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Mickey Leigh is tired.
“Each year,” he says, “it seems to get a little harder to put this thing on for my brother. Artists keep dropping out at the last minute. There are hassles with people who want to get paid. And, you know, I have my own life. My book about him has been optioned for the movies. I’m working on my next solo album. And there are all these great, leftover tracks that Joey didn’t quite finish. I’m trying to get those into shape for a posthumous [release] for him. So, I’m exhausted. But if you didn’t do it for Joey, who would you do it for?”
“Joey” is the legendary Joey Ramone, who died of lymphoma in 2001 and who will have a party thrown in his honor on Thursday at Irving Plaza. The 11th Annual Joey Ramone’s Birthday Bash will star the likes of Richie Ramone, Clem Burke Leigh’s band the Rattlers, ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, and pop chanteuse Bebe Buell. The night benefits the Lymphoma Research Foundation, and the profits will be augmented by auctions for VIP packages and meet-and-greets with some of the night’s performers. Expect a sea of dyed-dark bowl haircuts and leather jackets that are distressed by age, not artisans.
“Joey had a couple of public birthdays in the city over the years,” says Leigh. “But in 2001, when he was turning 50, our need to hold one became urgent. My brother was dying from lymphoma and we were grasping at anything we could to keep him going, like a birthday party. Joey died on April 15. We had that first proper birthday a few weeks later. Now, it’s a tradition.”
Speaking to Leigh and other legendary friends of that jolly, black-clad giant, one gets a picture of a complex, neurotic man who, regardless, was kind, smart, and supportive of other musicians—who, all the while, completely refashioned the art of singing. Ah, that dry, wry, droll baritone, the one that offered a desperately needed alternative to those shrieky metal boys.
“Joey was incredibly supportive of Blondie before we had any hits,” says Burke, who’ll play with the Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell. “We opened for them often back in the day, and he always touted us.”
To Burke, this gig is not so much an act of contrition as a nod to those thrilling early days of the New Yawk scene, when “punk” was still a put-down.
“It’s nice to raise money,” Burke says. “But mainly, this reminds me of the reason we started playing: to have fun! So many of our comrades from 1977 are gone; those of us left need to carry on the tradition. Also, let’s give credit where it’s due—the Ramones were the Beatles of our generation. We need to keep reminding people of that.”
Not that popular culture isn’t doing its part. Ramones T-shirts (old and new) are still seen in the audience at rock shows. Earlier this month, onetime Ramones drummer Marky Ramone joined the band New Found Glory to play his former band’s songs at the teen-thronged New Jersey festival the Bamboozle. And the band’s songs have appeared in movies and on TV shows like School of Rock, Date Night, and Entourage.
Bebe Buell is many things: singer, legendary rock paramour, mother of Liv Tyler. She also puts “Friend of Joey Ramone” near the top of her CV.
“Joey was the first person to take my musical ambitions seriously,” she says, “to the point where my band and I opened for the Ramones on several occasions. Once you’ve survived that, you feel you can do anything.”
Including cleaning Ramone’s apartment.
“Joey knew I liked to clean. That’s my thing. He’d call me up occasionally and say, ‘Beeb, the apartment’s dirty. Want to come over?’ ”
Then she cracks up laughing.
“He had all sorts of weird compulsions himself, like hiding money, then not being able to find it again. One day, I went over to one of his apartments in the Village with Liv. She was staring at Joey’s turntable. She said, ‘There’s a bunch of money under there.’ Joey said, ‘I wondered where that went.’ It turned out to be about $3,000. He was pleased, of course, and gave Liv a hundred for finding it.”
Buell has many funny stories to share about Ramone. But what’s most important, she notes, was the warmth he radiated.
“He was definitely odd and unique,” she says, warmly. “But music and OCD aside, I want people to remember Joey as incredibly kind and respectful—with women, especially. But you know something? I’m sure he was that way often. With pretty much everyone he ever met.”
The 11th Annual Joey Ramone’s Birthday Bash will be held at Irving Plaza on Thursday, May 19. Be sure to check out the tributes to Joey’s life and legacy published on the Voice’s music blog, Sound of the City.