Bookshelf: Go on the road with The Ramones’ tour manager, Monte Melnick

by  Peter Lindblad

The Ramones. Photo credit: George DuBose/courtesy of Sire/Warner Bros. Records.

The Ramones. Photo credit: George DuBose/courtesy of Sire/Warner Bros. Records.
“On The Road With The Ramones”: “Gabba gabba hey,” indeed.

The inside story of The Ramones — the “all access pass” on the opening page isn’t there just for show — as told by the people who knew them best, “On The Road With The Ramones” pieces together commentary by band members, fans, journalists, relatives, other recording artists — Joan Jett, the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome, and Blondie’s Chris Stein, among others — and assorted hangers-on to provide a colorful, patchwork history of a band that, sadly, wasn’t too tough to die.

This updated edition of the original, issued in 2003, includes more images — including a multitude of flyers, tour posters and miscellaneous documents — and additional quotes gathered by Melnick, the band’s longtime tour manager. All the new material certainly doesn’t detract from what is a fascinating tale of a group that could be as dysfunctional as the worst of families. No punches are pulled as Melnick traces the band’s history all the way back to the beginnings of the friendship between he and Tommy Erdelyi, better known as Tommy Ramone.

Want the real story on Dee Dee’s voracious drug appetite and his exit from the band? It’s here, as is a behind-the-scenes look at Ramones tours and the girl troubles that broke up a beautiful friendship between Joey and Johnny. This is a fascinating read you can wade through long after digesting every word.

Having spent 22 years on the road with The Ramones, Melnick, the band’s adopted den mother, knew them better than anybody, and he shared his memories in a recent interview.

Goldmine: Tell us about some of the additions to the book.

Monte Melnick: Well, the original edition — this is the third edition by the way — came out in late 2003, and there’s so much about the Ramones [coming out] every year, and constantly, that, you know, I updated it with what the members are doing now that are still left, and I put some new pictures in it of various things that have happened since I put the book out in late 2003.

GM: When did you first meet The Ramones, and how did you become their tour manager?

MM: Well, I went to junior high school with Tommy, the original drummer. And I was in several bands with him before, well before, The Ramones. I played bass, and he actually got me into playing music and playing bass. I played bass for quite a long while in the early years. I actually have two albums out on Reprise Records for a group called Thirty Days Out. And I played with Tommy in several bands in New York, and then I opened up… I had the advantage to do a rehearsal/recording studio — somebody approached [me] to design it and build it. So, I brought Tommy in at the time, and we both got to manage the studio and get free time for our projects. I had my band, and he had The Ramones. At the time, he was just managing it. And I sat in and helped them out with the showcases and things took off from there.

GM: Had you had any experience managing at that point? I suppose not.

MM: Well, no. I was just a musician at that time and playing. I had my groups, and I actually had two albums out, before The Ramones, and played around and toured and stuff, and then I was just kind of managing the studio and working on my band at the time. And we did showcases there [at the studio] where we’d flyer the area, The Ramones did, or whoever or whatever group wanted to do it. It was a small studio, so we had a little stage and stuff, and lights and PA, and groups would come in and flyer the area, the neighborhood or whatever, and bring people in for little showcases for a couple bucks, and try to get some people down from the record company to see them. And The Ramones did that quite a bit, and I ran the sound for them and lights, and that’s how I got involved in that end of it.

GM: In all the band played 2,263 live shows. With such a grueling tour schedule, how did they hold it together and maintain that standard of excellence live?

MM: It was grueling. Well, they developed a system toward the middle where they wouldn’t stay out very long on tours. They’d go out and do sections of the country or would do a European tour and then come back and rest for like a week or two. So, eventually, we got into that routine, and that’s how they managed to stay around for quite a while. We didn’t tour like 200 days straight. They were doing that in the beginning, and they were killing themselves. So, we developed a little system where we’d like go out and do the West Coast, the tour, and then come back and rest and go out to the West Coast and come back and rest and do the Midwest and then rest, and then go to Europe and come back. You know, we did little sections at a time, and resting in between, and then, of course, there were albums, so there was a break there, too.

GM: Not having been a tour manager before, and starting with The Ramones, what did you learn on the job that kind of surprised you at first or was a difficult part of the job that you didn’t realize how tough that part of it was going to be?

MM: Well, you know, I worked my way up. I mean, we started where I did everything for them — you know, schlepped the equipment and the PA, did this, did that — and so, you know, I learned a lot early, and you know, in the area, we did a lot of CBGB’s shows, so it was just learning there. And little by little, the bigger they got, the more people we got to hire; so we hired a lighting guy, and a sound guy and a couple roadies — a car roadie and a drum roadie — and so I worked my way up from there, just an on-the-job learning experience.

GM: What was it about The Ramones that made them such an electric live act?

MM: They seemed to hit a seam with kids [in] that they talked directly to them, you know? With their songs, [they] kind of hit a vein with these kids. They were talking right to them — kind of joking around, but they were talking about the problems every kid had, about growing up and things like that, and in a funny way. You know “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat” … you know, I’ve never been in a restaurant where a kid’s like screaming, and you [don't] want to beat on them, but they were talking about it like comically. Unfortunately, some people took them seriously. That’s why they got in trouble. Early on, you know, people looked at the song “I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” and “Beat on the Brat,” and they were just joking around, but people thought they were serious. So, their radio play in the early years, and throughout most of their career, wasn’t very good, you know?

GM: And yet even despite that, while The Ramones didn’t have any radio hits, so many of their songs ended up having an enduring legacy. What was it about working with them that excited you, and why does their songwriting lasts to this day where those hits strike a chord with people?

MM: As I said, they speak to you directly in a comical way you can relate to. Everybody can relate to it, you know? “Rockaway Beach” … who doesn’t want to go to Rockaway Beach and have a fun time, and you know, stuff like that? And “Happy Family” … everybody has a dysfunctional family. You know, stuff like that.

GM: One of the more horrifying stories from the road involved a humidifier exploding in Joey’s face before a show at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J. Joey played the show and was then rushed to a New York burn center afterwards, and that event sort of resulted in the song “I Wanna Be Sedated.” What do you remember about that show?

MM: Well, he used to wanna loosen his voice up … I believe we didn’t have official humidifiers. He always used kind of a teapot or something; now they have these little things where you breathe in hot air or steam for your voice, but he didn’t have one at the time, and the thing he was using kind of … he was loosening up his voice, and it like exploded and backfired right on his face. It was bad, you know. He had got burned, but he did the show, you know. And we took him to the hospital, and they fixed him up.

GM: How did he get through it? Did you have to do anything special?
MM:
Well, we put a little suave on his face. He was able to sing and do the show, so it wasn’t critical, luckily (laughs).

GM: Were there any other stories like that that where things went wrong?

MM: Oh my God. I was with them for 22 years. That’s why I wrote a book. All my good stories are in the book. Read the book.

GM: Well, what were some of the worst or more interesting ones?

MM: Well, I’ll tell you one of the quickies I like to tell. Early on we traveled… we did a lot of traveling in vans, bus tours, and also a lot of van touring, so we were in Texas — this is early on in the late- or mid-’70s, or late-’70s [and] we were in Texas — and we’d never been to that area before, so nobody knew about The Ramones. So, we pulled into a gas station; it was after a long, long ride, and everybody liked piled out of the van and into the gas station service thing there, the Kwiki Mart or whatever it was at the time. And (laughs) I get out and the attendant looks at me and says, “It’s so nice of you taking care of these handicapped people here. It’s nice to see that.” Because the way they got out of the van and the way they looked, with their leather jackets and they were stumbling around and walking like zombies, it looked like they were Special Ed people or whatever, you know? (laughs) So, that was a good laugh. I said, “Yeah, I take care of ‘em. Don’t worry about it (laughs).” You can imagine what they looked like, stumbling into a mid-Texas gas station after about a five- or six-hour ride.

GM: They must have looked like aliens.

MM: Exactly, especially Joey.

GM: What gets lost a lot of times in talking about the Ramones it seems like is how professional they were. No matter what the troubles within the band, they sucked it up and delivered onstage, didn’t they?

MM: Well, that was the thing, you know. They had a lot of internal conflicts, but they realized that what they were doing onstage [was] very special, so they kind of put this… they didn’t really want to have big fights and fist fights and stuff, so they just didn’t talk to each other at times and just kept on going, because they realized as soon as they got onstage, that was a special time, you know. It was just something else. They knew what they were producing for the people and the fans who were out there for them to do it, and that’s why they stayed together so long.

GM: It seemed like in the early days there was a “one-for-all, all-for-one” unifying force to the band in the early days, but I guess cracks started to form at some point, it seemed, after the Phil Spector-produced End of the Century. What was at the heart of the tension do you think?

MM: Well, Joey, his girlfriend … Johnny took her away and married her. So, he never really got over that. It was kind of hard. So, they never talked for the longest time, but they stayed together. They played because they realized, you know, what they were doing was terrific. The music and everything was there, onstage. The live show was great. So, they just decided not to talk to each other and just keep on touring.

GM: So, it was more of a personal thing between Joey and Johnny.

MM: Yeah, you know, they had their personal conflicts with that. Plus, you know, Joey was like a liberal and Johnny was like a conservative, politically speaking, so they couldn’t talk politics. That was a big thing, and they also had… control of the group was another thing. Johnny [said], “I want to do this. I want to do that.” And things went along that way, kind of like any band, like any marriage. How many marriages last 25 years, you know? It’s like a marriage. It’s a four-way marriage in a way, you know what I mean? It’s hard to keep together sometimes.

GM: Well, it’s interesting when talking to bands or artists that knew them or knew Joey, how they talk about how Joey just loved music and just lived for it. Was he like that, where he’d just cloister himself up and just write songs?

MM: Well, yeah, he loved listening to new music. And after The Ramones retired, he had his own little Joey Ramone bashes where he’d have bands that he liked, and he’d get a little venue in New York and get little shows together and like co-host it. He was always into new groups and he was always listening to new groups. He really was into that, listening to new groups. He really liked that, and I’m just shocked how many huge bands are influenced by The Ramones. It’s like incredible, you know. Like when we did the Lollapalooza tour, the last tour in ’96, you know, we were like third on the bill, and fourth down is Metallica and Soundgarden and Rancid and when we’re on stage, all these guys are … all the other bands are on the sides of the stage watching, going like, “Wow. You know? This is amazing.”

GM: It’s a wonder how their music got out.

MM: You know, it’s a shame. They retired in ’96, and they got into the Hall of Fame after that, and Joey died, and Dee Dee died and Johnny died, and they became huge. They’re so big now, it’s insane. In fact, I have a line that I put into my new book which is, “If the Ramones were this big when I was working for them, I would have gotten a raise.” I mean, they’re so big now, it’s insane. If they were around now, this is what they should have been. At the time, they didn’t sell any records. They could have been like a Nirvana or a Green Day, and selling a lot of records like that, and having huge, humungous tours, like that. The record sales is the big thing. They could have sold a helluva lot more records now if they were still around because they’re so much bigger.

GM: And back then it was just radio being afraid to play them.

MM: Yeah, it was just a thing we fell into in the beginning when the Sex Pistols came out, we got lumped into that mess over there. You know, I mean, they did have their own thing, but their thing was not The Ramones’ thing, and everybody thought The Ramones were dangerous and spit on you and put safety pins in your ear or nose, or whatever. That wasn’t The Ramones, but they got lumped into that. And then the radio stations just wouldn’t play them. And now they’re getting commercials. They’re in movie soundtracks. They’re played on the radio all the time. I think because the kids that were growing up at the time watching them finally got into positions now where they’re out putting them into movies, they’re putting them into TV commercials, they’re doing more than just… at the time, they were just out there trying to listen to them without any influence. Now, they’re all grown up, and The Ramones are bigger than ever. Unfortunately, it’s kind of like Van Gogh never sold a picture. Now they’re worth $40 million (laughs).

GM: I suppose with so many shows it’s hard to single maybe one or a few shows… (“Oh God,” says Monte) … but were there a few shows that stand out in your memory?

MM: Well, the last show, we did … you know, in South America they happen to the biggest. We had a little taste of what it would be to be a huge group worldwide in South America, say like Argentina. They were insanely big down there. And they played a stadium down there for 55,000 people headlining, and they were just like the Beatles down there. It was insane. So, a show like that sticks out in my memory.

GM: I know one of the problems that scuttled The Ramones later on was Dee Dee’s health struggles, and that also played a big part in the Ramones’ decline. What do you remember about his problems and what was your role in helping him cope?

MM: Dee Dee had a drug problem. Joey had a health problem throughout the whole career, basically. We were … [Joey] always had this wrong with him, that wrong with him, and with Dee Dee, we tried to help him get through it. He went to rehab a lot and took a lot of medicine for his problems. He was like a multiple personality, too, which was a problem. So, he’d be one Dee Dee one day and one Dee Dee another day. And then he was finally fed up with the whole thing, and he just decided to leave. So, I’m surprised, I’m shocked that he lasted so long. Joey died before him, but Joey died of natural causes, but Dee Dee died the rock ‘n’ roll way, I guess the way he wanted to. He OD’ed. But he lasted a lot longer than I thought because he was like a big abuser of everything he got his hands on, you know.

GM: Was he the only one in the band that had drug problems?

MM: Yeah, basically. I mean, that bad. Joey had a lot of health problems unfortunately. He was this and that throughout the years. He wasn’t the healthiest person, so we had problems there, too.

GM: Did they start at some point with the band, or were they a lifelong thing?

MM: A lifelong thing.

GM: Where were you when you heard about Joey’s death?

MM: Here in New York. They called me up and told me, and I had seen him in the hospital, visited him a few times. You know, he was in New York. It was a sad, you know. The bad thing about it was he had it under control, the lymphoma, and he was taking medicine. He was kind of doing OK, and in the winter, he fell down and hurt his hip, like fractured it. So they had to  fix the hip and kind of take him off the medicine that was helping him for the lymphoma to fix the hip, and then [he] all of a sudden relapsed into a really bad state, and it was just too late. Otherwise, he was doing … he almost had it under control there, ’cause he was doing OK.

GM: Through it all, you lasted 22 years with the band. What was it that kept you with them?

MM: (laughs) It wasn’t money, I can tell you that. No, you know, I had a chance to work with an amazing group that kept on going to places and doing amazing things — doing movies, you know. I was in a movie, briefly, a cameo in the movie. Traveling to Europe, to Japan, traveling everywhere I’d want to go. And it was an interesting job. Being a tour manager is quite an interesting job. It entails a lot of different things, so it was very interesting, and good work, you know? It kept me busy.

GM: How did it change over the years? You talked, I guess, about schlepping equipment…

MM: Yeah, well, you know, I worked my way up from schlepper to this to production to tour manager. Tour manager is better because I traveled with the band. I didn’t have to do the crew hours. They got to get there early and stay late and go schlep, as I say, all that equipment in and out. Luckily, as I say, I worked my way up out of that, and I traveled with the band, and you know, handling the band with publicity and going with them when they went out to eat and stuff, you know. It was terrific.

GM: Why did you want to write this book?

MM: Well, I was approached a few times early on to write it, and I really didn’t feel like I wanted to do anything while Joey was around. I didn’t know he was going to die, but having Joey pass away kind of gave me a little more opportunity to open up and tell stories that … it was like a cathartic experience, kind of getting it out, you know? It was like a therapy-type of thing, you know? Just getting it out there. But people approached me, and I said, “I’m not a writer.” I have a lot of stories. So, luckily, a good friend of mine, Kevin Patrick, had gotten Joey signed for a solo album to Sanctuary Music, so he knew the people in Sanctuary, and they happened to have a publishing company also. And so, he brought me down, and I met with them and they said, “Great. Let’s do it.” And I said, “I’m not a writer.” And they said they’d get me a ghost writer, but I found a great person, Frank Meyer, and he’s in a lot of groups in L.A., and he’s also a journalist. He’s a huge Ramones fan and I said, “I’ll give you credit. You can be co-author with me.” And that’s how he got involved with it. That’s how I got the book, and it was great. I was going over all the stuff, and it’s so many years, and I had a room full of stuff, of memorabilia and posters, and I was lucky with the book that the publishers let me put in 250 pictures of things — all sorts of memorabilia, and stuff in there. So, I’ve got set lists and riders and pictures of the group early, posters and … you know, it’s a really great book for Ramones fans to see all the stuff in there. You know, most books they have a couple of pictures in the middle and then the rest is like text. This is like text and a lot of pictures. And another thing about the book is there’s nobody out there that was with, expect Arturo Vega — he was the lighting director and artistic director — that was with the group, even members of the band who are still alive now from beginning to end. Like Tommy was there in the beginning, and he left. Dee Dee was there, and he left. And Marky was in and out, and Richie and CJ… Joey and Johnny were there for the whole thing, but they’re gone, and they didn’t write a book. I’m the only one that was there, me and Arturo, from the beginning to the end, the whole thing. I saw the whole thing… before my eyes (laughs).

GM: What do you think is The Ramones’ legacy?

MM: I don’t know. It’s basically, anybody can go out, and if you want to play music, you don’t have to be a fantastic, what they came up with is you don’t have to be a virtuoso on an instrument. You have something to say, get out there, play as best as you can and do it. They inspired a lot of guys. That’s why all these groups like them is because they saw The Ramones go out there and do it, with the minimum they had, and they were inspired. So, that’s I think The Ramones’ legacy. They inspired a lot of people to just go out there and do it. You don’t have to be a virtuoso musician to do it.

GM: How did you get along with all the guys? Did you get along with them pretty well?

MM: Well, you know… Joey I was great. I was probably like family with him. Johnny, you know, he kept to himself. Dee Dee … okay, not bad. He lived in Queens with me, so I saw a lot of him. He was a difficult person to get along with period because it depends on what Dee Dee you talk to. And Tommy, of course, was a friend from high school. I still stay in touch with him. By the way, he has a group out called Uncle Monk. He’s doing country/bluegrass now. He’s touring the country.

GM: Yeah, that was interesting. Did that take you by surprise?

MM: Yeah, I didn’t know he was going to do that. He didn’t tell me about that when I knew him. But in the back of his thing he was always a country-bluegrass fan. I guess CBGB… you know what that means, right? So, he was the original. And he’s out there doing very well. If you get a chance you should listen to it, it’s cool stuff.

GM: Growing up with Tommy, what was that like? Were you pretty close friends in junior high?

MM: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I met him … yeah, sure, I met him in junior high and then went to high school… I said, you know I played golf, and I tried to get him to play golf, and he was playing music all his time, and he got me into music. He got me into the music business, to play bass. And I was in groups with him, and I actually got a chance to get two albums on Reprise Records with a group I had, Thirty Days Out. So, I got into this business because of him. And then he had The Ramones, and I got involved in that and became the tour manager and stayed in the band longer than he did (laughs), working with them, you know.

GM: How did the band pass the time offstage?
MM:
Well, I mean there’s certain… well, Johnny and Marky collected movie posters. So, when we were in the city, we’d go to a movie poster place and buy like collections for their collections, before people started collecting that. Joey just listened to a lot of music, different bands. Dee Dee listened to a lot of music, too, and eventually tried rap music. So, they did the usual things, basically.

GM: Did you get a chance to watch them in the studio at all?

MM: Sure, I worked with them in the studio.

GM: It seemed like they were all business, just cranking out songs…

MM: They did everything fast… fast, fast, fast. They played fast. They did… The faster they could record, the better. The faster they could take a photo session, the better. Everything was fast with them.

GM: Did any of those problems they had on the road spill over into the studio, or … ?

MM: No, once they were in… no … in the studio, they basically worked… they put the tracks down when Joey wasn’t there. And Joey would come in and do his vocals later. So, that was their thing. They didn’t have to really have to be in the room… you know what I mean? They laid basic tracks down, then Joey would come in later and do all his vocals.

GM: What is your favorite Ramones album?
MM:
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have a favorite. I mean, there’s so many little things here and there, I don’t know. They did so many albums … I don’t really have a favorite. I like a lot of ‘em, different ones.

GM: Do you have a favorite song of theirs?

MM: Well, I like “All The Way,” which Joey writes me into the song. There’s a line where it’s like, “Monte’s driving me crazy/It’s just like being in the Navy.” So, I feel honored that I’ve been written into a song, a Ramones song. So, I guess I could say that’s one of my favorites. I think that was from End Of The Century, with Phil Spector… (laughs) That was another insane thing there.

GM: Were you witness to what went on with him?

MM: Yeah, I was there. The stories about him waving a gun around in the studio. In fact, I went on Court TV when the whole trial… and I was sitting there watching, and they I kept on mentioning The Beatles, the Ronettes, The Ramones… they kept on mentioning The Ramones. I said, “Look, I’m going to call up Court TV. I got good stories for them.” So, I went on Court TV. I’m sure Phil’s not happy about it, but that’s what happened, you know? And actually, the next day the D.A. called me. They wanted to bring me down, but I said, ‘My stories aren’t as good as the women who’ve had the guns pointed at their heads.” Phil actually just waved it around. He didn’t point it at anybody. If he had pointed it at me, I probably would have been dragged into the case (laughs).

GM: What precipitated him waving it around?

MM: (Laughs) Do you know anything about Phil Spector? C’mon, he’s a madman. He’s a madman, you know. He’s also a multiple personality. You know what I mean? We were doing the album, and he’d come in. He had his John Lennon cap on, his contact lenses… happy mood. And throughout the whole session, he’d be going in and out of the bathroom, you know, doing various things in there. And he comes out one day, and he’s in a cape and he had a wig on, and he looked like somebody else. He always carried a gun with him. We met him back in early ’77 at The Whiskey or something, and he came backstage and he was carrying guns back then, you know. So, he just got crazy, you know, with the drugs and the booze and stuff, and the band, he was just … he’d like to have them play a song over and over and over again, like a hundred times, or one note. He’d just drive the band crazy. They didn’t work that way first of all. He liked to work slow, and the band liked to work fast. So, one day, Dee Dee just got fed up and said, “I’m walking out of here,” and Phil had a bodyguard block the door, and he’s waving the gun around, saying, “You’re not going anywhere.” But he eventually let us out. We did the rest of the album with him. We had to sit down with him with the record company and work out with him, you know, “Look, Phil, we want to work with you, but stop the craziness.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll stop, I’ll stop.” It was basically drugs and booze that were driving him crazy, you know.

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