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.”
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.”
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.