Out of the seven billion or so people on the planet, only seven men have been lucky enough to be gifted with the Ramone surname. As of 2017, four have already headed off to that great gig in the sky. Thankfully, CJ Ramone has no plans to leave any time soon. He expertly stepped in for Dee Dee in 1989 and played with the legendary punk quartet until their 1996 breakup. He sang lead on “Strength To Endure”; he wrote two tracks for the band’s farewell album, ¡Adios Amigos!; he was onstage for their epic final show, delivering those iconic “1-2-3-4!” shouts and rubbing shoulders onstage with Eddie Vedder, Tim Armstrong and Lemmy. CJ Ramone is as important a part of punk rock history as anyone else you can think of, and the best part is he’s just getting started.
“When you’re in the Ramones family, you’re a Ramone for life,” CJ says. “Richie Ramone still has it; Marky Ramone still has it; hell, Johnny Ramone’s wife changed her last name to Ramone. I absolutely feel obliged to keep the legacy going. I 100 percent do. I feel it. I don’t sit down and try to write Ramones songs, but I was a huge fan since I was a kid. I played in the band for seven years. I’m undeniably influenced hugely by them. I’ve heard people say what I do sounds like the Ramones. Of course it does! How could it not?”
Exhibit A: CJ’s brand new solo album, American Beauty. It’s a 12-song effort that crackles with the spirit of ’77 (the surefire pit-starter “Yeah Yeah Yeah”) and has a sense of humor about it (“Girlfriend In A Graveyard”) while being unafraid to slow things down (the punk-rock prom vibe of “Before The Lights Go Out”) and throw in a few sonic curveballs to boot. The songs sound so well developed that it’s a bit of a shock to learn how the whole album came together. “I actually had a whole batch of songs for this record that I had been writing over the past couple of years, but things changed so much in such a short period of time, and when I sat down and listened to the songs, they seemed to be irrelevant to how I was thinking now,” CJ admits. “I wrote this entire record in just two weeks, sitting in my basement. That is very unusual for me. Usually I’m hyper-prepared for everything. It totally goes against everything I’ve ever known. I was trained by Johnny Ramone—he was the ultimate in ‘rehearse, rehearse, rehearse; be prepared.’ My work ethic comes from that. This is really an oddity for me.”
The breakneck pace of writing led to an even more efficient recording session, when CJ and his live band—guitarists Steve Soto and Dan Root (both also of the Adolescents) and drummer Pete Sosa (also of Street Dogs)—hunkered down at Buzzbomb Studios in Orange, California, with producer Paul Miner (H2O, New Found Glory) for a grand total of 11 days. “That’s the beauty of working with pros and veterans,” CJ remarks. “It really streamlines everything. Dan and Steve are really good singers and guitarists, and Pete is such a solid drummer. Paul is an exceptional engineer, too: He knows how to pace a project so you never lose the energy you start out with.”
One of American Beauty’s standout tracks is also its most unconventional: “Tommy’s Gone,” a delicate, 90-second acoustic tribute to one of the original Ramones, and the last to pass. While CJ never played with Tommy in the Ramones, he felt connected to him regardless. “On my first solo album, I wrote a song called ‘Three Angels’ which was my salute to Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee,” CJ explains. “After Tommy died in 2014, people started asking if I was going to change it to ‘Four Angels.’ I decided instead to write something specific for Tommy. The second-to-last day of recording, I woke up that morning and had this little tune in my head. I picked up a Dobro guitar and started picking it out. Those lyrics came out as one entire flowing, fluid song. It’s the most heartfelt song on the whole record.”
As much as CJ pays tribute to his past on American Beauty, he also takes the time to spread the gospel of new-millennium punk, inviting Big Eyes frontwoman Kate Eldridge to duet with him on the spunky “Without You.” Things get even more fun on the closing track, a spitfire cover of Tom Waits’ “Pony” that is taken to a whole new level thanks to the addition of Mariachi El Bronx’s horn section. (Seriously.) The album as a whole is designed to spread positive energy all around, and CJ says that was done on purpose.
“It’s no secret: Things have been crazy leading up to and including the presidential election,” the frontman says. “My original artwork and title for this album was much different—more traditional, in-your-face, fuck-you punk. But after considering everything—and it’s really unlike me to change my mind on things—but I figured maybe there’s enough people throwing shit into the fan right now. Absolutely we have some major problems, but when you step back and take a look at it, you have to respect and acknowledge everyone’s different opinions. To me, I think it’s beautiful. It’s something that really makes us uniquely American. I felt like making a statement like that is a hell of a lot more powerful.”
American Beauty may not single-handedly heal the divide in America, but CJ is trying his best to spread the Ramones’ simplest message of unity: Gabba gabba, we accept you.