How many people do you know have actually played for Johnny Ramone? Robert Burke Warren has.
He’s a little paunchier than I expected, but for the most part, Johnny Ramone looks exactly like I imagined: snug jeans, white sneakers, sleeveless T, lank brown hair curtaining shifty, intense eyes.
“So,” he says as he straps on his Mosrite guitar, “why’d ya quit da Fleshtones?” His Queens accent is thick and nasal, his chin raised in alpha male challenge.
“It wasn’t fun anymore,” I say. I’m unzipping my ratty gig bag, slipping out the trusty Fender Jazz bass I’ve recently played on a European tour. The familiar heft in my sweaty palms calms me a little.
Johnny sneer-smiles and casts a quick look to Marky, seated behind a white drum kit. Marky smirks and raises his eyebrows into his black bangs.
“We shoulda quit ten years ago!” Marky says, and laughs, kind of. Johnny laughs back. Kind of.
It’s 1989, I’m twenty-four, and word has spread fast that founding member Dee Dee has quit the Ramones to go solo. To the surprise of some, Johnny, Marky, and Joey are intent on replacing him, and the search is on. I cannot actually recall how I learn of the shake-up, but word-of-mouth in the pre-internet days is surprisingly efficient, especially among New York musicians, and especially if it’s a news flash like this. We consider the Ramones part of the firmament, a kind of living punk rock Mt. Rushmore, forever dependable, forever like the guys in Rock & Roll High School. But no. They’re mutable after all.
I’m not crestfallen, though. I’m almost purple with avarice. I want this gig. I can taste it. (In case you’re curious, it tastes of Yoo-hoo, pizza, beer, and sweat.) In an adrenalized fever daydream, I already have it. I’m asleep in my bunk on the bus; my ears are ringing from a three-hour set delivered to a steamy horde in Bogota; I’m retrieving my passport from customs at Gatwick.
I hunt down their management’s number, and I do not hesitate: I call. An actual male human answers. In a blood-thick voice, I tell him I hear the Ramones need a new bass player.
“I used to play in the Fleshtones,” I say.
“Oh yeah?” the guy replies, sounding genuinely impressed and happy to be the bearer of good tidings to the General, i.e. Johnny. “I’ll talk to da guys and see if we can get ya an appointment.”
Ten minutes later, Management Guy calls back and tells me to be at SIR Studios on West 36th between 10th and 11th in four days. 2 PM, sharp.
“What songs should I learn?” I say, my heart pounding not unlike a Ramones song.
The guy laughs. “As many as you can, man. As many as you can.”
I figure I’ve got a better shot than most, due in part to my two years – 1986 to 1988 – as bassist in a band that arose from the same turf as the Ramones: Queens. In addition to geography, the two groups share influences, especially the Stooges and the MC5, and they know one another a little. (They are not friends.) The Fleshtones, like the Ramones, are a renowned live act; they are take-no-prisoners road dogs, giving galvanizing, marathon performances that people talk about for years. Much of my Fleshtone tenure had been spent tearing up stages all over the U.S. – what we call “the college circuit” – and Europe, where the band enjoys great popularity. They are nicknamed “The Iron Men.” I know and love the rock and roll road life (well, most of it), and some of my best memories take place on that twisting, unpredictable ribbon of highway.
Robbie Ramone. Yes, I can see it. Robbie Ramone.
I pull out some Ramones LPs and get started. Memorizing the bass parts isn’t hard, but that’s not to say the songs are easy. Although among the most rudimentary in the punk rock canon, this music calls for sustained aggression, strings struck hard with a pick. It does not sound right otherwise. I’ve become a good bass player, but I mainly use my fingers, and Dee Dee’s style and sound come from turning one’s forearm, wrist, and hand into a jackhammer, hitting the strings with only down strokes. Not that it matters, but this is against the rarely enforced “rules.” In theory, it’s limiting, but then again, that is part of the Ramones’ genius: they transform their limits into assets. Many a “skilled” player cannot do what Dee Dee does, because learning an instrument “correctly” calls mostly for fine motor control, usage of tiny hand and finger muscles, employing clockwork precision. Playing like Dee Dee is more akin to driving rivets into a steel girder with a machine, except the machine is your own flesh and bone.
I can do it, though. It’s just exhausting. Few Ramones songs are more than three minutes long, but at the end of each, my entire arm cries out for rest. Luckily, I’m still young, so I recover quickly. Over the course of a couple of long, sweaty afternoons of marathon LP listening, I nail the technique. I do not sleep a lot. I make a compilation tape and rewind it dozens of times.
I take to heart Management Guy’s advice and learn ten songs. I think: “They’ll be sick of playing ‘I Wanna Be Sedated,’ ‘Rockaway Beach,’ and ‘Blitzkrieg Bop,’ so in addition to those, I’ll learn deep cuts like ‘Pet Sematary,’ ‘Wart Hog,’ and ‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.’”
Although I love the Ramones, I’ve never seen the band live, so I ask more ardent fans what to expect. My wife, Holly, has seen them many times.
“Be prepared to play even faster than the records,” she tells me. “Like really, really, really fast.”
The day of my audition, I dress the part. I wear tight jeans, red Chuck Taylors, and a T-shirt I bought at Coney Island that features a contraband White Castle logo on it. Luckily, my hair is just about right. I do not wash it.
In the few days since I booked my audition, hundreds of players have been told to come to SIR and line up for a cattle call. Candidates snake down the block and all through SIR studios, probably three hundred guys with basses. The diversity is a testament to the Ramones’ broad appeal: young, old, long hair, Mohawk, black, white, Latino. A handful of punk rock chicks. The atmosphere is convivial; many of these people worship the Ramones. I see several I know, including some who are not actually bass players. Al is a Japanese-American guitarist.
“Ya never know,” Al says.
“I’ve got an appointment,” I say, so Al won’t think I’m cutting in line.
“Oh man, you’re perfect,” he says. “You’re gonna get this, I know you are.”
I start believing Al, but my bubble soon bursts. Unfortunately, the rigorous audition process has taken a toll on Joey.
“Yeah, he split,” says a kid in an Army jacket. “My friend was in there and Joey refused to sing… he just laid down on the table and started yelling ‘I MISS DEE DEE! I MISS DEE DEE!’”
Disappointed, but undaunted, I walk to the front of the line and tell an official-looking guy that I have an appointment at 2. The murmur in the other bass players pleases me. They’re checking me out, and I am digging that. Official-looking guy sees my name on his clipboard, nods, and opens the door. A youngster with taillight-red hair walks out, looking dazed, carrying his bass case. The charged air inside the spacious rehearsal room smells of warm vacuum tubes and socks. Two guys from management shake my hand, size me up, and point me to an Ampeg SVT, an amp the size of a refrigerator. Marky and Johnny have been at it for several hours, and while they’re not exactly happy to see me, they’re curious and not unkind.
“So what you wanna play?” Johnny asks, all business.
“I learned ten songs,” I say, turning the volume way up on the SVT.
Johnny nods. “And…?”
“How about ‘Pet Sematary’?” I sling the bass low, over my jutting hipbones, like Dee Dee.
“Nah,” Johnny says. “How ‘bout ‘Sheena’? You know ‘Sheena?’”
I tell them I do and within a microsecond, Marky clicks his sticks.
In the ten years I’ve been a musician, I have never played so fast or loud. I haven’t played that fast or loud since. On record, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” is brisk indeed, but live, it’s almost twice as fast. If my bass could talk, it would still be going on about the sound it made through that radiating amp. Johnny’s Mosrite, coursing through a stack of Marshall amps, creates a palpable wall of thick, distorted, metallic noise. Anger, celebration, defiance, joy. All there. He drops into his trademark stance, not phoning it in at all. Marky, meanwhile, pummels the drums mercilessly, grimacing, slashing at the cymbals, propelling us with terrifying punk force. I smile. This is, and will remain, my most punk rock moment.
At times I fall a little behind, but I catch up and lock in, adding my sixteenth notes accordingly, filling in the bedrock with the proper feel and tone. In less than two minutes, the song is over. The guys seem mildly pleased. The air reeks of burnt ozone. My ears are throbbing like I’m in a war zone. I want more.
To my surprise and delight, we continue, working through “I Wanna Be Well,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.” I keep up. Do I lock in consistently? No. But I keep up.
I’m thinking we’re going to play yet another when Johnny says, “Thanks for coming down, man.”
No one says I don’t have the gig, so I walk to the subway thinking I may, in fact, be joining the Ramones. Back at home I tell Holly it went great, and we actually have a fight. She mentions that I’d just left a band because I don’t want to be a sideman anymore. I interpret this as a lack of support for the crazy dream I am living inside.
“Yeah,” I say. “But this is the Ramones!”
I don’t say it, but I’m thinking: Robbie Ramone. Maybe R.B. Ramone.
Of course I don’t get the gig. But amazingly, Management Guy takes the time to call me.
“Thanks for coming down,” he says on the answering machine. “You were great, but you’re not really what were looking for. Best of luck to you.”
In the years to come, I will audition for the B-52s, the Waterboys, Deee-lite, Ronnie Spector, Richard Hell, and Lloyd Cole. I won’t get any of those gigs either, but the only other one who will call to say thanks and good luck is fellow punk originator Richard Hell. He will actually call me himself.
I’m stunned and sad to not be a Ramone, but also, truthfully, a little relieved. And surprised to be relieved. I’ve reluctantly realized I would not be happy as Robbie Ramone, and they wouldn’t be happy with me. I am a transplanted Southerner, a man cut from very different cloth than the Ramones, and even though I’d be making a good wage doing what I love, I rationalize I’d be doing a lot of things I don’t love; the songs I have in me would not get written, and the adventures I sense on the horizon would be deferred.
I come down from my high-on-hope week and go back to my bartending jobs and my Tascam Porta5 cassette recorder. A New Yorker my same age named Christopher Joseph Ward goes AWOL from the Marines to audition for the Ramones. He gets the gig, but has to go into the brig for five weeks before he can go on tour as C.J. Ramone. Against considerable odds, the fans come to love him, and he sees the world with the band until their break up in 1996.
Years later, I see the excellent documentary End of the Century, and realize how lucky I am not to have been Robbie Ramone. As the band members continue to die before their time – only Marky and C.J. remain – and as life moves us all toward the innermost groove of our own allotted running time, my Ramones audition seems ever more dreamlike, a dance in the dark, unpredictable shapes of my blind desires. I go back there sometimes, where my ears perpetually ring and my right arm possesses the brute power needed to execute the tunes. I conjure Robbie Ramone, and observe him moving in a life so very different from the one I actually carved out for myself. I recall the faces of Marky and Johnny, the exhilarating feeling of being inside their songs, thrashing within that spectacular, edifying noise, actively taking part in bringing those immortal, fantastic tunes to life. I stay there for the duration of a song – usually about 2:35. Then I hurry home.
Originally appeared at The Weeklings
Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, teacher, and musician. He’s written for Akashic Books, Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, The Woodstock Times, longform, Salon, Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I ‘ll Never Forget. He blogs at Solitude & Good Company. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, will be published by The Story Plant in March, 2016.