I use to be on an endless run,
Believe in miracles cause I'm one,
I have been blessed with the power to survive,
After all these years, I'm still alive.
--The Ramones, "I Believe in Miracles" (1989)
I well remember where I was and what I was doing when Joey Ramone died. Or, at the very least, when I learned of his untimely passing.
I was sitting at the computer nineteen years ago, having just, out of boredom, gone to the Ramones' "Official" website. There was a picture of the tall, weirdly-gangling singer, beneath a couple of hyphenated dates. I full well knew what that meant.
"Hey honey," I said to my ex. "Guess who has died."
She came into the room, looked at the screen in shock, and said, "Well, I guess there's not going to be a reunion tour."
And damn, she was more than right about that. Within a few years, Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone, the iconic two rounding out the punk rock triumvirate that trail blazed through twenty-odd years of touring to underwhelming critical acclaim but overwhelming punk popularity, would join Joey Ramone (Born: Jeffrey Ross Hyman in Queens, New York, March 19, 1951, to a Jewish family) in that great big Gig in the Sky (to borrow from Pink Floyd, who are light years away from the Ramones musically, but, in a weird sense, maybe not), becoming legendary specters, haunting "Ghosts of Rock N' Roll's Past." Such are the ways of a cruel world.
Don't Worry 'Bout Me
Young Jeffrey Hyman had NO reason to believe his rock n' roll dreams would ever come true. Born with a multiplicity of physical and mental infirmities, he suffered from diagnosed schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. As a teenager, he threatened mother Charlotte Lesher with a knife, spent time in a psychiatric ward, and, reportedly, loved Charles Manson. Of course, this last can be expected of any self-respecting underground musician worth his salt, but Jeffrey (who would only later become "Joey") took it one step further, according to brother Mickey Leigh, by stating baldly that Manson was "like Hitler, only cooler." One wonders if young Jeffrey would have invited Uncle Adi to his Bar Mitzvah.
(Note: Most everyone who sets eyes on this article will be a confirmed politically-correct screech-owl, and will howl in disgust at the idea that Joey Ramone had an ironic, sardonic, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, apparently. Again, the ways of a cruel, Philistine world.)
Jeffrey/Joey was a weird cat to look at, too. He was so strange (as, a matter-of-fact, the entire band was) that one, at first seeing him, wondered if he were not simply an actor hired to play the part of a rock singer--out of some sort of comic irony.
And, indeed, it was in the Roger Corman-produced Seventies youth exploitation flick Rock N' Roll High School, (directed by Paul "Eating Raoul" Bartel, and starring a bubbly P.J. Soles, fresh out of Halloween) that I first encountered The Ramones. As I watched the movie on some cable TV cult-movie marathon, my mother and aunt came in the house. My mother came into my room to tell me her boyfriend, a mentally-disturbed Vietnam veteran, had just blown his brains out with the barrel of an old shotgun. On the screen in front of me (which was a little, box-like, black and white affair), The Ramones were barreling through their cinematic set-list; I believe their music caused motion picture mice to explode. I'll never quite forget that night.
Tragedy, humor and pathos all seem to walk, eerily, through the story of the Ramones. But, most certainly, through the story of Joey Ramone.
Jeffrey Hyman was born (get this): with a fucking parasitic twin growing, like a tumor, out of his back. The stuff of old sideshows, Learning Channel Documentaries, urban legends.
Such a thing is duty-bound to make one a little "strange." Jeffrey was no exception to this. An examining psychiatrist stated:
The patient essentially sees himself with low self-esteem, as a combination of being both dangerous and in danger, approaching the unfamiliar with considerable caution and suspicion, frequently employing poor judgement in the process.
His sense of self is of a passive, dependent person with ambivalent sexual identification, against which he is inclined to defend himself by means of distancing maneuvers to the point of estrangement . . .
His view of authority is markedly fearful, feeling his life to be in danger . . . The patient’s personality structure is consistent with diagnosis of schizophrenia, paranoid type with minimal brain damage (the latter probably of long-standing duration).
In other words, teenage Jeffrey was a basket case. Making such Ramones songs as "Psychotherapy" and "Teenage Lobotomy" even more meaningful. The fact that the Ramones signature slogan of "Gabba Gabba Hey," and their adoption of a "Pinhead" as a mascot hearkens to the classic horror film of deformity and alienation, Todd Browning's 1931 shocker Freaks, seems both aesthetically and spiritually significant. Jeffrey Hyman was born an outsider, lived as one, and made music that reached thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands of disaffected, angry, alienated and bitter young lives--and still does, to this very day. The Ramones, one always instinctively knew, were not "cool" in the same sense as other, more conventional rock bands. The Ramones were for the losers; the misfits; the loners and outcasts. And punks. Most certainly, for the PUNKS.
I Don't Wanna Be a Pinhead
Joey's favorite groups at the time were the Beatles, the Who, Rolling Stones and girl groups. Bubblegum pop like the Ronettes. His hero was, apparently, Pete Townshend.
His first group, Sniper, was a glam rock imitation of the New York Dolls. He didn't remain long with that act. Having been a drummer, and then a guitarist since the age of thirteen, he eventually settled down with some fellow scruffy hoods, Johnny "Johnny Ramone" Cummings, and Douglas Colvin, who became the infamous "Dee Dee Ramone," the latter of which an entire other article should be written about. (He had stints as both an awful Eighties hip-hop artist, as well as guitarist for the notorious "scum-rocker" G.G. Allin. His stint with Allin, BTW, is documented in Todd Phillips' famous documentary, Hated. Dee Dee died of a heroin overdose in 2002.)
I'd just sit with Dee Dee on the corner off of Queens Boulevard and drink and insult people and stuff. That's when I got kicked out of my house. My mother told me it was for my own good.
The trio were completed by Tommy Erdelyi, who ended up on drums. Their classic group photo, standing against a bare brick wall, has a stark, haunting quality now that they are all gone. (John Cummings succumbed to cancer in 2004. Tommy Erdelyi, the last to go, died in 2014.)
Their birthday was on the Bowery, at a club called, if you can believe it, "Country, Blue Grass, Blues, and Other Music for Urban Gourmets"; or "CBGB's" for short, Their famous sign reads "CBGB's OMFUG," but, for all times and all peoples, it is simply CBGB's, the place where punk was "birthed."
The Ramones, owing much to Johnny's influence, stripped down the bubble gum pop and doo-wop of their youth, infused heavy distortion "fuzz" into it, and blasted forth at incredible speeds. Completely eschewing the conventional rock staples of guitar solos and other such useless noodling, they stripped down rock-and-roll aesthetics to its bare minimum, playing a half-an-hour set in fifteen minutes. CBGB's owner Hilly Kristal told them, "Nobody is gonna like you guys. But I'll have you back."
The lyrics covered such family-friendly subjects as glue-sniffing, male prostitution, and Last House on the Left.
The 1970s saw the dissolution of Peace, Love and Utopian Brotherhood, the ideals proffered by a generation that wanted to turn-on, tune-in, yadda yadda yadda...The music was more confrontational, experimental, more focused on the angst and disillusionment with Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon. peaceful hippies had become more radical Yippies, Weathermen, etc. This is all well known to most, maybe all and sundry reading this. The era that birthed punk rocked it, in a stinking cradle that must have reeked like the dumpster out behind Max's Kansas City, into the 1980s, into a time of spiked hair, spiked jackets, slam dancing, anarchy, crust, thrash beats, and near-riots. But, in 1974, that was all still a few years off.
Names like Johnny Thunders, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry and the Talking Heads were all there in the beginning--a tour of Europe by the Ramones and Talking Heads kicked the madness up another notch, exposed even angrier and rebellious (not to mention fashion-conscious) British youth to punk and its explosive potential. Thus, Merry Old England was injected with the rancid semen that spawned punk rock shockers like the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Siouxie and the Banshees, and on and on.
And all of that is well and good and wonderful, at least, if you LIKE punk rock. But, this article, I fear, has strayed: It was not about punk rock and its admittedly sordid history. It was about one, single, PUNK ROCKER.
The Ramones were together for more than twenty years. Whenever you see a clip of them, it rarely varies; they are all, virtually, interchangeable. It could all be the same show. Joey, flanked on either side by Johnny and Dee Dee, each with their legs spread in that splayed-legged stance, both almost immobile (although Dee Dee evinced a bit more spontaneous movement); behind them, Marky or, earlier, Tommy, banging away steadily at that beat...beat...beat. Joey, up front like a captain commandeering a ship of chaotic fools, bellowing and hiccuping in a peculiarly nasal New York cum London singing voice, about Judy, who is a Punk, and Sheena, and even pet sematary's and UFOs and other shit. In front of them, the variant slam pits of yesteryear circled and fist-pumped while dudes below shot their testosterone wads, and ALL WAS.
During the late Eighties they tried, rather unsuccessfully, to keep up with their own imitators, as it were, releasing sometimes thrashier and sometimes more straight-forward hard rock albums, such as 1989's Brain Drain, on which the theme song written for Stephen King's Pet Sematary movie first appeared. The last albums, such as Acid Eaters and Mondo Bizarro, featured fairly passable, watered-down pop punk and Sixties kitsch, albeit with a few songs (mostly penned by Dee Dee) such as "Strength to Endure" and "Punishment Fits the Crime," which are really, really good.
So, what else can you say? You can talk about the rift between Johnny and Joey over Linda, a.k.a. Mrs. Johnny Ramone, a rift that, apparently, left them as virtual enemies, not on speaking terms, for the rest of their career. I'm not sure how that's possible with guys forced to work that close, but, apparently, that's the story. It's reported that when Johnny Ramone was approached at the end of Joey's life by a fellow band mate, who told him, as far as burying the hatchet and saying goodbyes, that "That window is closing," the always sour-seeming Johnny retorted, "That guy's not my friend." So it goes.
But the saddest story I know about Joey Ramone, the one that seems most telling, involves a chiropractor's door.
Beyond the Door
The Ramones, it is said, were cursed by a mysterious young man (on a "dark and stormy night," no less) wearing a black coat and black hat, who came out after a gig when they were getting on the tour bus in Tulsa, in 1978--"Repent, change your wicked ways! Or be cursed for life!" he is said to have screamed, while pointing his finger. Did it happen? Was it a real, literal "Curse of the Ramones," as has been suggested? ALL the founding members of the band died relatively young, tragically, never attaining the success of the imitators that trailed in their wake.
The video for the song "Pet Sematary," eerily presages the band's demise, featuring the three original members and replacement drummer Marky (who is still alive) walking around Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York, Joey bending to pet a marble lamb in one scene. The video features a casket being lowered into the ground with "RAMONES" written on it in huge letters, at a graveside get together of pinheads and fans. (One is reminded of Amy Winehouse's video of "Back to Black," which sees her officiating at a funeral. The singer was found shortly thereafter in her home, dead from alcohol poisoning at the mystical, musical age of twenty-seven.)
The lyrics often reflect, or again, eerily presage tragedy and death: Joey croons in a song called "I Wanna Live," just that: "I wanna live, I wanna live my life..." On "Pet Sematary," the famous line "I don't wanna be buried, in a pet sematary, I don't wanna live my life again..."
Most eerily, he intones, in a song called "Cabbies on Crack," that "I don't wanna die, before I've lived..."
Art often anticipates our own personal tragedies. Jim Morrison once sang of The End...
Joey's door is a story from a Rolling Stone article. According to brother Mickey Leigh:
"He headed uptown to [the] office to repeat a movement, to push a button or turn a doorknob – and do it right this time – so he could silence the voices and move on into the next year without them challenging him."
Joey heard "voices" tormenting him about that damn door--which was to his chiropractor's office. Had he closed it "right"? He went, more than once, to repeat this action. The second time, he slipped on a snowy sidewalk, fell, was discovered lying unconscious by a policewoman. He had broken his hip.
This necessitated a brief respite from the cancer therapy. Having been diagnosed with lymphoma in 1994, it was thought, for a time, that Joey had gone into remission. Alas, it was not so.
April 15th, 2001, the doctors finally turned off his respirator. His brother Mickey Leigh played the song "In a Little While" by U2, on an old-fashioned boom box. Joey was 49.
I wrote this, day before yesterday, in a Facebook post:
The thing I like about Joey Ramone is that, if he hadn't become a singer, somewhat like Tiny Tim, he would have spent his life a nobody, a misfit because of his mental and physical disabilities. Instead, he played the hand he was dealt, and became an icon. Then, cancer got him, and the icon everyone knew could never vanish was revealed to be just a man after all. Yeah, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard he had died. RIP, Jeffrey Hyman, "Joey Ramone."
And I meant every word of it. We all wear these masks, these egos, these "identities" in this world. We put it on like a hat, and are fooled, lulled into believing that is who and what we "are." But that is only a surface , a mirage; a little blip in the interminable history of ALL. A speck of dust floating in the sandstorm of human history. We may win accolades or howls of derision in our time. Like Jeffrey Hyman, we may become a "rock star." We may be celebrated and preserved as a wax image at Madame Tussaud's, like Motorhead's famous Lemmy (who, incidentally, played the last song at the last show the Ramones ever did), but it is still only the interpretation of ourselves, the agreed-upon illusion. NOT the soul, the heart, beating within.
So a scared, mentally troubled kid can put on a leather jacket, grab a mic, and become a cultural icon. But, inside, the man in the mirror stares out from behind knowing eyes...
But this article is finished. I'll close with something Joey once said:
"I enjoyed my life when I had nothing...and kinda like the idea of just being happy with me."