Joey lived in the same lower-Manhattan apartment for many years. When I went to interview him there in 1999, the place looked less like a home than like a record store that had just exploded. Singles, albums and CDs surrounded Joey in no discernible order; rock magazines, books and memorabilia compounded the chaos. But when we were done, after three hours, he reached into a pile of debris with razor-sharp radar and pulled a copy of a new EP by his friend and idol, Ronnie Spector, that he had co-produced and that included her version of his gorgeous ballad, "She Talks to Rainbows." He handed it to me with sheepish but unmistakable pride.
Joey repeatedly wrote and sang of true love: "I Remember You," "She's the One," "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." Although named after Fields, much of the exquisite "Danny Says," on End of the Century, was based on a brief idyllic period in Joey's life. "I'd met someone kind of special," he explained, "and when we woke up, we really did watch Get Smart on TV." But Joey never married. (In addition to his mother, Joey is survived by a younger brother, Mickey Leigh also a musician, who played in a bard with the late rock critic Lester Bangs and has led his own group, the Ratlers.)
Indeed, Joey never appeared to have much of a life outside of being a Ramone – and he didn't seem to mind. He was a reassuring fixture on the New York club scene, checking out new groups and promoting his favorites, like D Generation and the Independents, to friends and associates. He spoke rarely, in public or private, of any frustrations he might have had with his own band's struggle for just financial reward and historical recognition. "The Ramones had a continuity and a credibility," he told me. "We did it for ourselves and our fans."
The faithful loved their for it. "The wonderful thing was being out with Joey in New York, working the streets with him," says DJ Vin Scelsa a longtime friend of Joey's and one of the Ramones' few supporters on commercial New York radio. Two years ago, Scelsa took Joey to see the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. "Every where we went, it was 'Hey, Joey, how ya doing?' Everybody knew him, all around the streets of SoHo, the East Village, the West Village." Joey responded to the greetings with a poise and appreciation that, Scelsa says, "was noble and natural. He didn't condescend to the fans."
In 1995, the Ramones issued their goodbye studio album, Adios Amigos, which opened with an inspirational bash through Tom Waits' "I Don't Wanna Grow Up. "That same year, Joey was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer; the Ramone who had most embodied and determinedly lived the life of an eternal teenager had been blindsided by mortality. "It was tough working around Joey's illness," Daniel Rey says of the sessions for Joey's solo record, which started in 1997. "If he wasn't feeling great, he didn't go to the studio, because it didn't feel rock & roll to him."
By the end of last year, Joey had completed ten tracks, including "Maria Bartiromo," a tribute to the CNBC financial analyst (Joey had become a keen student of the stock market in recent years), and a spunky, Ramones-ish cover of Louis Armstrong's signature ballad. "What a Wonderful World." "The album shows Joey's versatility," says Marky Ramone (Marc Bell), who drummed on seven tracks. "His voice seemed a lot richer, more manly. It was like he was saying, 'I'm comfortable with myself.' "
On December 30th, Joey was hospitalized after he fell while walking down the street in New York. He was released for a few days in February, then readmitted. Joey never went home again.
But he never stopped being a Ramone or believing that in rock & roll he had been given an eternal, unbeatable life – and that he had a responsibility to share it with everyone he knew. "There weren't too many avenues for Joey to be a hero," says Fields. "He wasn't going to be a fighter pilot or a trial lawyer or a senator. He found rock & roll, and it found him, his heroism."
As recently as that 1999 interview, Joey still spoke of the Ramones in the present tense, as an undeniable force of nature: "The Ramones were, and are, a great fuckin' band . . . When we went out there to play, the power was intense, like going to see the Who in the Sixties.
"When I put the Ramones on the stereo now, we still sound great," he said proudly. "And that will always be there. When you need a lift. When you need a fix."
With Joey's passing, we need that fix more than ever.
This story is from the May 24th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.
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