After Joey Ramone’s death from lymphoma in April 2001, his mother, Charlotte Lesher, and younger brother, Mickey Leigh, were cleaning the Ramones singer’s New York apartment when Charlotte picked up an old pizza-delivery receipt. “She was about to throw it away,” Leigh recalls. “I turned it over, and there were song lyrics on the back.” Right to the end, Leigh says, “Joey was working on something in his head.”
On May 15th, a decade after his posthumous solo debut, 2002’s Don’t Worry About Me, Joey will finally deliver a follow-up – called Ya Know? after the way Joey used to end every sentence in his Queens drawl. The new album features 17 songs recorded by Joey as demos for and after the Ramones, who broke up in 1996. The tracks – which include the anthem “Rock & Roll Is the Answer,” the hometown hymn “New York City” and a striking country-flavored ballad, “Waiting for That Railroad” – were completed by producers such as Ed Stasium and Jean Beauvoir, who both worked with the Ramones. Joan Jett, the E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt, drummer Richie Ramone, and members of Cheap Trick and the Dictators are among the friends and fans who contributed new overdubs.
Protracted negotiations over some demos, originally done by Joey with producer Daniel Rey, delayed work on the album until 2009. Stasium says one plan was to recruit stars from “very popular bands influenced by Joey.” Instead, “We got friends who were really friends of Joey.” Stasium recorded those overdubs in New York in 2010, the week after a Joey Ramone Birthday Bash show.
The vintage of the material is “all over the place,” says Leigh, who has led his own band, the Rattlers, and plays on Ya Know? He taped Joey’s slow-dance version of the Ramones holiday hit “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” in the mid-Eighties on a four-track cassette deck in the singer’s apartment. The Dictators’ Andy Shernoff was watching TV with Joey there in the early Nineties when they started co-writing the delicate “Trembling.” “He was getting matured, more soulful, in his voice,” Shernoff says. “He would have gone more in that direction. He enjoyed singing like that.”
“His health was up and down,” Leigh says of Joey’s final years. “But when the chemo cocktail was effective, that’s when he did his work. Joey had no intention of retiring. His health was holding him back. But he was finally feeling free.”
This story is from the March 1st, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.