January 20, 2016
Johnny Ramone and the Hard Hat Riots
Being in a van at all hours of the night gave me a chance to learn a lot more about John than when he dropped by the apartment in SoHo to pick up Roxy. His dad was a blue-collar guy. John’s parents sent him to military school for a few years, which explained his routine in the dressing room. A normal rock musician would leave his street clothes anywhere. Let alone a punk musician. John would fold his pants and shirt neatly, perfectly. He lined up the seams of the pants symmetrically. The shirts were folded as if to be ready for reshelving. He could have worked at the Gap.
John was about four years older than me. After he graduated from Forest Hills High School, his father got him work as a pipefitter. One of his jobs was working on the World Trade Center, which in the late sixties was slowly forming a shadow above Lower Manhattan. The centerpiece was the Twin Towers, a pair of office buildings destined to rise 110 stories and with pumps so large they were normally used to supply water to cities of a half million people. But even with hundreds of miles of pipes to fit, there were occasional distractions.
One afternoon while the Vietnam War was raging, a large group of young protesters showed up at the site. A bunch of the union guys on the ground confronted them, and it quickly became a classic hard-hat-versus-hippie battle, complete with name calling, shoving, and hair pulling. Up on the eleventh floor of Tower 1, young John Cummings was taking a break from welding the joints of ten-inch-diameter cast-iron soil stacks and looked out the window. Most of the hippie freaks were assembled together. John had a clear shot. He took small bags of sand and started tossing them out the window. They were not lethal, but they stunned on impact and made little clouds when they broke. The hippie freaks scattered. It wasn’t napalm, but it made a statement.
“What do you fucking mean how could I do that? These hippie assholes have such a good deal in America, and they don’t even appreciate it.”
“What the guys fighting in Vietnam did for them.”
“What did they do for them?”
“Protected their freedom.”
“Their freedom to have sandbags thrown at them?”
“Hey, fuck ’em.”
John probably didn’t realize those same hippies fought for his right to wear long hair one day. And somebody somewhere fought for his right to play in a rock band.