At 2:40 p.m. on April 15th, Easter Sunday, Joey Ramone – the singer and spindly frontman of the world's greatest punk band, the Ramones – died at New York Presbyterian Hospital after a six-year battle with lymphatic cancer. That night, in the middle of U2's show at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, Bono took a moment to tell the audience how his own life and band had been changed by Joey and the Ramones – by that voice and by the big rock & roll heart beating inside each song. Bono quickly found out he was not the only one in the room who felt that way.
"I told the people, 'I want to talk to you about Joey Ramone . . . ,' and the whole crowd went up in this roar," Bono recalls with whispered awe. After telling the audience how the Ramones "got us started as a band," Bono sang "Amazing Grace" and then, with just the Edge on guitar, went into Joey's plaintive diamond "I Remember You," from the Ramones' 1977 album, Leave Home. "The shock was," Bono says, "the crowd sang it, the whole tune. Then I said that Joey had passed away that day.
"The roar stopped right there. The place went silent. It was a very powerful thing to be a part of."
Joey Ramone was only forty-nine years old when he died; his illness was a cruel trick played on someone who believed, right until the end, that rock & roll saves lives. A month before his death, while undergoing treatment in the hospital, Joey called Seymour Stein, the president of the Ramones' longtime label, Sire Records, saying that he was going to send Stein some demos by a new band that he was excited about. Producer Daniel Rey, who had worked on a number of latter-day Ramones records and was recording Joey's first solo effort, remembers Joey's stubbornly cheerful spirit in those last weeks: "He was talking about getting out of bed so he could be in shape to go on tour."
In fact, Joey was a fragile beanpole who was prone to sickness and injury throughout the Ramones' twenty-two-year career. But under the lights and on record, for 2,263 shows and on nearly two dozen studio, concert and best-of albums, Joey radiated a gladiator conviction out of all proportion to his physique and the endearing hiccup in his voice. The mid-1970s sight of Joey onstage, standing tall and firm amid the original torpedo rain of Johnny's guitar, Dee Dee's bass and Tommy's drums, is one of the most improbable and indelible images in live rock: Joey's praying-mantis frame leaning into the howl of the audience; his legs locked in challenge and his hands gripping the mike stand like a spear; his face and oval spectacles mostly hidden by a thick curtain of black hair. When I first saw the Ramones, in April 1977 in a tiny club on the Philadelphia campus of the University of Pennsylvania, I thought Joey looked like a skyscraper in a leather jacket, the Empire State Scarecrow.
But he had the courage of King Kong. "We weren't going to let anything knock us down," he told me two decades later, in a February 1999 interview, referring to the Ramones' long war against bad luck and mainstream indifference. "There was always something thrown at us. The odds, the obstacles, the bullshit that would always be in the path of the band – it was always that way. You just gotta press on."
The Ramones – Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, Tommy and later members Marky, Richie and C.J. – were never properly paid for inventing punk rock. Joey received only one U.S. gold album in his lifetime, for the 1988 compilation Ramones Mania. Only two albums – 1977's Rocket to Russia and 1980's End of the Century, the latter produced with maniacal enthusiasm by Phil Spector – cracked Billboard's Top Fifty. But Danny Fields, who co-managed the Ramones with Linda Stein from 1975 to 1980, says the band's impact was immediate: "We would struggle to get into Toronto, to play some basement in the warehouse district, then come back and find that eight bands had started since we'd played there." And Joey could pinpoint the Ramones' influence down to the subtlest musical detail, like the "Hey! Wait!" chorus in Nirvana's "Heart-Shaped Box," a clear echo of the "Wait! Now!" vocal break in Joey's "I Just Want to Have Something to Do," on 1978's Road to Ruin.
"We knew the band was good," says Johnny, who has lived in California since the Ramones split in 1996. "I knew that every time I walked onstage" – even, he insists, as personal tensions between he and Joey got worse through the 1980s and 1990s. "When no one spoke to each other - me and Joey basically didn't speak for a long time – I would still get up there every day, look at Joey, start to play and know, 'Yeah, I'm still in the best band in the world."
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