Punk Pioneer Joey Ramone Blitzes His Last Bop

By Tom Sinclair
Updated April 27, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

To rock & rollers of a certain stripe, the news of Joey Ramone’s April 15 death from lymphatic cancer at age 49, in New York City, was a bombshell right up there with Kurt Cobain’s suicide or John Lennon’s assassination. The Ramones frontman (whose real name was Jeffrey Hyman) was arguably the most popular and recognizable member of the group, a 6’6” scarecrow with a perpetually tousled helmet of black hair and a sartorial penchant for severely ravaged jeans. Even in middle age, Joey always seemed like what he’d started out as: a screwed-up, rock-obsessed Forest Hills, N.Y., teenager who wore his misfit status like a badge of honor. From the beginning, he knew that — to paraphrase one Ramones song — he had no place in the nine-to-five world, and he cultivated a look and a persona that assured he’d never end up there.

You didn’t need to know Joey had once been a mental patient to appreciate the twisted humor of Ramones songs like ”Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment” or ”Teenage Lobotomy,” but many fans relished the thought of Joey’s problem-plagued past, judging him all the cooler for it. ”Joey represented the anti-rock star, the least likely person imaginable to succeed,” says Andy Schwartz, former editor of the influential music paper New York Rocker, which gave the Ramones early exposure. ”A friend of mine once saw the Ramones [in a club] around ’76 or ’77. He found himself seated next to Joey’s dad, and they struck up a conversation. Joey’s father told him, ‘Boy, I hope he makes it at this. He just can’t do anything else.”’

Joey did, indeed, find his calling fronting the Ramones. No, they never sold as many records as the Beatles or Nirvana, but the leather-jacketed quartet impacted rock as dramatically as either of those bands (indeed, Nirvana probably wouldn’t have existed if not for them). Their first album, Ramones (1976), is generally credited with sparking the mid-’70s punk revolution in both England and America. That choice platter, and the three albums that followed it — Ramones Leave Home (1977), Rocket to Russia (1977), and Road to Ruin (1978) — created the template for all subsequent generations of punk-poppers. The band’s signature sound — hyperactive two- to three-minute songs counted off with a breathless ”one-two-three-four!” and fueled by buzz-saw guitar, a lightning-fast rhythm section, and Joey’s Liverpool-by-way-of-Queens vocals — remains the punk archetype.

In spite of such Ramones lyrics as ”D.U.M.B./Everyone’s accusing me,” the public perception of Joey as a dull-witted, drug-addled rock savant was dead wrong, contends Jerry Harrison, formerly of Talking Heads, who toured Europe with the Ramones in 1977. ”He was incredibly witty and intelligent, a very insightful person to talk to,” says Harrison. ”Joey was not that dumbbell he sang about.”

”He was one of the most heart-filled guys I’ve known and an example of how rock & roll can help you locate your secret self,” says Lenny Kaye, guitarist with the Patti Smith Group. ”Joey really showed you how you can find who you are through the power of three chords.”

“Joey Ramone was not only a good friend, he was a major influence on an entire generation of rock bands,” says E Street Band guitarist Little Steven (whose boss, Bruce Springsteen, penned his hit “Hungry Heart” with the intention of giving it to the Ramones). “Rock & roll has suffered a terrible, terrible loss.”

The night after Joey’s death, a contingent of grieving fans gathered outside CBGB, the legendary New York City punk palace the Ramones helped put on the map. Floral arrangements, votive candles, and cards flanked the club’s doorway, and a boom box blared the Ramones’ “I Don’t Want You.” One lyric in particular seemed to sum up the feelings of many: “I want you, I want you to stay/But I guess it just can’t be that way.”