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Johnny Ramone, forever -- in bronze

The Week Ahead

January 10, 2005|Geoff Boucher

Thanks to Ronald Reagan, Los Angeles will have a grand new monument to punk rock. On Friday, the fans and famous friends of the late Johnny Ramone will gather at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to dedicate a bronze statue that depicts him clawing away at his Mosrite guitar.

Who was it exactly who decided that a gritty New York rock outlaw is best memorialized atop a masonry pedestal beside a pond? That would be Ramone himself. While in the hospital for cancer treatment in the months before his death in September at age 55, he watched the state funeral of President Reagan and was inspired to craft his send-off with a similar eye to history.

"We were watching the funeral from Cedars-Sinai, and Johnny had always loved Reagan -- he was his favorite president and his favorite actor -- and we were admiring how well it was going and how everything was done," recalled Arturo Vega, the close associate of the Ramones who designed many of the logos and T-shirts for the seminal punk band. On that day in June 2004, Vega suggested that the guitarist begin to size up how his own after-death experience would play to the public:

"I suggested some kind of monument. He was such a meticulous and control person, he agreed right away. A monument was my idea; the statue was his idea."

The 4-foot statue stands on a 2-foot base and shows Ramone from the knees up, in a leather jacket and capped, of course, by his famous bowl haircut. The statue was based on the small figurine that rocker Rob Zombie commissioned and then presented to Ramone as a gift on Christmas 2003. The desktop statue had the one-word inscription: "Legend." The big, bronze version will have the inscription: "If a man can judge success by how many great friends he has, then I have been very successful. -- Johnny Ramone."

The inscription is inspired by the words on Jackie Robinson's grave, but the guitarist was hardly unoriginal. Ramone was described by friends and rivals alike as demanding, innovative and stridently honest. Beyond his influence on a whole branch of rock musicians, he was fiercely proud of his blue-collar roots and his strong opinions, whether they were on matters political or artistic. His close circle of friends included Eddie Vedder, Nicolas Cage, Lisa-Marie Presley, Zombie and others, many of whom are expected at Friday's 3 p.m. service.

The guitarist was cremated, but the statue will be erected not far from the grave of Dee Dee Ramone, the bandmate who died of an overdose in 2002.

Vega said there had been a whiff of an idea that with three of the band's four original members dead -- singer Joey Ramone died in 2001 after a battle with cancer -- that the memorial might be to the band of young New York street kids who assumed the same pseudonymous surname and created a template for fast and furious punk. "He discarded it right away," Vega said. Yes, the years of tension among the band members might have been a factor. "Really, what it is, is this is a very personal thing."

The idea of putting up personal statues to yourself is curious to some ears (Presley, for one, was aghast at the idea when Ramone outlined the plan for her from his hospital bed, Vega reports), but it fits a musician who seemed to go at life and art with a chisel.

"I went to see it today," Johnny's widow, Linda Ramone, said late last week. "We had to change the patina. It was a little green. It needed to be more black. But it looks amazing. It's just what he wanted."

How much did it cost to give the punk icon the presidential treatment? "Oh ... can I say the price? When we were planning it, he kept asking, 'Do you think it's worth it?' And I said, 'J.R., are you kidding?' He wanted people, the fans, to come from all over the world and get to see it. He wanted it to be bigger than Jim Morrison's grave."

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