Last Tuesday, the Internet lit up with rumors of Johnny Ramone’s imminent death. Quoting former band drummer Marky Ramone, Rolling Stone’s Web site announced June 15 that the Ramones guitarist and co-founder had prostate cancer.
“Johnny’s been a champ in confronting this,” Marky told R.S., “but at this point I think the chances are slim.” The chances, that is, of Johnny leaving Cedars-Sinai through its front doors.
The news traveled fast and far. London’s Express bannered the story “Curse of the Ramones,” and, according to the Independent, a stadium crowd of 50,000 Scots attending a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert yelled, “Johnny, we love you!” into guitarist John Frusciante’s cell phone, which had Ramone on the other end.
If Johnny were to die, he would be the third member of the four punk godfathers to pass away in middle age — singer Joey died of lymphoma in 2001, bassist Dee Dee OD’d in 2002. The problem with the pre-obits is that Johnny was not about to die. Not this week, at least. True, the 55-year-old L.A. resident had been diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago and was in Cedars for an infection related to that illness. But by Thursday, MTV’s Web site was carrying a report that his irate wife, Linda, had authorized his physician to deny that his patient’s condition was grave and to confirm that he was expected to return home this week.
The morbid feeding frenzy stirred in the press by Marky Ramone’s initial comments underscored not only the Ramones’ enduring popularity but also the media’s fascination with celebrity death. The weeklong rites surrounding Ronald Reagan’s passing were nothing less than a funeral festival — part Bayreuth, part P.T. Barnum. Ironically, Reagan was Johnny’s hero, so much so that the deeply conservative Ramone successfully fought to have the band’s song “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down” renamed from its original title, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.”
Even members of the oft-feuding Ramones family, however, admit that Johnny is not the type of person who would announce he had cancer, let alone indicate how serious his condition was. Monte Melnick, the band’s road manager for its entire 22-year career and co-author of On the Road With the Ramones, told the Weekly that Johnny “ate healthy and didn’t smoke or drink” but, like many men, avoided getting prostate exams until it was too late.
“He’s had prostate cancer for a while,” Melnick said. “People get wind of that and call Marky, and with his big mouth it becomes a deathwatch thing.”
Writer-musician George Tabb, a longtime friend of the band’s, e-mailed the Weekly to say, “It’s a very sad time in the history of rock . . . The Ramones changed the face of rock & roll forever. Not only that — as people they changed the lives of tens of thousands of kids. One soul at a time.”