Joey, we'll miss you


April 17, 2001



`When you're doing what you believe in, it doesn't matter what's going on around you," Joey Ramone told me when I last spoke to him four years ago, before he was diagnosed with lymphoma.

The punk icon and leader of the legendary Ramones died Sunday at age 49 of cancer. Iconoclastic to the end, his legacy isn't so much that he changed the world of rock 'n' roll--although he certainly did.

The most lasting gift that the former Jeffrey Hyman gave rock fans was the punk-rock example that "anybody can do it." Proving that rock is the ultimate democratic art form, he showed that even a ridiculously tall, stoop-shouldered geek with horrible eyesight and long stringy hair that hung over his face to hide a bad complexion could become a rock star--provided he had something to say.

Much of the punk and alternative music of the last 25 years is unthinkable without his influence. "Gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us!" was the band's signature chant, lifted from Tod Browning's cult movie, "Freaks." In his wake, countless musicians followed the example of the Ramones' lead freak, taking to their garages to make a joyful noise of their own.

"If he can do it, so can I!" the thinking went. But the fact is, few did it quite as well.

Joey's was one of rock's signature voices--a deep, soulful bellow that had roots in the British invasion (note the affected accent on early classics like "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker"), as well as Phil Spector-era pop (he would work with the famous producer in 1980 on "End of the Century," and he dueted with Ronnie Spector several times in the last few years).

Listen to Joey's performance on 1985's "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," a Jewish singer's furious reaction to President Reagan's visit to a Nazi cemetery. Rock doesn't get much more passionate or convincing.

The Ramones were formed in Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974. From the start, they adopted a cartoonish image of four leather-jacketed street toughs--New York "mooks" who spoke in monosyllabic grunts and bragged of the joys of sniffing glue while hammering out faster-louder three-chord anthems that seemingly required little or no talent.

It was all an act, of course. Joey in particular was a smart and literate music lover with an encyclopedic knowledge of rock and a burning desire to create. I came to casually know him, his younger brother Mickey Leigh, his mother Charlotte Lesher and his stepfather Phil Sapienza when I was researching a book about their family friend, the late rock critic Lester Bangs.

"I've always been involved with both my boys' music--when they were 11 and 14, they wanted music lessons and I gave it to them because I wanted something good to fill their lives," Lesher told me. "I really got into it with both of them, and when they started forming groups, I'd drive the station wagon with all their stuff in it down to gigs in the East Village and sit in the back of the club."

Anybody can do it--with a little help from Mom.

"At the beginning, I really didn't know about the potential of the Ramones," Lesher said. "I liked them; I always thought they were great. I loved the energy. I didn't think that the songs were important, but I always loved `I Wanna Be Sedated' and `Beat on the Brat,' and the more I went to see them and saw the way the audience reacted to them, I was sold."

Arriving when rock was at a low point--a period similar to today, when ponderous, self-important artistes and prefab pop phenoms ruled the charts--Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky Ramone stressed an altogether different set of values, reminding listeners that rock was meant to be fun.

"It's a primal thing," Joey said. "Everybody else at the time was a serious artist, and they didn't get it. What we were doing was over their heads, even though they thought it was vice-versa. Rock 'n' roll was meant to be fun and simple. That's why you love the Beatles and Kinks even today."

Or, indeed, the Ramones. Dubbed by Bangs "a berserk locomotive barreling downhill with a broken throttle, no brakes, and Bugs Bunny in the driver's seat," they delivered one insanely energetic, absurdly catchy three-minute anthem after another for 20 years, from the first album in 1976, through the band's premature retirement in 1996.

"I Wanna Be Sedated." "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio." "Cretin Hop." "Rock 'n' Roll High School." If you don't like these songs, you don't like rock 'n' roll.

The Ramones never got the Top 40 hit that Joey yearned for, but they did something much more important: They defined a genre, and they made listeners glad to be alive. 1-2-3-4! Hey-ho, let's go!

It doesn't seem right to mourn the death of somebody who was so thoroughly alive, so my choice for an epitaph is these lines from 1987's "I Wanna Live": "I give what I got to give/It's important if I want to live/And I want to live, I want to live my life." Gabba gabba, Joey. We accept you, we accept you, one of us.