Ramones Tour Manager Monte A. Melnick on the fights, the insanity, and the passions!
The Ramones formed in March of 1974 and broke up in August of 1996 and Monte A. Melnick was a witness to almost every moment of their groundbreaking and influential career. But his connection to the band goes back even further—to junior high school and their Forest Hills neighborhood in Queens. In his wonderful book On The Road With The Ramones (Sanctuary), he details his time with the band, which included traveling with them for most of their 2,263 live shows.
Some people have called him “The Fifth Ramone,” which is fitting (though he is uncomfortable with the designation), because there is no one who spent more time or had closer physical proximity to the band then Monte, especially since his job was not limited to days when the band was on tour; it was a fifty-two-week-a-year gig of solving problems and negotiating the oversized and increasingly at odds personalities of the band members, while keeping the Ramones machine moving forward through 22 years of highs and lows, personnel changes, and music business baloney.
After speaking with him, I can understand how he was able to last so long in such a challenging position. He’s unflappable and modest, with a dedication to the band that is still strong 22 plus years after they played their last show.
PKM: You went to Forest Hills High School in Queens. When did you graduate and what was high school like?
Monte A. Melnick: I graduated in 1967. It was mostly white middle class, blue collar. Working class people.
PKM: Were the kids into the same music other American teenagers were listening to?
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah, I guess so. I met Tommy Ramone in junior high and we became good friends. Then we went to high school together. Of course, Johnny and Dee Dee and Joey all went to Forest Hills High School also, but I was very friendly with Tommy mostly. We’d go out and go to the Fillmore East and we saw Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Sam & Dave, Cream, Jethro Tull… everything that was out there. We went to a lot of shows. He got me into music. I started playing bass, and started playing in a lot of groups with him first.
PKM: Was the attitude that the band presented almost ten years later, when they became the Ramones, was that attitude typical of Queens? You’re describing a middle class thing, but the Ramones attitude is not typical middle class.
Monte A. Melnick: That’s what people thought they were. They wore leather jackets and ripped jeans and automatically people thought they were some sort of gang. But, no… they didn’t go for the gang mentality.
PKM: Because they were just a bunch of middle class kids?
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah. With their own angst that all middle class kids have. Frustrations in life, even though they had good houses and families.
PKM: Tell me about your band Thirty Days Out.
Monte A. Melnick: It was country-rock. I was into Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Band. We put two albums out on Reprise, in 1971/72. We opened for bands like The Beach Boys and Quicksilver Messenger Service. After we split up, my cousin was installing locks in lofts, and this woman who had a loft asked him if he could recommend anyone to build a rehearsal/recording studio. So I brought in Tommy, and we designed and built Performance Studios. We managed the place, and got time for our own projects. I had some bands, along the lines of Thirty Days Out, and Tommy was involved with the Ramones, as a manager.
PKM: So the Ramones were just a three piece in the beginning. What were your first impressions of them?
Monte A. Melnick: Are you kidding me? They were horrible. First of all, Dee Dee was doing their singing, and he couldn’t sing and play bass. They didn’t know their instruments very well. I came from a group with harmonies, we put out two albums on Warner Brothers. They were rough and raw and hard to listen to. Then Tommy saw that Joey had a good voice, and pulled him off drums and Joey started singing, so they started looking for drummers, and they couldn’t find anybody who could understand what they were doing in the beginning. Tommy was a great musician, he played a lot of different instruments, and he developed that drum style, and so they asked him to be in the group. Initially he just wanted to produce and manage them.
PKM: Was part of Tommy’s genius that he was able to hear what was inside all that rawness?
Monte A. Melnick: Yes, absolutely. He heard what was going on in there. Dug it out, polished it, fixed it up, put it out. People don’t give him enough credit.
PKM: Their first album is so tight. How long did it take to go from a shambles to that?
Monte A. Melnick: Within a year. They rehearsed a lot. That was a good thing about them. Even in future years, they really rehearsed all the time. Every time they got off a tour they’d go into rehearsal for a couple of weeks. They really built up their musicianship.
I’m the only one left that was there from the beginning to the end. I’m kind of looking over my shoulder, I go to the doctor twice a year.
PKM: They got involved in the CBGB’s scene. What did they think of the other bands?
Monte A. Melnick: All the bands were friends. Most of the audience was the other bands watching the bands on stage.
PKM: When they got signed to Sire Records, did that change things?
Monte A. Melnick: They were happy about it. They had worked hard. Seymour Stein is amazing, and it gave them freedom to get some equipment and move up.
PKM: How did you start working with them?
Monte A. Melnick: Well, I started off doing their sound at showcases at Performance Studios. It was a rehearsal studio, but you could also book it as a showcase place. You could charge a buck or two and get some people to come down and invite record company people, and they started getting jobs around town. So I did those, and then Performance closed down, because of the neighbors. So, when they [the Ramones] started getting jobs all over the place, I jumped on that. At first I was a doing everything, and the bigger they got, the more people we hired, and I worked my way up to tour manager.
PKM: Were the guys ambitious? Did they think they would have hit records?
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah. They always wanted a hit record. That’s why they went through so many producers. They figured “One of them might get us a hit,” and they were very frustrated about that, because they saw all these other bands open up for them, like Talking Heads, Blondie, B52’s—we were headliners—all of a sudden they come around and are selling all these albums, and the Ramones couldn’t sell an album. Basically the Ramones were a touring band. That’s how they made their money and stayed around. Touring and selling merchandise.
PKM: Where did the Ramones like to eat on the road?
Monte A. Melnick: Cracker Barrel was a good one; if you went into a Cracker Barrel back then and brought in an 8 x 10 photo for the band to sign, they’d feed you for free. It was unbelievable. I had a stack of 8 x 10 photos and a map of where all the Cracker Barrels were, and they’d feed the band and the crew. I doubt they do it anymore. And in each city they had their favorite things. In Norfolk, they liked the crab cakes; in Cincinnati, they liked the Skyline chili; of course in New Orleans, they liked the gumbo and all that, and in Los Angeles, they had a special taco place they’d go to.
PKM: Let’s talk about each of the Ramones. Johnny has a reputation as the drill sergeant who made the rules and didn’t smile much. Is that what he was really like?
Monte A. Melnick: Yes.
PKM: Was he the guy you got along with least?
Monte A. Melnick: I was very close to Joey, because my girlfriend had a sister who Joey dated. Johnny was more aloof and thought I was treating Joey specially, but of course I always helped Joey more, because he needed a lot more help. Because of his OCD, I’d make sure he had the right stuff on the road, and that he got in and out of hotels and got to planes on time and all that stuff. So, because of that and our girlfriends, I was very close to Joey, like family. And I lived next to Dee Dee for years in Whitestone, so we traveled a lot together, I knew him pretty well, of course; he was multiple personalities. And Tommy was a very close friend.
PKM: Over the time you worked with them, was Joey’s OCD diagnosed? Was he under a doctor’s care?
Monte A. Melnick: When it first happened, nobody knew what he was doing. We all thought he was crazy or doing it on purpose. In the early years, they didn’t know what it was, and finally they realized it was a condition, and he got treatment and pills for it, and it helped him. He still had it, but not as bad as in the beginning. But people didn’t know what was going on in the beginning and it was very frustrating for everybody.
PKM: What kind of things would he do?
Monte A. Melnick: Well, I couldn’t get him out of his house on time. Everybody would be downstairs waiting for him and he’d have to go back in and do something, then come back and close the door, open the door, go down the stairs, go up the stairs again, it was endless. I’d have to tell him we were leaving at eleven when it was actually twelve. It was hard.
There’s a story… when we were coming back from Europe, we were in the cab and got back to his house and he said he had to go back to the airport to touch something. So he took a cab back to the airport, did what he had to do, and came back. That’s how bad it was.
PKM: Was Dee Dee’s drug use something he could keep under control enough to work when he needed to work?
Monte A. Melnick: Amazingly enough, he did the shows fine. But, after the shows, sometimes before the shows, he’d be crazy. And he OD’d a few times on the road.
PKM: And you had to deal with that?
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah. Of course. Take him to the hospital
PKM: What were the different personalities of Dee Dee?
Monte A. Melnick: Good Dee Dee, bad Dee Dee, crazy Dee Dee, wonderful Dee Dee, nice Dee Dee. He would change moods. And Joey had a problem with his foot. He had no feeling in one of his feet, and he’d walk around and get a cut, and wouldn’t realize it, and it would get infected, and we had to cancel a couple of tours because he got really sick, it put him in the hospital.
PKM: Tell me about Marky Ramone. Kicked out of the band for drinking. Was it hard to get kicked out of the Ramones, or was it a tight ship?
Monte A. Melnick: Hard to get kicked out? Yeah. They gave him plenty of chances. And, finally, we were recording and he was going into the bathroom and I went in there and found a bottle of vodka in the trash can and he was out of it, and that was it. He just went way over the hill.
PKM: Did being in the band drive him to do that?
Monte A. Melnick: No, he was an alcoholic. Amazingly enough, he straightened his life out. I didn’t think he’d make it back into the band, and when I saw him years later when Richie (the Ramones third drummer) split, he was fine, he was on the program, and he’s still is on the program, and luckily they got him back in again.
PKM: Tell me about the process of what happened when Marky replaced Tommy on drums?
Monte A. Melnick: As I said, drummers couldn’t understand what the Ramones were doing. When they pulled Joey off the drums, and Tommy sat in and said “Play like this,” he developed their style with them. It was a special type of thing he was doing, because he wasn’t a drummer. Marky was a great drummer, but Tommy had to sit down with him for a month or so and worked with him to get him fitting into the Ramones. It wasn’t an overnight thing, just sit in and do it. When Clem Burke came into the band, he didn’t have enough time. He’s a great drummer, but that’s why he only lasted a couple of shows. Gary Kurfirst, who managed the band, said to Clem, “Don’t worry it’s easy, no problem.” It’s not that easy! And with the Ramones, they play so fast and tight that any little bit that’s out – you’re gonna hear it, it’s gonna be off.
PKM: There’s a great story in your book that takes place in a Texas gas station.
Monte A. Melnick: My favorite story. This was early on. We were driving through rural Texas, driving five or six hours, and we pulled into a gas station to get some gas, and there was a little store there too, so they all pile out of the van, looking like zombies. They were staggering around because they were seven hours in the van. So they’re in the store looking at stuff, and I come in to pay for the gas and the lady says “It’s sure nice of you to take care of these retarded boys.”
PKM: I’ve heard that Johnny doesn’t play all the guitar on all the Ramones records. Single notes or melodies were somebody else. Is that correct?
Monte A. Melnick: Yes. He only played rhythm basically.
PKM: Because he didn’t want to, or he couldn’t, or it was some kind of a protest, or he couldn’t be bothered, or because he knew it would be better for the end product of somebody else did it?
Monte A. Melnick: How about all of the above. In the early years, that is all that was there. Just that on stage wall of guitar. Then when they went into the studio and the producer wanted more… Ed Stasium played a lot of guitar, and Walter Lure and some other people filled in some licks. He only played rhythm guitar.
PKM: Were they ever on mismatched bills opening for bands.
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah!
PKM: Like who?
Monte A. Melnick: Toto! The good thing about opening for them was by the time the band played and got off stage, the audience didn’t realize what was going on. They woke up. And Black Sabbath was rough, and Ted Nugent was rough too. In the early years, people didn’t know the band, and these heavy metal audiences were dangerous, throwing batteries and coins. It was horrible. They had to walk off once.
PKM: Were you around when Phil Spector was producing the band?
Monte A. Melnick: I was there. He gave me a hard time. He waved his gun around a little. He didn’t like anybody in the studio hanging around. He was very difficult. We didn’t know he was so crazy. They wanted to work with the genius that produced all those great albums, but he was definitely everything they say he was, crazy.
PKM: Did Bruce Springsteen write a song for them?
Monte A. Melnick: We were playing The Fast Lane in Asbury Park, the band was on stage and I see Bruce Springsteen was sitting there. He wasn’t huge at the time, but he was big. I figured he’ll watch one or two songs and walk out, but he stayed for the whole thing. So I bring him backstage, and Joey says “You wrote a song for Patti Smith, write a song for us.” Bruce said “Okay,” and he wrote “Hungry Heart” for the Ramones. But his manager wouldn’t give it to them.
PKM: I know they were fond of pulling pranks on the road.
Monte A. Melnick: Yes. The thing is, being a tour manager, you have to make sure they do it to you and they don’t do it to each other, so they don’t kill each other. So they did a lot of pranks on me, and I understood that it was part of the job.
PKM: Like what?
Monte A. Melnick: Putting honey on door handles and pissing in beer, but I caught that. That’s why they always wanted bottled beer. In the early years they’d come in with pitchers in the backstage, and they’d piss in it and invite people in to drink it. In fact, Johnny Rotten came in in London and drank the beer, they had a laugh about that.
PKM: At a certain point, Johnny & Joey formed a corporation, so just the two of them owned the Ramones.
Monte A. Melnick: Exactly right.
PKM: But they were barely speaking to each other.
Monte A. Melnick They got along businesswise. They realized: why split up and kill each other? They loved the feedback from the audience, so they tolerated each other.
PKM: How big were they in South America?
Monte A. Melnick: The biggest. They were huge down there, especially in Argentina. They were like the Beatles down there. They got a taste of what it was like to be a major big band. They’d play to 50,000 people.
PKM: When they retired in ’96, were you ready to get off the road?
Monte A. Melnick: I would have gone along a little longer. They were top of the line at the end, so it was decent venues and good hotels, so it was better. I think they could have gone on longer too, if Joey wasn’t the way he was, sick and stuff like that.
PKM: You put all these years in getting to the top, I’m sure you wanted to stay there for a little while.
Monte A. Melnick: Now the Ramones are so big it’s incredible.
PKM: Yeah, their respect came later. Now they’re mainstream. It’s strange.
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah.
PKM: Did you foresee that?
Monte A. Melnick: No. You don’t see that when you’re involved with it.
PKM: Were you at their Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction?
Monte A. Melnick: I was there. They got me a ticket, $2,000, for my pension… my gold watch.
PKM: Were they feeling warm to each other?
Monte A. Melnick: They were sitting at different tables.
PKM: So what is your gig nowadays?
Monte A. Melnick: After they split up, I worked for other groups for a while, then I worked as a company manager at the Queens Theater In The Park, which is like a reverse tour manager, then I moved over to the New York Hall Of Science, where I’m the Audio Visual Supervisor, been there fifteen years.
PKM: Sounds like a perfect job for you.
Monte A. Melnick: Yeah, it’s where old punk rock tour managers go to retire.
PKM: The four original Ramones all died way younger than most people die. Is that a coincidence? Did the experience of being a Ramone contribute to that?
Monte A. Melnick: No. Dee Dee died the Rock & Roll way, he OD’d. Tommy had bile duct cancer. Fuck, what is that? Johnny had prostate cancer, but he was the type of guy who would say “I don’t go to the doctors. I eat well. I exercise. Blah, blah, blah…” Prostate cancer, if you get checked once a year and catch it early, you’ll live. A lot of men just don’t go to the doctor. Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer. By the time Johnny got diagnosed properly, it was too late for him. And Joey had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I don’t think they got the cancer playing Rock & Roll.
I’m the only one left that was there from the beginning to the end. There was Arturo Vega (lighting and artistic director) and me; he’s another one died of cancer. I’m kind of looking over my shoulder, I go to the doctor twice a year.
PKM: I assume the experience of the Ramones has colored your life in some way, can you put your finger on it, and is there something every day that makes you feel like a Ramone?
Monte A. Melnick: Just seeing how they’ve influenced the whole music business, and they’re still rocking along. You go to a football game and people are chanting “Hey ho, let’s go” and you see all the Ramones T-shirts all over the place. So it’s amazing, I feel like I’m part of history. And people are discovering them still.