From their 1974 live debut in New York City to their final 1996 show in L.A., eight bruddas in leather have claimed the surname Ramone. But if there were a ninth member of the punk-rock godfathers, he would of course be Monte Ramone. For 2,263 performances in front of crowds ranging from a handful of bored club employees in the Bowery to stadiums packed with tens of thousands singing along in foreign countries, Monte A. Melnick saw it all.
He was the Ramones' road manager, procurer, party pal, confidante, soul brother, problem solver and much, much more. Melnick shares his experiences - and gets more than 50 players in the Ramones story to do likewise - in On the Road with the Ramones. Originally published in 2003, packed with more than 250 rare photos, it has recently been reissued in an updated edition.
Rocks Off spoke with Melnick, who now works at the Audio Visual Associate at the New York Hall of Science, about his years with pinheads, 1-2-3-4 countoffs, Dee Dee's syringes and gently navigating the explosive Johnny/Joey axis.
Rocks Off: So, 2,263 live gigs. Did you ever miss one?
Monte A. Melnick: There were a couple of early shows in the beginning, maybe two or three, where they couldn't afford to take me!
RO: The influence and popularity of the Ramones has only exploded in the past few years. They're constantly name-checked by bands, and every suburban mall sells T-shirts with the "Presidential Seal" logo on them.
MM: Half the people who buy those shirts don't even know who the band is! Same with the CBGB's shirts. My line is that if the Ramones were this big when I worked with them, I would have gotten a raise! But it would have been nice if they were this big when they were together and struggling and could have used the [benefits] that came with it.
RO: Did you find that it was a lot easier to get some of the people you interview in the book to talk to you because no one could question your association with the band?
MM: Absolutely! I knew all these people personally, and very well. And they did kind of spill the beans on a lot of things. The good part about doing an oral history is that they said things that I didn't want to! There were some delicate moments there that I was happy to let other people talk about.
RO: The photos are amazing. Especially the candid shots.
MM: Most of them are from my personal collection. The art director was great. And they're spread all throughout the book. Most [music biography] books, you get a section slopped in the center with a few pages of photos.
RO: Was it hard to cut things you wanted to put in?
MM: Oh yeah. You're talking about more than 25 years worth of stuff. The book could have been double or even triple the size.
RO: Like the Beatles, the personalities of the Ramones have fallen into these broad generalizations. Joey was the sensitive heart, Johnny the brusque drillmaster, Dee Dee the fucked-up soul and Tommy the level-headed studio brains. How close is that to reality as you knew them?
MM: As generalizations, they are pretty much true. But together, they made the Ramones.
RO: What did you think of the End of the Century documentary? There are lots of pretty brutal and honest moments in it, particularly about the Joey/Johnny feud that lasted for so many years.
MM: It was a little depressing at the end, but that's the story! It's the way it went.
RO: In your book, you quote a music journalist as saying "The Ramones saga can be summed up in the stress and aging on Monte's face." True?
MM: (laughs) Yah, yah! You know, it was a tough job! Look at the face of the President after four years!
RO: But the President only has to handle diplomatic relations between warring countries. You had to handle Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky.
MM: Well...it was interesting!
RO: Do you hear much from the surviving members these days? Tommy, Marky, and C.J.?
MM: Don't forget Richie and Elvis!
RO: Well, I wasn't going to mention Richie. He did sue the group for songwriting credits, and is kind of the Lost Ramone in histories. I didn't know what your relationship with him is like.
MM: Not good (laughs)! He's out in Phoenix or something. He just disappeared and didn't want anything to do with the Ramones. He didn't even pick up his royalties! I tried to talk to him for the book but he wouldn't. I'm still great friends with Tommy. He's in this bluegrass group now! Marky has a Sirius/XM radio show and I've been on it a few times. He's also the workhorse, out there on the road playing Ramones songs.
I bumped into C.J. He and his kids came to the Hall of Science and he's playing with some groups. And Elvis [Clem Burke, Blondie drummer and temporary Ramone], he's done pretty well! He really wanted to be a Ramone, but it was a timing factor. He needed more time to learn the songs, and we had to go on the road when Marky came back.
RO: I only saw the Ramones once, in Austin, Texas, in 1990. It was the "Escape From New York" Tour [with Deborah Harry of Blondie and The Tom Tom Club and Jerry Harrison, 3/4s of the Talking Heads]. The Ramones went on in the middle of the afternoon in the blazing sun, but dressed in full leather.
MM: We rotated set times on that tour. It was strange playing those Festival dates in the sun.
RO: Any particular memories about playing Houston or Texas?
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MM: Texas was always a great place for us. Houston was always a good city... I forget the names of the clubs we played. In Austin once, some of us went to Barton Springs [to swim]. Joey was with us.
RO: That must have been a sight. Joey is perhaps the whitest white man in history. What about Johnny?
MM: Oh no, he wouldn't do something like that. He would never go out!
On the Road with the Ramones, by Monte A. Melnick and Frank Meyer. Bobcat Books, 312 pp., $24.95. Visit Monte's MySpace site here.