an interview w/ Marky Ramone (whose autobiography is out now) — catch him on tour
Marky Ramone will take the stage at the Gramercy Theater on 1/17 to celebrate the upcoming publication of his memoirs, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone. Sitting behind the drums for one of the greatest bands in rock history for fifteen years provided more than enough perspective for the Brooklyn native who will turn 59 later this year. The timing is especially poignant given that last July saw the death of Tommy Ramone who’d been the last surviving member of the original lineup. It was Tommy who would recommend Marky to replace himself when he left the band in 1978, setting in motion another chapter for a band that had already established itself as one of punk rock’s most iconic groups. I recently spoke with Mark to discuss the book release show (featuring Andrew W K), his earliest days with another genre-defining band, and why punk rock is still the best form of exercise.
BV: Let’s talk about the book for a second, Mark. What made you feel this was the right time for an autobiography?
Marky: Well, it took five years in the making, and the process of writing it was a year and a half. I read all the Ramones books, and there were a lot of exaggerations, and I just wanted to clear them, so in my book I did. I just don’t like when people try to change history for their own reasons. I’m not gonna mention names. I’m just saying that I believe what happened happened and that’s what happened. To change history for one’s idea of sensationalism I think is wrong. On the Internet, especially these days, a blog or a writer can say anything and then everybody believes that, y’know what I’m saying? I’m sure you’ve experienced that. That’s where a lot of people unfortunately get their news. In my book it’s my whole life story beginning with the music scene plus growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and then later on after me, Johnny, and Joey decided to retire in ’94 and then our last show was in ’96. It’s a lot more informative. Obviously it has a lot to do with time being in the band for fifteen years and doing 1700 shows. I absorbed everything and what you read, that’s the result.
You mentioned sensationalism and that seems like almost par for the course when it comes to rock memoirs. With punk it’s almost like there’s an unspoken duty to de-romanticize it, though. To simply, as you said, tell it like it happened.
We were anti that. We always wanted to know the truth and everything that went with it. What I did in the book was not only did I discuss my experiences in the music business but what went along with it during the times: the Civil Rights Movement, the War in Vietnam, how New York was very downtrodden because the city was broke, you know? I wanted to add a little more so people that were a little older or even younger could maybe relate to it and to the time periods. Everything’s relative to the time, y’know?
Obviously writing the book gave you some perspective on punk’s history just in terms of being able to look back and see how the genre’s evolved over time since those early days. What’s that looked like for you?
The original punk scene we were all different. Blondie was different from the Ramones, the Ramones were different from Richard Hell, the Voidoids were different from the Dolls. There was Television who were different from the Talking Heads. We were all different. We had a camaraderie, all of us, and we started something. Now a lot of bands that are punk bands are using basically the Ramones rhythmic foundation and adding their own spice to it and coming up with their own things, which is keeping the genre alive. People don’t change. Technology does. You’ll find groups or individuals writing and singing about the same things that went on thirty and forty years ago: what they think about their jobs, school, authority, their siblings, just life in general and what the future may bring. So it really hasn’t changed lyrically. It just goes on and on. Now, of course it fused with a lot of other things like reggae and metal. Like everything else, things have to be categorized so you have punk rock, jazz punk, indie punk, you have this, you have that, you have heavy metal, death metal. (Laughs) There’s just so many things now which is great for any individual to choose what they wanna listen to. Back then we all were really influenced by the 60s stuff like the British invasion, the Phil Spector sound, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Ronettes, obviously, the Dixie Cups, and even the great one-hit wonders. There were a lot of great songs from people like that. You throw it all up in the air, an omelette comes down, and it’s the Ramones. It was just Marshall amps behind us and playing a little faster.
The relationship with pop to punk has always been fascinating to me, especially with the idea of this kind of simplicity that’s deceptive. Sure, it’s three chords and a catchy hook, but that’s a hard formula to come by and repeat again and again with success.
Oh yeah, that’s what we wanted to do. Even when I was playing with Richard Hell and the Voidoids and Wayne County, we just wanted to have the two-minute, two-and-a-half minute approach. It’s great to be a virtuoso, but after a while it can be repetitive, it can be too self-indulgent, and that’s what we didn’t like. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing. We just didn’t like it, and we just wanted to go back to the roots of basically Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, the early Elvis stuff, Chuck Berry. You know, music with a great hook, choruses, a bridge. We wanted to simplify and strip it down to the real thing, and the Ramones are the band that stripped it down the most. That’s how much we really loved that kind of music, and then it got to be too self-indulgent, like I said. Who can play the fastest triplet? Who can do the longest drum solo? After a while you go shopping for a record, go through the bins, and you’d see an album with only five or six songs on it. (Laughs) Because they were like twelve minutes long. It’s wonderful to know there are musicians who can do that well, but then there ended up being a lot of bands doing the same thing and they all sounded alike to me. Everyone was trying to experiment and be different, but they all ended up in a lot of ways sounding alike.
Was there any specific part of the memoir that conjured up a memory or experience you hadn’t thought of in some time? Were there any parts that were especially difficult to write just given the subject matter?
The fact that they wanted me in the group was really cool, because they used to come see me with Dust and Richard Hell. We all knew each other before I joined the Ramones, and in fact it was Tommy that wanted me in the group after he left and told Dee Dee to ask me to join the group. I was very happy to hear that. The fact of being asked to join such a great band like the Ramones was really an honor.
Looking at your own life both personally and musically while writing this, how have you seen yourself change since 1971 when you were playing with Dust?
Well, I learned a lot about the music business as a result of it. Obviously when you’re young you can be a bit naïve about it. You’re entering a new world, and as you grow in the business you learn what to do and what not to do, certain studio techniques. It’s made me better dealing with different people. Obviously in this business there’s a lot of egos. There’s a lot of temperament. There’s a lot of stress and anxiety situations, so you have to know how to deal with those situations just to react to them without making a wrong decision. Over those years I tried not to criticize other people’s musical tastes, beliefs, or whatever. Just let people listen to what they want to, but I will air what I like and what I feel and what I wanna critique. Everyone has their own tastes and styles, and looking back over those years it’s not for me to judge anybody on what their tastes are musically or politically, but I will talk about people’s politics opposed to mine.
Obviously things are very different now in the music industry as opposed to 1971. Are things just as conducive now for great artists like the Ramones to be discovered and have that success, or do you see that kind of uniqueness with the industry diminishing because of the Internet and social media?
Because of the information age and the websites and Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff I think a lot of bands now have the opportunity to show what they can do. Back then, what did you really have? A newspaper or a DJ who would play one of your songs occasionally? Now a band can spread it all over the world. Is it good or bad? In a way it’s good but there’s a lot of piracy, so bands have to come up with clever ways to keep the interest. They have to have a great t-shirt or they have to write something lyrically or do something with the music that’s totally different that will attract a listener, but again, that’s very hard because so much has been done and so much is out there that it’s very hard to select through all that stuff. It could definitely hamper a musician to continue if his stuff is gonna be stolen, and he can’t make a living out of whatever he’s doing – folk, jazz, rock, metal, punk, whatever – that could really stifle a lot of creativity and in the future it could affect the arts musically.
I think it’s definitely true that bands and artists now have to be just as savvy with marketing skills as they are with their craft.
It’s a business. I mean, the minute you sign a contract to start recording or you put out your first t-shirt, you are in the business. You’re a commodity. So, there are probably clever ways to attract attention, which I don’t really know at this moment what some band is trying to do in their basement or rehearsal study to try to get that attention.
I wanted to talk to you about Dust a little, Mark. You guys are considered one of the first metal bands in America. Looking back at that and seeing what was happening in American music at that point, what in your mind allowed the culture at that time to produce the kind of impactful music it did?
All three of us went to the same high school, and that’s where we made the two albums. When we made the first one we were still in mid-high school in Erasmus in Brooklyn. That’s where we grew up, and it was a very tough neighborhood. It was like England’s Liverpool, so you’re gonna play harder, you’re gonna play faster. Again, England, mentioning metal, was a year ahead of us. Here in America there hardly was any metal. Black Sabbath was a year ahead of us, but those songs were written before we even knew about Black Sabbath. When I count on my fingers how many metal bands there were in America in 1970 and ’71, who really was there? There were bands that had elements of metal but were they really metal metal? I mean, you had Mountain, you had Blue Cheer, you had Sir Lord Baltimore, but Dust was a real heavy metal band. You can go far back and even say Zeppelin had elements of metal and Hendrix and The Who and the Kinks. I mean, “All Day and All Night” definitely had elements of metal and punk, but Dust, for our band, we were probably in the top five in America for heavy metal bands. Now, if we did a third album I think that would have gotten us over the hump as they say. But Casablanca formed, Neil Bogart didn’t really wanna have anything to do with Kama Sutra anymore or Buddha Records which Dust was on. He formed Casablanca, we broke up because I had to graduate high school and so did Kenny. Richie was a year older than us, and Neil Bogart wanted Richie to produce. Kenny and Richie discovered a tape in a box that was sent to them, and it was KISS, so they produced the first two KISS albums. I ended up doing an album with Andrew Oldham with a band called Estus, and Kenny went on to become an acclaimed sideman bassist. Getting back to metal in America at the time, soft rock was big, and I’m not knocking it. You had Carly Simon, you had Carole King who I think is a great songwriter. The Tapestry album was huge. You had Seals and Croft, and for some reason even Zeppelin was getting soft with “Stairway to Heaven” and some of the other songs on their albums. We didn’t like that. We wanted to be heavy heavy heavy, so that’s what we continued to do until we broke up. But that’s what led us into wanting to play metal. Radio was just a little too soft for us.
You’ve got the upcoming show at Gramercy, Mark, and special guest Andrew W K is playing with you. How did his involvement come about?
The show was a suggestion by a writer named Steve Lewis who writes a column here for a magazine. He’s friends with Andrew and suggested that Andrew come to a rehearsal, learn a few songs beforehand, and see how it goes. I met Andrew in a restaurant with my friend Steve, and we hit it off. He came down, and I didn’t want any Joey drones. He’s very engaging, and he’s a very cool entertainer. (Laughs) He’s a character, and I liked that added attraction because he’s the king of party, y’know? Not meaning that he’s drunk or drugged out. He just has a very positive outlook on how to party, and I think the audience definitely feels that when he’s up there. He’s brought a lot to the table for the band, and that’s why I brought him in. He does it his way, and he’s able to pull it off. We do 36 Ramones songs live. I wore one of those wristbands that show your calories, so you figure we play and hour and twenty minutes nonstop. I burn 900 calories. Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. That’s more than a Nordic track and whatever put together. All these machines you see on TV or at the gym, these stair climbers – drumming for an hour and burning that many calories – those machines can’t come close to that.
Punk is health. That needs to be the new exercise trend.
(Laughs) Right? I’ll be doing a commercial in ten years.
You’ve got a book tour coming up as well this year, right?
Yeah, I’ve got a book tour around the United States. After the Gramercy show I’ll take a little break, and then after that I’ll probably do some touring during the spring. I just got signed for another year on my radio show on Sirius XM, so I get to play all the punk music I want. It’s goin’ on its tenth year already. As long as my body permits, I’ll continue.