By Jared Chausow
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Marky says he buried the hatchet with Joey about two years ago, though friends say Joey never really forgave Marky for telling Howard Stern's listeners that Joey was fighting cancer. When Joey was in the hospital, Marky visited with tapes of their appearances on Stern, and they laughed until they turned red. Joey's favorite was a segment with the full band. "Howard asked Johnny to look at Joey on the show and he wouldn't, and he was sitting right next to him," says Marky. "So Howard asked Joey to look at Johnny, and he wouldn't. It was just so funny, the pent-up emotion that was involved, that was released in the music."
Johnny was the colonel who kept the Ramones (relatively) in line and on time, and he seems ill-prepared to take marching orders from the Hall of Fame Foundation or anyone else. When Joey died, his mother, Charlotte Lesher, and brother Mickey Leigh proceeded with plans for his May 19 50th birthday bash. The planning committee decided to invite the surviving Ramones to play, so Vega contacted the band members. What happened next could only charitably be called gross miscommunication.
Vega, in an apparent attempt to get Johnny to agree to perform, neglected to immediately explain precisely what Lesher wanted: Behind an empty mic stand, the surviving Ramones would play instrumental versions of a couple of songs and the audience would sing along. Johnny, who hadn't played for keeps in years and had retired because he thought he was slipping, started practicing and contacted pals Eddie Vedder, Rob Zombie, and Joe Strummer with the idea they could front the band. "I wanted to make this an event where people would have a good time," says Johnny. But weeks after Joey's funeral, Lesher was not ready to see Joey's shoes filled. Depending on who you talk to, the Ramones were either uninvited or declined to come. Regardless, the ensuing months saw Marky and CJ lashing viciously at Mickey Leigh, making unsupported claims in fanzine interviews that he wanted to front the band. The fiasco was an inauspicious beginning to an unlikely partnership; Joey left his half of Ramones Productions Inc. to his mother, so Lesher and Johnny are now business partners.
Johnny is asking to be seated away from Lesher and Leigh at the induction ceremony. "Decisions were always made by the band," says Johnny. "I find it ridiculous that anyone has to be consulted. It should always be just the bandIf I die, I don't expect anyone to call up my wife to make a Ramones decision. Why do I have to discuss a Ramones performance with his brother and his mother?"
For her part, Lesher says she hopes to sit next to Tommy. And as for the birthday party, she says the Ramones were out of line. "Who do you invite to a birthday party?" she asks. "You invite the people that love you."
Thankfully, Joey left more behind than a dysfunctional musical family. His first solo project, Don't Worry About Me, was recorded over the space of about four years and released late last month. It's a really good Ramones album, but for the not-so-minor detail that it isn't a Ramones album at all. Only the opener, a cover of Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World," offers up the band's signature eighth-note wall of sound. Still, the hard-charging riffs and sense of humor that always combined for an aggressive sort of sweetness on the finest Ramones records are present, whether Joey's rhyming stock-market lingo in "Maria Bartiromo" or covering unwritten Who songs in the theatrical "Mr. Punchy."
The vocals, mostly recorded at longtime Ramones producer Daniel Rey's Fourth Avenue home studio, sound superb. From his back window, Rey can see Joey's old 9th Street apartment; Joey would often call if he saw Rey's light on. Rey produced Don't Worry About Me, and he and Joey had an unspoken agreement that Joey wouldn't sing unless he felt good.
Joey didn't write about his illness, except on the album's weakest track, "I Got Knocked Down." (The lyrics aren't clever and the progressions are lame, but gabba gabba hey, if your heartstrings are pulled by Joey singing about beating his lymphoma, we understand.) Elsewhere, though, lines haunt: "Nothing lasts forever and nothing stays the same. . . . When you finally make your mind up, I'll be buried in my grave," sings Joey in "Stop Thinking About It."
The Dictators' Andy Shernoff played bass on the record, and says Joey wanted to add a few more songs. "He was a little worried that the album was too down," says Shernoff. "He had some more upbeat tracks in his mind. I wish to God we'd have been able to hear them." But Rey says that Don't Worry About Me is a completed project. "Joey was never done," he says. "He always wanted to change one little thing. He had a fear of completion like a lot of artists do." He even refused a feeding tube, fearing it would damage his vocal cords. "When he went in the hospital," says Rey, "we were always thinking positive: 'When you get out, we'll do this or that, cut another song.' But then he was in for a while, and we kind of spoke about it and it was 'Hey, we got 11 finished songs here. It's cool.' Not stating the obvious, because we never really talked about it. But the recording was done."