The Tragic Real-Life Story Of The Ramones

In the 1970s, four New York guys reinvented rock 'n' roll by stripping it down to its basics, making it faster, and adding in attitude, apathy, and matching stage names. They became the Ramones: Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy, one of the most influential and important rock bands of all time, and the great American punk band. The list of their contributions to the pure rock 'n' roll songbook is long and full of short, kicky, simple songs of youthful dissent and dissatisfaction, like "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Judy is a Punk," "Teenage Lobotomy," and more, all the way up until 1996. 

The Ramones weren't really brothers, but they shared the name and a mission, as did the many other musicians who came into and out of the band over the years. All the same, their history is full of more heartbreak and tragedy than the average family saga. So hey ho, let's go, and delve into the tragic real-life story of the Ramones.

Joey Ramone died from cancer

Joey Ramone, a.k.a. Jeffrey Hyman, the most famous of the Ramones and their unofficial spokesman and face by virtue of being their lead singer, formed the band with three old high school friends from Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974. Dubbing themselves the Ramones (after a pseudonym used by Paul McCartney when checking into hotels), the band made New York's CBGB ground zero for its simple rock played quickly, which would soon be called "punk rock." Joey Ramone went on to become one of the most recognizable rock stars on the planet — tall, always clad in a leather jacket and jeans, and long hair and sunglasses hiding his expressionless face.

According to ABC News, Hyman was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1995, the same year the Ramones recorded their 21st and final album, Adios Amigos. By early 2001, the cancer had taken complete hold of Hyman, and on April 15, he died in a New York hospital surrounded by his family, while listening to U2's "In a Little While." He was only 49.

Joey Ramone had health problems from birth

Long before his cancer diagnosis in his mid-forties, Joey Ramone faced a lot of health problems — many of them likely stemming from a discovery by doctors shortly after his birth in 1951. According to Rolling Stone, he was born with a baseball-sized teratoma, an uncommon type of tumor which can often contain malformed body tissue, including teeth, bones, and hair, affixed to his spine. (Bandmate Marky Ramone would later liken it to an undeveloped conjoined twin.) When he was only a few weeks old, young Jeffrey Hyman went underwent surgery to have the large and problematic growth removed, but it may have contributed to the singer's lifelong struggle to stay healthy. He repeatedly contracted infections and suffered from poor circulation.

Couple all that with a rough childhood. Hyman's father — so prone to fits of rage that he once threw his son across a room — divorced his mother when Joey was about to turn into a teenager. He retreated inward, becoming a shy kid and making himself a favorite of school bullies. "The greasers were always looking to kick my a**," he said in Everett True's Hey Ho Let's Go: The Story of the Ramones. "They'd travel in packs with f*cking chains."

Johnny Ramone's childhood was fraught with abuse

The bleat of Joey Ramone formed the most famous part of the Ramones' sound, but it couldn't be done without the hard-charging, buzzing, quick, and precise guitar work of Johnny Ramone, born John Cummings. He brought brash attitude and sneering anger to the band and its sound, and it was real, embedded by a childhood full of toughening up (if not abuse) from authority figures. According to Rolling Stone, Cummings' father drank a lot and lacked sensitivity and once forced his son to pitch in a baseball game despite a broken big toe. Cummings recalled his father taunting, "What did I raise — a baby?"

Cummings didn't get it much easier at his Catholic elementary school, populated by corporal punishment-favoring nuns. "As with so many kids, I didn't do too well with the nuns, who would smack me around all the time," Ramone wrote in Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone. "I don't think I even did anything to deserve it, but they would hit me with a stick." When he told his mother about it, she didn't believe him, until he showed her his various bruises and markings from where he'd been hit. Once he did that, he didn't have to go to that school anymore.

Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer

While he was the lead guitarist and most punk-looking punk in the most iconic of punk bands, Johnny Ramone, or rather John Cummings, wasn't the typical rock star — he didn't party. He stayed clean, sober, and extremely healthy throughout the entire two-decade run of the Ramones. But then in 1998, according to Rolling Stone, just two years after the band had played its final concerts, Cummings was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It progressed quickly and viciously. On the one-to-ten Gleason scale, which measures the severity of cancer, Cummings scored a nine. 

By 2003, the cancer had spread from his prostate to his bones, bladder, and lungs. All of his hair — still in his signature Ramones-era bowl cut — fell out after his first chemotherapy session, and he faced tremendous and constant pain for the final months of his life. In September 2004, about three years after bandmate Joey Ramone died of cancer, the horrific disease claimed Johnny Ramone as well. According to Billboard, he died at his home in Los Angeles at the age of 55.

Dee Dee Ramone had a traumatic childhood

Though Joey Ramone sang lead on so many of the Ramones' classic two-minute punk bangers, it was bassist Dee Dee Ramone who, as half of the band's rhythm section, delivered each memorable, song-opening "One, two, three, four!" It was a long, hard road for the man born Doug Colvin to get to that point. "People who join a band like the Ramones don't come from stable backgrounds," Colvin wrote in Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones. "Punk rock comes from angry kids who feel like being creative."

As he detailed in that memoir (via Rolling Stone), Colvin's childhood was indeed both unstable and angry. His father was an Army master sergeant, and the job required the family to frequently move back and forth between the US and Germany. His father routinely beat Colvin and his sister, and as for his mother, Colvin called her "a drunken nut job, prone to emotional outbursts." The result: a couple who fought constantly and ferociously and whose lives "were complete chaos." Young Doug bore the brunt of their animosity and rage, and by the time his parents split up when he was a teenager, he'd found escape in two avenues: the songs of the Beatles and heavy drugs, according to The New York Times. Colvin ultimately dropped out of high school, and before he joined the Ramones, he made ends meet by dealing drugs and, per Viceprostitution.

Dee Dee Ramone died of a drug overdose

According to an interview published by Vice, Dee Dee Ramone first started using drugs when he was still Doug Colvin, hanging out with the American military community while his father was stationed in Germany. "I started very young, like 12," Colvin said. "I used to trade daggers and stuff for morphine." As he wrote in Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Colvin moved on to LSD when he returned to the US. "I did it hundreds of times, and I don't think I ever had any bad trips, but it really wasn't my thing. It was heroin that got me through the day." That powerful drug got "its claws" into Colvin, as he said, and he struggled with an addiction to it for his entire life.

Per The New York Times, one day in June 2002, Colvin's wife, Barbara, arrived at their home in Hollywood to find him unconscious on the couch, surrounded by drug paraphernalia. He was pronounced dead at 8:40 p.m. Per the coroner's office, the immediate cause of death was an accidental drug overdose, later confirmed by a toxicology report. Dee Dee Ramone was only 50 years old.

Tommy Ramone died of cancer

There wouldn't have even been a Ramones without its drummer, Hungarian-American Tamás Erdélyi, who later Anglicized the spelling of his name to Thomas Erdelyi. According to Rolling Stone, he emigrated with his family from Budapest to Brooklyn in the mid-1950s, absorbed the sound and aesthetics of the then-new music called rock 'n' roll, and held onto those feelings when he got to Forest Hills High School, forming a band called the Tangerine Puppets. He played guitar, with classmate John Cummings on bass. Erdélyi put the Ramones together, bringing on Cummings, and they adopted the names of Tommy Ramone and Johnny Ramone, respectively.

Erdélyi stepped down from drumming duties after performing on the Ramones' first three albums but produced material for the band in the years to come. While he was the first Ramone to leave, Erdélyi was also the last surviving original member of the group. Following the cancer-related deaths of Joey and Johnny Ramone, and the drug-induced demise of Dee Dee, Tommy Ramone died of bile duct cancer in 2014, after spending a period in hospice care, according to Variety.

Phil Spector held the Ramones at gunpoint

For its fifth studio album, 1980's End of the Century, the Ramones looked to change up their pure and simple sound and hired producer (and future convicted murderer) Phil Spector, architect of the 1960s "Wall of Sound." He made the Ramones sound more like the Ronettes or the Crystals than the Clash, although making the new album was a decidedly unpleasant experience for the group. In a 1982 interview, Johnny Ramone recalled that Spector "spent 12 hours sitting there and listening to the same chord over and over again." According to Far Out magazine, things between Johnny and Spector grew so intense that Spector hired a bodyguard to accompany him to work ... just in case the Ramone attacked him. 

But as it turned out, Spector was probably the scarier one. As Dee Dee Ramone wrote in Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, the producer invited the band into his mansion and left most of them in his downstairs piano room for three hours while he conferred with Joey Ramone. Dee Dee finally tried to leave, only for Spector to materialize at the top of the staircase, brandishing a handgun. Dee Dee announced he was heading back to his hotel, to which Spector responded, "You're not going anywhere." Then he pointed the gun at the bassist, ordered the band back into the piano room, and then forced them to listen to him sing and play the Ronettes' "Baby I Love You" until about 5 a.m.

Marky Ramone's addictions got him tossed from the band

Marky Ramone, born Mark Bell, wasn't the Ramones' original drummer, but he was the longest-serving one. Formerly a member of Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Bell became a Ramone upon the departure of drummer Tommy Ramone. He ultimately wielded the sticks on Ramones' studio albums from the late 1970s through to the band's final projects in the 1990s. That's not counting a four-year, three-LP period in the mid-1980s when Bell was replaced on drums by Richard Beau of the Velveteens, a.k.a. Richie Ramone.

Bell also brought a crippling alcohol problem to the band. According to The Morning Call, he drank so much one time in 1982 that the band missed a show, which was the last straw. As Bell recalled in his book Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone, in January 1983, he received a phone call from Joey Ramone. "You can't be in the band anymore," Ramone said. "I feel bad about it, but there's nothing I can do. These guys feel they just can't handle you anymore." Bell checked into rehab twice, including once after he drove drunk and crashed his car into a store. (And one time, as he told Vice, he was so intoxicated that he put a chihuahua in a freezer.) On the road to sobriety by 1987, he was asked back into the Ramones after Beau quit over a financial dispute.

The Ramones didn't get along

It's kind of sad when internal tensions lead a band to break up — people who once were friends who together created art that millions came to love wind up at each other's throats and can no longer work together. It's just as sad — if less likely — when bandmates don't get along and keep the group together, leading to years of stress, tension, and animosity. That's what happened to the Ramones. 

According to drummer Marky Ramone's Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone (via The Morning Call), for the vast majority of the punk band's 22-year history, lead singer Joey Ramone and lead guitarist Johnny Ramone were not on speaking terms and wouldn't even sit near each other in the band van. On top of that, the drummer claims he got the job after original member Tommy Ramone quit because he was tired of getting bullied by the other guys. Johnny once slapped a woman Joey was seeing but was much nicer to a lady named Linda who Joey dated for two years. He actually stole her away and married her, according to Billboard. A Rolling Stone feature says Joey never got over the heartbreak, and according to The New York Timeshe and Johnny never reconciled before their deaths.