will tell you that the worst thing about being on the road – besides bad food and never getting to sleep and beating the hell out of your liver – is missing your family. That’s the one thing that’s the toughest out of all of it.
Have you ever pulled the Ramones card to your benefit? Like getting out of a traffic ticket or something?
(laughs) Well, to tell you the truth, I don’t get any traffic tickets. I drive like an old man. But let me think. Actually, this is going back quite a while when the band was still together. I was out with a couple of friends in Manhattan and we were drunk and acting stupid. We stopped somewhere and jumped out to get cigarettes. On the way out the door we were messing around with each other and started running to our car. We went charging down the sidewalk and jumped in the car and my buddy took off hard – like really stomped the pedal and smoked the tires as we headed down the block. An unmarked police car cut in front of us and nailed us to the curb. Four cops got out, all with their guns drawn pointing at us and yelling. We all put our hands up and they opened up the doors and screamed for us to get out. They started questioning us and the cop asked me “What’s your name?!” and I went “Hey listen, you know the band The Ramones?” and he went “Yeah” and I go “I’m the bass player” and he was like “So fucking what?!” They must have thought we robbed the place or something. As it turned out, they realized nothing was going on. Our driver wasn’t drinking or anything like that, but we were messing around and were all dressed in leather jackets so we probably just looked like troublemakers. It was the one time I tried to use it but it really didn’t’ work.
At the final Ramones show in 1996, you were joined onstage by a ton of big names including Eddie Vedder, Tim Armstrong, Lemmy and Chris Cornell. If given the opportunity to join a band on stage for their final show today, what band would it be?
Black Sabbath just retired, so they’re out. Let’s see, that’s a good question. I would definitely say Social Distortion. That’d be a big one. There are couple of artists like that that I’d like to have the opportunity with.
What is your favorite misheard Ramones lyric?
Oh man, that’s a good one. Let me think here. In “Rock ‘N Roll High School” I notice that a lot of people stumble over the line “Don’t want to be taught to be no fool.” A lot of people miss that line. Are the lyrics not on that record? I can’t remember, but that’s one I see people mess up a lot.
What your favorite rumor you’ve ever heard about the Ramones?
That we were all brothers. I still get asked about that to this day! You know what people tell me? They say “I’m really sorry to hear about all your brothers.” The worst is – and this is really the worst because it’s disrespectful in a way – I’ve gotten to do radio interviews where DJs have said to me “So tell us how your parents met?” They want to know how Mr. and Mrs. Ramone met.
Oh my lord. I always laugh it off and just say “It’s funny you should ask but here’s the real story behind the Ramones’ name” and then go into something like that. Talk about not doing your homework or just not having any knowledge about the band. (laughs)
Dee Dee aside, who are your favorite bass players of all time?
Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath is probably the guy who made me want to play bass. I was always a huge Sabbath fan. Steve Harris from Iron Maiden was an unbelievable bass player. Paul Simonon [of The Clash] was a great bass player. Of course, Dee Dee. Graham Maby, who played bass for Joe Jackson, wasn’t just a great bass player, but I really loved his style. Who else did I really like? Those are probably the big ones. The guy who played with Elvis Costello was an animal too. It’s funny, in that whole scene at that point, a lot of the rhythm sections were reggae influenced and the bass players and drum players were all really good, but the guitar players were more, like, you know, not bad, but more just rhythm players.
Your parting words?
Ramones forever! As far as my record goes, I know this is a really tough time period with everything going on in the country, and everyone is looking for a voice and for someone to speak up and be on their side, but the fact of the matter is that there is good in what’s happening. There are a lot more people that are politically aware and people standing up for what they believe in. There hasn’t been this many people involved in our political process in the history of our country. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what’s going on, but someone has to put a little positivity out there and get you away from the chaos for a few minutes. American Beauty is a good record to do that with.