If you want to speak to Tommy, you have to somehow get a hold of his agent, who says the legendary drummer has retired. Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny are no longer alive. Marky emails you, “Ugh! That Bash is still going on? I want to steer clear of it. Don’t think it has anything to do with the band!” In other words, even with so many of them dead, The Ramones are still causing trouble. However, considering May 19th marks the 14th Joey Ramone Birthday Bash and essentially coincides with ‘da bruddas’ 40th anniversary, it’s astonishing anyone’s left to talk about The World’s Greatest Punk Band.
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“I was in the supermarket the other day,” says Mickey Leigh, Joey’s brother. “This old lady comes over and asks me if I can reach the paper towels, cause they’re up so high. Suddenly, ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ comes on. I imagined Joey laughing his ass off.”
No band’s legacy is more bittersweet. The Ramones, despite their absence, are now everywhere. Kids wear the T shirts. Cadillac plays them in a commercial. Every year, the band that influenced everyone from the Sex Pistols to Nirvana, keeps getting more popular.
“I was playing before my brother, but he always seemed to just know something,” says Leigh. “My band Purple Majesty, wrote a song in ’67 (“In This Day And Age” – Norton Records) and played it for Joey. He said, ‘That’s really good. You should record it and I should produce it.” Leigh laughs. “He didn’t even know what a producer was! But we cut it, anyway. I was 12, Joey was 16, but he already got it. When we were recording, Joey didn’t like the sound of my bass. We were in a studio on 48th Street-Music Row. Joey runs downstairs and comes back with a Fender Jazz Bass. He knew that would sound better. It did.”
Ramones fanatics know Joey went much further. Seven years later, in a time of Prog, Metal, and The Carpenters, Ramone and band, reintroduced the novel idea of the short, catchy song back into Rock ‘n’ Roll. So, on May 19th, fellow spirits like Cheetah Chrome and Pistol Glen Matlock, will be rockin’ Bowery Electric, to raise money for lymphoma research for this visionary, the eternal teenager, who died from this kind of cancer at forty-nine.
Matlock, the main songwriter for The Pistols is, himself, highly influential. But he also knows who created Punk’s Big Bang. It was those misfit kids from Queens playing their crappy Mosrite guitars at London’s Roundhouse, summer, 1976. In Joey, Matlock says he saw a new kind of Rock Star. A tall, pale goofball who sang in an unreconstructed New Yawk accent.
“It’s odd how he had a sort of geeky thing going on, but still had a great presence onstage,” says Matlock. “Up till then rock stars looked like Rock Stars. Joey was coming from somewhere totally different and was all the better for that. Seeing The Ramones was very exciting. They had all their three minute epics down perfectly.”
Tommy Ramone, who concocted the immortal chant, “Hey ho, let’s go!” agrees with Matlock about the unusual ingredients these demented Queens quasi-criminals put together, that became known as “Punk.” In fact, picturing The Ramones playing is like imagining Four Stooges cooking in a kitchen. Throwing in a few bizarre ingredients, in an attempt to make a certain dish. It looked weird. Smelled funny. But tasted so good!
“I originally planned to be the manager,” says Tommy Ramone. “I got an idea to put a group together after seeing The New York Dolls. I knew these colorful kids in Forest Hills, and in early 1974 I decided they’d make a real interesting group. Johnny had played bass in high school. But later on, he’d quit and was working construction. Anyway, I bugged him and finally he went and got that Mosrite. I think it cost about $80.
“Then Dee Dee got his bass and Joey was on drums,” Tommy continues. “It was a trio, basically. I found early on that Joey had the best singing voice. Dee Dee would go hoarse after three songs. Joey wasn’t such a great drummer. So I figured, ‘Why don’t we make him the lead singer?”
Which led to the last piece of the Divine Plan
“We auditioned drummers, but none of them could get what we wanted. I’d show them what we were looking for. None of them understood it. So finally the guys said, ‘Why don’t you play drums?'”
It was 1974.
It was meant to be.
Forty years later, Tommy still sounds tickled.
“We were a little ahead of our times. Thirty years,” he chuckles. “People have gotten a little more sophisticated [laughs] and we get bigger every year. I think, partly, because the kids who listened to The Ramones back then, are now in positions of power. Like advertising. So they’re now using our songs and spreading the word.”
“We’re in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame,” says Tommy, proudly. “That’s amazing. We’re there, along with other great American musicians like Louis Armstrong. So, you know? I think it shows everybody something important. It turns out we knew what we were doing all along.”
The Joey Ramone Birthday Bash will be held on May 19th at Bowery Electric. All net proceeds go to benefit the Joey Ramone Foundation for Lymphoma Research. It will feature Glen Matlock, Cheetah Chrome and Mickey Leigh. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 at the door. More info here.