C.J. Gunn is not one for pink tights. The Parma-born musician with the asphalt-colored wardrobe gave himself his first tattoo at age 12, a colorful mess of blurry symbols that runs up his right calf. He grew up listening to Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P., in the days before their mascara took precedence over their metal.
"All of a sudden, the bands I liked lost their image of spikes and hair and pentagrams. It was gone, and they were wearing pink pants, lipstick, and I was like, This sucks!" the 29-year-old says from his Old Brooklyn home on a windy Monday night. "Then my friend happened to have this Ramones CD. They had on blue jeans, moppy haircuts, no hair dye, leather jackets, and T-shirts. I couldn't afford big earrings and silver and rock gear. But I had a leather coat, I had ripped-up blue jeans, I had tattered sneakers."
Then Gunn put the music on. And loved it. And though he had struggled to reproduce the riffs of "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "Run to the Hills," "I could play 'Rock and Roll High School,'" he remembers. "I would stand in front of the mirror and play '[I Wanna Be] Sedated.'" A decade and a half later, Gunn is playing those same songs, only now he's doing it in packed concert halls, as the vocalist and guitarist for drummer Marky Ramone's solo band. Their U.S. tour includes a stop at the Beachland Ballroom this Saturday.
Gunn's eyes grow wide when he talks about playing with a genuine Ramone. He formed his first band at a Ramones show at Nautica in 1995, christening it the Subtones because the name sounded like "Ramones." His house is a rock-and-roll fantasia, filled with comic books, every single Star Wars action figure, and perhaps Northeast Ohio's most comprehensive Ramones collection, from rare autographed boxed sets to bootleg tapes to a signed flier for an early Marky Ramone gig at the Grog Shop.
Gunn's rapport with Marky began in the mid-'90s, when the Subtones landed an opening slot on a handful of midwestern dates by Marky's now-defunct band, the Intruders. When Gunn relocated to New York, he called Marky for advice.
"I said, 'I'm moving to Brooklyn, I don't know nothing,'" Gunn recalls. "He said, 'I'll teach you everything.' I sent all my stuff UPS to his house. We threw it all in his big Chevy, he took me to my house and helped unpack. He put me to work for Dee Dee Ramone. I would do whatever Dee Dee would need me to do -- tune his guitar, sing at soundcheck, roll a joint, get coffee. Then he put me to work with Joan Jett as her guitar tech, and I started traveling around with her."
Eventually, Gunn landed back in Ohio, where he played with Danny Frye in Bop Dead, started a new band (the promising Venus in Flames), and relaunched the Subtones last summer. A few months before, a call had come from Marky: He wanted to come to Cleveland to play a show of Ramones classics. Gunn set up a gig at the Rock Hall and was asked by Marky to sing and play guitar. After they performed before a sold-out crowd of 500, Gunn was offered a full-time gig. The Beachland show will also feature guitarist Aaron Dowell, a former Subtone and current member of Amps II Eleven.
"These guys are big Ramones fans, and they know the music very well, because they've always been playing it," Marky says over a shaky cell-phone connection in Manhattan. "They're real easy to work with, and I like their professionalism. They do their job well. We just met, and we clicked."
It's only fitting that the Ramones' legacy would be bolstered by two everyday faces in the crowd. The Ramones were always one of the most egalitarian bands in rock, preaching inclusiveness in such songs as "Pinhead" ("Gabba gabba we accept you/We accept you/One of us") while looking virtually indistinguishable from their audience.
"The coolest thing is that I'm just a guy in Cleveland who has a local band, and I'm lucky to have this contact," Gunn says. "So to be onstage with Ramones fans singing along is such a humbling experience. They know the words, I know the words, we're singing loud. It's just really rewarding," he sighs. "I'm nobody but a Ramones fan."
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