CJ Ramone is living out a dream
Chris Ward was in the midst of trying to learn 40 songs at break-neck speed. It was 1989 and five weeks after his release from a Marine brig in Virginia, he was about to go on tour as the bass player for one of the most influential, and by many accounts, the first punk rock group of all time: The Ramones.
"It was like, ‘How did this ever happen?' It was the ultimate rock star dream," he told The Eagle in a phone interview from his Long Island, N.Y., home this week.
He was in his early 20s and had been a fan of the band that was formed in Queens, N.Y., in 1974 by Douglas Colvin, John Cummings, Jeffry Hyman and Thomas Erdelyi, better known as Dee Dee, Johnny, Joey, and Tommy Ramone.
By 1989, Dee Dee, Johnny and Joey were still playing together, but had gone through several different drummers. Mark Bell, aka Marky Ramone, was the drummer at the time.
Dee Dee was burned out from the road by this point, but continued to write songs for The Ramones while Ward was hired to replace him as the band's bass player and sometimes-singer. Ward was re-born CJ Ramone and would end up in the band until their retirement in 1996.
On Sunday, CJ Ramone plays Pittsfield at Chameleons Nightclub on East Street.
CJ Ramone said fans can expect a mix of songs from his own recent album, "Reconquista," and Ramones' standards.
"I'll always play The Ramones' songs live. [The fans] love to hear it," he said. "I do The Ramones justice."
He said it was a strange sensation going from watching them from the audience to being on stage playing with them.
"One day I'm bouncing up and down in front of Johnny, and the next I look over, and there's Johnny and Joey and I'm playing on stage with them," he recalled. "I was 21 or 22. I grew up listening to them. It was tremendous overwhelming."
CJ Ramone's first show with the band was on Sept. 30, 1989, in Leicester, England.
CJ Ramone plays Pittsfield
CJ Ramone (with members of The Adolescents, Steve Soto and Dan Root,) plays the Chameleons Nightclub at 1350 East St., Pittsfield, Mass., at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, 2013. With The Damaged, Dead Aces, Hijinx, and The Poncherellos. An all ages show. $15 advance; $18 at the door.
"Yeah, I made some mistakes that night. Johnny was mad as hell and yelled at me for five solid minutes after the show. I stood there listening and then I ran back stage, drank some beer and celebrated. I knew I had it. I got the whole Ramones thing on stage," he said.
For the other band members, the rock and roll lifestyle was commonplace, but for C.J., who was younger by nine years and unused to it, he was enthralled by the famous people they hung around with.
"I was so not cool when I was in the band. I was going on pure instinct," he said. "When I met Lemmy [the lead singer of English rock band Motörhead], I was out of my mind. I told him, ‘We have to have to party!'" They did, he said.
Following the breakup of the band in 1996, Ramone stopped playing music altogether for a short time.
"My son [Liam] was born in 1997 and a year or two later was diagnosed with autism," he said.
He said Metallica asked him to play bass for their band twice, but he turned the mega-selling and multi-Grammy-winning heavy metal band from Los Angeles down after he was told by his son's doctors that he would be doing his son a great disservice if he took the job.
"So I packed it in," he said.
He said he doesn't regret the decision.
"I had already done it all. Playing with Metallica would have been amazing, but I already played with the greatest rock and roll band in history," said Ramone.
While he later started two other bands, Los Gusanos and Bad Chopper, both now defunct, before recording and touring as CJ Ramone, he had always hoped The Ramones would re-form.
Joey died from lymphoma in 2001. Dee Dee died from a heroin overdose the next year. And Johnny lost his battle with prostate cancer in 2004.
He saw both Johnny and Dee Dee before their deaths, adding Dee Dee hadn't always been nice to him, but that night was different.
"He told me, ‘You were always cool to me.' It was out of character for him. I waited for him to crack a joke. He didn't and I didn't know what to say. A couple of weeks later, he was dead."
His first solo album recording under CJ Ramone, "Reconquista," Spanish for reconquest, is meant as a tribute to Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, and was influenced by that band's sound, but, he said, there are hints of his two later bands that come through on the album as well.
"Reconquista" was recorded three times, said Ramone, and was released digitally last year. After two attempts that ended in results he just wasn't satisfied with, he called up his friend Steve Soto of Adolescents, a punk band from Southern California, who helped him produce the album that he had intended to make.
Recorded in Orange County, Calif., with the help of a who's who of punk and new wave musicians from such famed bands as X, Bad Religion, Blondie and Social Distortion, among others, Ramone said it was fun to record and the results made him proud.
Before the recording session, when Soto mentioned the list of people who wanted to help out on the record, Ramone was taken aback.
"In the back of my mind I'm thinking: ‘How much is this going to cost?" he said. "None of them asked for a dime. They did it because of The Ramones name. In honor of them. That's the power of the Ramones."
With a wife, Denise, and three kids -- Liam, 15, Lilliana, 12, and 3-year-old Mia Dove -- he has scaled back his touring schedule and when he can, brings the family with him.
"We're playing at Fuji Rock Festival in Japan this summer and I'm bringing the family," he told The Eagle.
Ramone's two older children were with first wife, Chessa, Marky Ramone's niece from whom he's divorced, and his youngest was by his second wife, Denise.
His oldest daughter, who herself is a multi-instrumentalist, was into punk, but is listening to progressive music these days.
"But every once in a while, she breaks out some Green Day," said Ramone.
He was happy to see punk attain such popularity in the 1990s with bands like Rancid and Green Day, but inevitably, the music industry got its hands on it and helped produce mediocre music, said Ramone.
Punk rock was originally created by and for disenfranchised youth, he said.
"As long as they are young, angry and alienated teenagers there will be punk rock," he said,
Beyond that, punk surmounts age differences, he said. At his shows he has fans both young and old.
"I don't think there is another type of music that transcends the generations, and that's a very wonderful thing," said Ramone.
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