Marking the Identity of an Original Rock and Roll Group of 1975

The trained drummer whose analysis I just quoted is Marky Ramone, who joined in 1978 after Tommy had had it with touring and left only for a four-year detox. Tommy geared his acute taste to his limited technique, playing no fills or rolls and hardly any accents—he was a little guy with small sticks and a light touch, and his quick forcebeat propels and permeates Ramones, Ramones Leave Home, and Rocket to Russia. Marky admired and replicated Tommy's groove. But he'd played metal before hooking up with Richard Hell and had a show drummer's chops, and his muscular sound and well-chosen flourishes helped galvanize the community of brainy anti-intellectuals, postpunk losers, and assorted hitters brought together by the Ramones' hard work, word-of-mouth, and faith in what they'd wrought. He was the link between the punk they'd invented and the good old hard rock they believed it to be—as well as a sign that they were the road band God made them rather than the radio band they so much wished they could be.

Which leaves Joey where? Where he was to begin with—as one of the strangest singers ever to mount a stage, only now there are 250,000 fans believing it or not. There's no better way to grasp what a shock the Ramones' sound was than to realize that, in the reams of celebration piled on Ramones, Joey's vocals went almost entirely unremarked. Granted, it didn't help that his singing is indescribable. "Affected" is too mild, "cartoonlike" redundant. Garbled? Gargled? Strangled? Unhinged Jewish beanpole's dream of Mick Jagger? The Small Faces? The Nashville Teens? Had he merely forgotten his Sudafed? Here were fools by the thousand whining about how clichéd the Ramones' chords were when emanating from Joey's tonsils was a sound unlike any ever heard on earth. If the voice came from anywhere, it was from rock and roll itself—that was its only frame of reference. But it was anything but inhuman. In fact, although this wasn't instantly clear, its freak vulnerability was living proof that the Ramones had love for cretins, pinheads, lobotomies, and glue sniffers. And its Daffy Duck mannerisms were why their hippie-baiting patriotism and playful little Nazi references, while sure to be taken the wrong way and not unrepresentative of Johnny's philosophy of life, never actually seemed threatening.

In 1981, I opined that in future centuries 1981's Pleasant Dreams would sound pretty much like Ramones Leave Home. In 2002, however, the first four albums are clearly not just classic but sui generis, which with Marky on board for Road to Ruin I attribute to a remarkably long-lived initial songburst. But there were many good albums and important songs after that, and what holds them together is less Johnny's sound than Joey's sensibility, even though his writing declined after he got his heart broke. Spurred by Marky, the son of a left-leaning longshoreman-turned-lawyer, Joey emerged—the signal was "The KKK Took My Baby Away," which preceded "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" by four years—as a staunchly unelitist, no-BS version of the bohemian liberal his background would suggest. He joined Artists United Against Apartheid. He supported Rock the Vote. He did a Jerry Brown benefit. He got saner. He stopped drinking. He became a patron of the rock and roll arts.

And then he died, and everyone was so sad that Lucinda Williams, for Pete's sake, sent "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten" out to him from Roseland, and in no time the Ramones were elected to the Hall of Fame, and only Tommy mentioned him at the induction, and Don't Worry About Me came out. He'd been recording his solo debut forever with Eighth (or Ninth) Ramone Daniel Rey; Marky's on half of it, also a Dictator and a Del-Lord and the keyb honcho from Loser's Lounge. Joey can't outpower the Ramones-qua-Ramones gestaltwise, and Don't Worry About Me probably isn't as good as 1992's Mondo Bizarro, much less 1984's Too Tough to Die. But it sure beats most other late Ramones albums, which it resembles without benefit of Johnny's downstrum for the reason just cited—in their postclassic, touring-icons period, which (I repeat) was far more productive musically than that otherwise accurate characterization suggests, Joey was the identity marker. Despite the persistence of Johnny's scowl-and-chop and Dee Dee's wart hogs and cretin families, and despite the hitters they were finally attracting, a certain softness rose to the surface. It had always been there, but as the songs departed from their strictures and Joey gargled more emotively, it got bigger, undercutting what was already a play toughness—a tuffness, as physically enthralling as any hard rock without the menace—with shows of feeling that at times were almost coy and girly.

Hence, Don't Worry About Me. It isn't a lot softer than the pop experiments of Pleasant Dreams or the '60s memories of Acid Eaters, but it's less punk and more rock, like the Dictators and the Del-Lords. "Venting (It's a Different World Today)" continues the tradition of "Bonzo" and "Censorshit"—a little less sharply worded, a little more warmly expressed. "Mr. Punchy" and "Like a Drug I Never Did Before" assure us that in some essential part of himself Joey is as screwed up as ever. The praise songs "Maria Bartiromo" and "Searching for Something" are direct descendants of "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" except that neither the investment guru nor the recovering crackhead needs the Ramones. And at the end, Joey didn't either.

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