Remembering the American punk idol 20 years after his heartbreaking death
It’s been 25 years since The Ramones checked out, honored guests on the final Lollapalooza tour that crisscrossed America. (Without punk rock in the ‘70s, no Lollapalooza in the ‘90s; there couldn’t have been a band on that tour that didn’t appreciate that fact.) And it’s been 20 years since singer Joey Ramone left the planet, April 15, 2001. Just after the end of the century.
Yeah, I know. … Both of these numbers are mind-boggling. And, of course, it’s not just Joey – it’s all the originals, guitarist Johnny, bassist Dee Dee and drummer Tommy.
I can vividly transport myself to my live baptism, Halloween night at CBGB, 1977 in the heart of New York’s Bowery. Four leather-jacketed misfits who termed themselves brothers and called themselves Ramones took the stage and played 20 minutes of fierce, hyper-fast, hooky rockers spun out with only breathing spaces for bassist Dee Dee Ramone’s“1-2-3-4” count-offs and a slight change of direction. My ears rang for a week.
Minimalism at maximum volume. No leads. No solos. A 4/4 beat. Cartoon violence and wartime imagery. Songs like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Beat on the Brat” and a bunch of declarative “I Wanna …” and “I Don’t Wanna …” songs. Was it angry? Sorta. Funny? Certainly. Agitated? Oh, yeah. Ultimately life-affirming? In spades.
The Ramones built a raucous clubhouse and invited us inside to play. It was not for everybody – remember punk rock was reviled by mainstream culture early on – and that exclusivity was a lot of fun for a while. Don’t like it? Fuck you. We don’t care about your Journey or REO Speedwagon. We got it. “Gabba gabba we accept you, we accept you, one of us” ran the “Pinhead” chant and we believed every word.
At the center of this a tall, gangly sun-glassed long-haired chap who punctuated song points with his fist in the air.
“I think we’re leaving an historical legacy,” Joey told me, as they were about to embark upon that farewell tour. (Joey and Dee Dee were my usual go-to Ramones for interviews over the years.) “We really changed rock ‘n’ roll. When we came out in ’74, rock ‘n’ roll was pretty much dead. It was just totally disco and corporate rock. It was totally synthetic. All the fun was totally gone. We rocked the boat, you know what I mean?”
“It’s simple, but effective,” the man born Jeffrey Hyman continued. “The greatest art or music was always simple, but effective. I mean Andy Warhol’s soup cans were simple, but effective. The best rock ‘n’ roll appears simple, whether it be Buddy Holly or Little Richard or the Beatles or the Stones or the Who or the Stooges.”
AUDIO: The Ramones at CBGB, October 1977
The Ramones’ idea wasn’t to spearhead a movement called punk. They were, as Joey said, “an isolated band, doing it.” As to the punk rock movement: “It just kinda happened, the chemistry.”
In some ways, the Ramones became, essentially, a conservative band. The masterful blueprint had been drawn, and from then on it was followed with minor deviations from form. Sets remained pretty constant over the years — a handful of new songs bracketed by classics from the first two or three albums. On record, the Ramones took some chances: hardcore songs penned by Dee Dee, a wonderfully weird (albeit greatly panned at the time) punk/pop wall-of-sound collaboration with Phil Spector. But the concerts remained the same: 70-minute, 30-plus-song blasts from the past made fresh every night.
“I know we still play the songs the same,” Johnny told me before a ‘90s club show in Boston. “You watch tapes of us, 10, 15 years ago — it sounds the same. We play what they wanna hear. I’ve played `Blitzkrieg Bop’ 2,100 straight shows. I’m not tired of it.”
The’ Ramones decided to wrap up their run in Argentina. Why? “Our strongest territory is South America,” said Joey. “It’s like total insanity. It’s like we’re a cross between the Beatles and the pope.”
True. In America, while it’s fair to say they built a massive cult audience, they never really moved beyond mid-sized theaters as headliners.
Joey had some thoughts about the final go-round, talking to me in 1996. “Each city is the last time [for that crowd]. I mean, last year it was too, but I didn’t really feel it, but now I know it’s definitely coming to an end. I guess when fans, the real die-hards, tell me they’re sad about us stopping, when I’m surrounded by them, I feel sad, too. Myself, I probably went through every emotion. I went through a lot of heavy depression and just about every other kind of emotion you could feel. Now, I feel like I’m OK with it. There’re things that I want to do.”
In 1997, Sleater-Kinney gave us “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone.” Seventeen years later, U2 gushed about “The Miracle of Joey Ramone” And Motorhead paid ‘em all ultimate tribute with “R-A-M-O-N-E-S.”
VIDEO: Motörhead “R.A.M.O.N.E.S.”
The Dictators’ Andy Shernoff was a longtime friend of Joey’s. He co-wrote songs on the Ramones’ Mondo Bizarro and Brain Drain and played on Joey’s two posthumous solo albums, Don’t Worry About Me and … Ya Know? Shernoff was, in fact, at the hospital when Joey died from lymphoma. We’ll get to that later. But first…
“I wouldn’t say best friends but certainly friends,” Shernoff says the other week. “I don’t know if he had a best friend, but he a lot of good friends. [The way we met] there used to a glam rock club in Queens called the Coventry and that’s the only place the Dictators could play in New York City. We played there every two or three months – this would be ‘73 – and Joey was always in the audience. He was above everybody else, dressed in glam, with his satin pants. looking really weird. It was pretty absurd looking.
“The Coventry wasn’t far from where he lived or where I lived. He was from Forest Hills. My parents lived in Jackson Heights, which is really close to the club. I’d see other bands there and sometimes there’d be ten people in the club and there’d be me and Joey, but we weren’t buddies yet.
“One day I’m walking down the street in the East Village and I see this flyer for the Ramones at CBGB with Blondie opening up. I’d been there once before to see Patti Smith. This was probably in 1975, me and Scott [Kempner, Dictators rhythm guitarist] went down. It seemed absurd this guy was in a band; he seemed like this anti-charisma guy. It ends up he was a full-on charisma guy. The Ramones come on and there’s about 15 people in the audience, if that much. And wow! Bang-bang-bang-bang – 14 songs in 12 minutes and this in an era of 20-minute drum solos and ten-minute bass solos. I thought they were great. Did I know they were going to change the world? No.
“We played our first show at CBGB and they were there – I know Tommy was, not sure if Joey was. But they’d heard our first record [The Dictators Go Girl Crazy]. I didn’t think anybody heard our first record. It came out and we were dropped [by the label, Epic]. Who knew us? But evidently some people did hear our first record and among them were the Ramones. Joey and I weren’t hanging out that much, but we were friendly. In the mid-to-late ‘80s, after their first four records, they were looking for people to write songs with them and Joey said, ‘Hey, why don’t we try and write songs together?’ So, we wrote two songs together and they recorded some stuff, He asked me to play bass on some songs ‘cause Dee Dee was trying to get out of the band, become a rapper. He was not showing up; he was being Dee Dee the schizophrenic king – one day he was your friend, next day he hates you for no obvious reason. I would do some bass stuff, some guitar stuff and we got closer. We would get sushi, go to movies. What do friends do? Normal stuff. We would listen to records. He’d go to Japan and come back with videotapes of bands from the ‘60s. He was a year older than me but we grew up in the same area of North Queens. That’s where Johnny Thunders, Gene Simmons, Fred Smith from Television, all the Ramones, we came from this small area, a five-mile radius of Queens.
“Joey got beat up in high school; he had mental illness – I’m not telling any secrets. It’s been written about in many books including his brother’s. I think his shyness, he overcame it as the years went on. In the ‘70s, he was shy, almost to the point of catatonic. In the ‘80s, he started to come out of his shell, In the ‘90s, he was really a much more forceful and confident personality. He got into stocks in the ‘90s and loved Maria Bartiromo. He was really into investing. I didn’t have the money he had but I was playing with some money too.”
And, in the end …
“I was in the hospital with him when he died. His brother, Mickey, I got that call April 15th 2001: ‘Hey Andy, last chance to see him, you should come.’ And I headed right down to the hospital. I hadn’t seen him in a while. I was very respectful with his family, saying, ‘Can I go up there now?’ He was out. His mother and his mother’s boyfriend Larry were there, Arturo Vega, Mickey and his wife Arlene and me. Joey was just lying there and everyone was kinda quiet and I’m looking at him. Mickey said, ‘He’s gonna go soon if not today.’ We were sitting around making small talk, nobody’s talking much. I remember his brother puts on ‘In a Little While,’ the U2 song. It’s about Bono having a hangover – ‘In a little while, the pain’s gonna go away.’ And Bono said, knowing this was the last song played while Joey was alive, it elevated the song.
“We’re looking at the oscilloscope which gives the life signals and it goes flat. I’d never seen anybody die before and you literally see the blood stop flowing. Whatever pinkish hue your body has, it goes white. His eyes were open. Arturo closed his eyes. That’s it. Everyone was crying and hugging and that was Joey’s last breath.”