The light has gone out of New York rock and roll.
Joey Ramone passed away on Easter Sunday, at 2:40 p.m., in the endgame of a long battle with lymphoma. Diagnosed in 1995 and given, at that time, three to six months to live, he managed to maintain his health and good spirits until a fall in the snow at the end of last year. He broke his hip, and after a painful replacement found that his body was unable to continue fighting on two fronts. The news during the past few months—passed around by his friends and followers the world over—was progressively less and less hopeful.
The end came at a time when the Ramones’ flame has never burned brighter. With a quarter century of “punk”—the music they helped template and design, from black motorcycle jackets and chopped eighth-note chordings to the pop chants of “Hey ho let’s go” and “Gabba gabba hey!”—now being celebrated atop the scrap heap of history, Joey was a Cover Boy. Even while his boundless energy was a-lyin’ in a hospital bed (“Doctor, doctor!” you could hear the New York Dolls urge on), he graced England’s Mojo and America’s Spin. The music he played was beloved in garages in any part of the world where the guitar was revered as a magical totem.
Last fall, I turned on the Subway Series to hear “Hey ho” over the loudspeakers at Shea Stadium, galvanizing the crowd much as Joey did during dozens of nights at CBGB. It was too perfect, I thought, remembering the Ramones traveling past Shea on the Number 7 with their instruments in shopping bags. They’d come the long way around to get back home again.
It was the same with their music. They appeared on the scene at a time when your average rock and roll band was everything the Ramones were not. Hardly Promethean, they occupied the gawk end of geek, their sound minimalism to the max. They played what they hardly knew, and knew that was more than enough. Rock and roll can be as complex and arcane as you want, but stripped down, a chorus hooker reduced to a driving beat with nowhere to go but out of body, it can be slick and fast, like a quick fuck against a brick wall in an alley behind a Bowery club—the one you pose next to in your ripped jeans, emblazoned T-shirt, sneakers. A band.
Jeff Hyman was born in 1951, which would make him about 23 when he changed his name to Joey Ramone. They all transformed their names, Douglas to Dee Dee, John to Johnny, Tommy to Tommy. They became a cartoon family, piling 18 songs into the half-hour sitcom that was their early set. Only they had the last laugh. Every Ramones show kept you wanting more, which is the great drug of rock and roll. The sets stayed short even as their set lists grew lengthier. They just played faster. Louder. Like everyone else who followed them.
The Ramones were the great port of entry into the punk-rock kingdom. But unlike their brethren (and sistren; Joey, especially, had a feminine lilt to his voice), they were not merely about endurance and speed. Joey loved the romantic sing-alongs of the Brill Building; in another decade, he might have been Paul Simon, or even Shadow Morton. But he’d also heard the surfer birdsongs of the Beach Boys, the top-of-the-mops English Invasion, the trailer-park nihilism of the Stooges, the teen drive of the Bay City Rollers, the English glam of Gary Glitter and the Sweet. He styled his hair into the pageboy of the Hullabaloos’ crowning glory. The Ramones wanted to write hit singles, and they did.
Oh, you couldn’t hear them on Top 40, but that was their alternative cross to bear. Instead, the Ramones imagined their own stations of the cross, invoking a golden age of “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio” (“Let’s go!”), situated in a “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” with the Phil Spector production to prove it. The topics might have been a little bizarro, but gabba hey, truth is truth: “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and “Carbona Not Glue.” That’s all you need to know.
Listen to any of their songs three times and it would own you. Last December at the Continental, in what proved Joey’s final appearance (though you wouldn’t have guessed it at the time, so strong and confident did he seem), hosting one of his annual Christmas extravaganzas with the local bands he championed—the Independents, the Misfits, his sibling Mickey Leigh of the Rattlers—he poured forth Ramones tune after Ramones tune. To hear how immediate they were, how much a part of cultural occurrency they’d become—”I Wanna Be Sedated” in a Tokyo clothing store, “I Wanna Be Sedated” spit out by a band in Barcelona, “I Wanna Be Sedated” at three ayem in Anydisco, Anywhere, “I Wanna Be Sedated” in some random jam and having five musicians play along whether they know the song or not—had me doing the Blitzkrieg Bop, as I’ve been doing for lo these many years, punching my fist in the air at each O-word and singing along, because the words have the memorizing mesmerize of universal rhyme, and it’s great to feel the wind from the amplifiers.
The Ramones kept their song on the road for more than 20 years, a remarkable achievement for any dysfunctional family, surviving world tours, new members—Joey was the last of the original Ramones, though each raw-boned recruit seemed cut in the image of the Ramonic ideal, blunt force wearing a sleeved heart—countless imitators and clichés. The Ramones stuck doggedly to their formula one, watching it become prototype. Joey was the frontman, and, ultimately, the band’s biggest fan.
And a forever fan of New York rock and roll. One of the most supportive members of the local musicians’ community, he loved to visit the nightclubs of his home turf, his lanky head bobbing over the crowd, out on the town with his friends. He would cheer the band on. Get up and do a tune. “Beat on the Brat”? One-too-t’ree-faw!
Everyone loved Joey. Especially Ronnie Spector. At a Christmas show at Life in 1999, she and Joey hosted a revue that included cretin-hopper Keith Richards. Joining in on “Bye Bye Baby,” she became Cher to Joey’s Sonny. He coproduced an EP for her, and for one who grew up in the echo chamber of the Brill Building, it must have been as fulfilling a circle as a spinning 45. He had also completed a solo album, working with producers Daniel Rey and Andy Shernoff, and though he had his “good days and his bad days,” was an inspirational fount of future plans.
Yeah baby! We’re watching ? and the Mysterians at Coney Island High that same year, another sun-glassed spectre with a gift for the simplistic epigram. Joey’s birthday party had just been held there, a peer grouping that brought together several generations of New York scenesters. At Coney Island’s “class reunion” last Friday night at Don Hill’s, Joey’s name hung in the Good Friday air. By Sunday the rock had rolled away.
I take a walk into Joey’s Lower East Side on Sunday night, after the rain. Downstairs in a basement club on Avenue A, we put Ramones songs on the jukebox. We dance into the dawn, the end of the century now.