Joey Ramone was born Jeff Hyman on May 19th, 1951, in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York. When his parents divorced in the early 1960s and his mother, Charlotte, subsequently remarried, Joey found comfort in his transistor radio. "Rock & roll was my salvation," he declared in that 1999 interview, "listening to the WMCA Good Guys and Murray the K," an era and experience Joey would eulogize in "Do You Remember Rock 'n Roll Radio?" on End of the Century.
He also started playing drums after Charlotte bought him a snare with supermarket stamps. "I rented a high-hat [cymbal]," he said, "and I'd play along with the Beatles and Gary Lewis and the Playboys on my record player." By 1973, Joey was singing with a glitter band, Sniper, and writing hard-pop bullets such as "I Don't Care" and "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" that he would later bring to the Ramones.
Neighborhood pals unanimously disgusted with bloated Seventies superstar rock, Joey, Johnny (John Cummings) and Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin) made their official debut as the Ramones on March 30th, 1974, at Performance Studio, a rehearsal facility in Manhattan. The band's name was cribbed by Dee Dee from Paul McCartney, who used the stage surname Ramon in the early Beatles. Joey played drums and split the lead vocals with Dee Dee. It didn't take long for Thomas Erdelyi, who co-owned Performance with future Ramones road manager Monte Melnick, to realize Joey belonged out front.
"The guitar had a raunchy, ripping quality, the bass had a driving-piston feel, and Joey's singing gave it all a velvety coating," says Erdelyi, who took over the beat and became Tommy Ramone. "Once I got behind the drums and focused on that propulsive, straight-ahead thing, all the elements clicked together." With the hooligan-mod haircuts, black motorcycle jackets and bone-hard genius of songs like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Judy Is a Punk," Tommy says, "our art was complete."
It was also invincible. Anyone ever moved and transformed by the Ramones has a first-time-I-saw-'em revelation tale. For me, it was that Philly gig – sitting in the first row, right in front of Johnny's amp, transfixed and virtually deafened by his jackhammered chords. For Bono, it was a show at the State cinema in Dublin in 1978. "When you watched Joey sing," he says, "you knew nothing else mattered to him. Pretty soon, nothing else mattered to me." For Danny Fields, it was a typical lightning set at the Ramones' home away from Queens, CBGB on the Bowery, in 1975.
"I was sitting in front," Fields says, "over-whelmed by watching Joey sing 'I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement' – 'I don't wanna go down to the basement/There's something down there.' It was a great lyric – and you believed him. The song was about primal fear, with an incredible beat, rush and power. I thought, 'This band is great, and that guy is great.' " But the magnetic simplicity of the Ramones' music, look and world-view sowed the unfortunate misconception that the Ramones themselves were simple – "da brudders and all that," Fields notes with still-acute irritation. "They were really very smart."
Joey, in particular, was blessed with a native genius that came out in sharp, funny ways. His mother ran an art gallery in Queens, and Arturo Vega, a painter who first saw the Ramones at Performance Studio and went on to become their lighting and artistic director, says that while Joey "wasn't very verbal, he could understand what makes a good piece of art. He would have a way of transporting philosophical themes into something very practical."
When Vega was designing the Ramones' infamous logo – a parody of the presidential seal, with the eagle holding a baseball bat and gripping a Hey Ho Let's Go banner in its beak – Joey suggested putting apples in the olive branch. "I said, 'OK, American as apple pie,"' Vega remembers, laughing. "And Joey goes, 'No, apples are delicious."' Joey also told Vega the first apples he drew were too red, that they looked like tomatoes. "That was his gift: making things simple," Vega says. "Which is what punk rock is."
Joey's aw-shucks demeanor offstage – in conversation, he often sat in a protective hunch, his broad Queens accent regularly punctuated by a shy, cartoonish chuckle – masked a fervent professionalism. He took vocal lessons from an opera coach, diligently did breathing exercises to strengthen his delivery and used a vaporizer to open up his vocal cords before every show. Joey nearly died for rock & roll on the night of November 19th, 1977 when the vaporizer literally blew up in his face just before the Ramones hit the stage at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey. Joey underwent emergency treatment, then did the show.
"He was onstage looking like Bob Dylan, with cream all over his face – the Rolling Thunder look," says record producer Ed Stasium, who was there that night. "Joey was a trouper." After the last encore, Joey was rushed to the New York Hospital Burn Center, where he stayed for a week. He wrote about the whole nightmare, and the soul-sucking grind of the road, with typical humor in one of his best songs, "I Wanna Be Sedated."
Seymour Stein points out that the Ramones were the only band he ever signed that could go into the studio with next to no money for recording – and still come out under budget. "If they didn't come out the first night with seven or eight songs done," he says, "they were embarrassed. They didn't even want to talk to me because they thought I would be upset." Joey was especially attentive to the details of record making, according to Stasium, who started working with the Ramones as an engineer on Leave Home and produced or coproduced later gems such as Road to Ruin and Too Tough to Die.
"In the studio, he was a workhorse he was there for everything," Stasium says of Joey. "What amazed me about Joey was that he knew just what he was going to do. His songs were embedded in his mind and in his soul." When Joey would double-track his vocals, "it was exactly the same, all the nuances. I remember doing 'Pinhead' – he would do one line, then go back and do the other line, and it would be exact. And he didn't think, 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' He just sang it."
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