The late, great Joey Ramone

Friends, musicians and journalists remember an avatar, a star -- and a lonely guy who never felt appreciated enough.


Salon Staff
April 16, 2001 9:00PM (UTC)

Sasha Frere-Jones:

In 1977, I was 10. I read a review by Steve Simels of the first Ramones album in Stereo Review. I bought it at A&S on Fulton Street and brought it to my friend Bryan Lawrence's house. He only had the soundtrack from "Grease."

I played the first song and Bryan's dad, a stockbroker, came out and looked at us like we had taken a crap on the rug. He smiled, like he knew that we'd make it home from jail without car fare but it would be good for us. We took it off.

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I took it home and played it over and over, trying to figure out what it was. My first thought was that it didn't sound as good as my Aerosmith records. It was kinda tinny. My father, an open-minded fellow and a lyricist to boot, heard the music and did something he hadn't done before and didn't do again, even during the reign of rap ('82-'84).

He came into the living room and, without asking, picked up the lyric sheet and read along for a few minutes. "Do you know what this means?" he asked.

I shrugged. "I just got it."

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He paused. "Be careful" were his only words to me on the subject and, unfortunately, I never was. If you see Joey, Dad, say hi. You can blame him now.

(Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer in New York.)

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Mike Watt:

The Ramones meant so much to a lot of cats like myself who felt marginalized by "correct rock" and the whole load of shit that was getting foisted on anyone trying to be different in the '70s. They represented a way of letting your freak flag fly -- not by asking folks to copy what they were doing and sound and look just like them but just go for it and find your own way. For me and D. Boon, it was the biggest gulp of fresh air our lungs ever took in. It made us Minutemen. Made me what I am today and am still becoming. Much respect to Joey Ramone.

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(Mike Watt was a founder of the Minutemen.)

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V. Vale:

What a horrifying shock! Joey Ramone dead at age 49 -- maybe I better make out my will.

Instantly I recalled the first time I saw the Ramones -- in August 1976 at the Savoy Tivoli on Grant Avenue, San Francisco. I counted 30 people in the audience. Behind me was a scruffy bunch of intriguingly dressed musician types, all in dark clothes (not the style in California that year) -- they looked like refugees from Warhol's Factory. One of them was a ravishing '50s blond in a black cocktail dress. Later, they turned out to be members of the Nuns, one of San Francisco's first punk bands.

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I'd never seen anything like the Ramones before. This was the pre-MTV era, when on Don Kirshner's "Rock Concert" you'd watch rock extravaganzas like Emerson, Lake and Palmer playing a grand piano revolving in the air on a giant crane. If you were an aspiring young musician, you could never afford props like that.

When the Ramones hit the tiny stage, Joey yelled, "One-two-three-four," and they launched into a 30-minute blitzkrieg that seemed nonstop, with one song segueing into another.

They were dressed in shockingly ripped-up faded blue jeans, basic U.S. Keds sneakers, tiny baby doll T-shirts and black-leather motorcycle jackets. The bass player, Dee Dee, seemed the most menacing; his T-shirt sported a Special Forces logo, "Death From Above."

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But Joey seemed the most alien -- like an enormous, gangly human spider. Wearing thick, dark maroon glasses beneath a shock of shoulder-length hair, he screamed to be heard over the Marshall-amp machine-gun assault of the band. Joey, who admitted to writing most of the lyrics, sang "Commando" (nobody was writing about the Vietnam War; most musicians were still in denial), "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" and other decidedly non-peace-and-love songs. Finally, the new "punk rock" era had arrived.

(V. Vale is the founder of Search & Destroy and RE/Search Publications.)

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Stephanie Zacharek:

Maybe it wasn't about brains -- but then, the best rock 'n' roll often isn't. What you could hear in the music of Joey Ramone was a particular kind of passion, cooked down to its bare essentials: two minutes and three chords. Songs like "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" weren't exactly love songs, but there was a peculiar strain of love in them. "Sheena" was an ode to a girl who just had to bust out. Beyond that, you didn't know much about her, but that glorious beach-party beat gave you everything you needed to hang onto.

Back in the day, I'd hear it, or just about any Ramones song, and jump up and down so much that my teeth would rattle inside my head. It felt good when I did it, and it felt good when I stopped. It was pure pleasure boiled down to a few hard minutes and a couple of swinging seconds, fast and sweet, like teenage love. That must be why a flowery elegy for Joey Ramone feels all wrong. The only thing to do is jump up and down -- and then stop.

(Stephanie Zacharek is a staff writer at Salon.)

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Ira Robbins:

I'll confess: I didn't get the Ramones at first. Unlike the bands I already liked on the New York underground scene -- the Dolls, the Planets, the Fast -- the brudders sounded too unfamiliar, too high- (well, low-) concept for my '60s-bred sensibilities. I wasn't ready for such wholehearted embrace of simplicity in place of power-pop intricacy, and it took me a few 25-minute, 15-song shows to stop griping and grasp the joyous spirit of their enormous achievement.

We used to stand around clubs like CBGB, my scornful scene pals and me, counting off songs with Dee Dee and collapsing in laughter. I called Joey "the amphibian" because he was so limpet-like, an elongated figure of pale skin, shade-hooded eyes, his flexible spine curled around mic stands like a snake being charmed. His pronunciation of lyrics like "next time I'll listen to my heart" was another source of amusement at the outset, since he curved them too, into unarticulated sounds like "nextimelistentomma-a-a-rt." Until I was played the first album in Sire publicist Janis Shacht's office, I had no idea what most of the songs were actually about.

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By then I was a fan, and remained one, even as the band's albums ceased to achieve magic every time. I wrote about them (my New York Newsday profile was titled "Grumpy Old Punks," an unflattering but accurate headline I had to hear complaints from Joey about for ages afterward) and got to know Joey as a result. He was a sweet, uncomplicated guy who told you what was on his mind in a humble grumble and a self-deprecating chuckle. He threw himself birthday parties at the Continental and was never too busy to talk. He was punk's Jewish grandmother, a lonely guy who -- despite the acclaim -- never felt appreciated enough.

And who can blame him? The Ramones, though universally acknowledged as the pioneers of punk, known the world over, never sold any records in their homeland, and had to watch as the passage of time handed their glorious invention off to younger bands who proudly pledged their allegiance as they cashed checks bigger than anything Joey would ever enjoy. It must have been a bitter pill to be a superstar with none of the perks.

Well, it's all done now. The band, the scene, the man. What he did, like the man once said, will stand, proudly curled, forever.

(Ira Robbins is the founder of Trouser Press magazine and the author of the Trouser Press record guides.)

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Jim Testa:

The first band I ever interviewed was the Ramones. CBGB, 1976. I was a reporter for the Rutgers Daily Targum and then that interview turned into my first professional byline. CBGB was a dark and scary place to a kid from New Jersey back in those days, but Joey and Johnny were nothing like what I had imagined. They were funny and articulate, and gracious hosts. And they were the most amazing band I've ever seen. It was like getting to chat with Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin in 1776. I got to be there watching history being made. The Ramones didn't just change my life; they changed the world.

(Jim Testa is the editor and publisher of the Jersey Beat fanzine, a columnist for the Jersey Journal and a sometimes freelancer whose work has appeared in everything from Maximumrocknroll to Rolling Stone.)

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Freddie Patterson:

It had to be some time in late 1975 when I first heard of the Ramones. My magazine, Back Door Man, had been in operation for several months and I think I heard about them from an article in Rock Scene magazine and, of course, later in the first New York Rocker, which was issued at the beginning of 1976. When their album was getting ready to come out, I was contacted by Sue Sawyer, a publicist at ABC Records, the label that was distributing Sire Records at the time. I went to her office and she gave me a test pressing of the album.

At the risk of quoting myself like moldy fig Leonard Feather, I hailed the record as "a brave new album heralding the end of the Inna-gadda-da-vidda Age." My first line of the review was: "Anybody who hates this record is an asshole." I don't mean to tout myself as a visionary here; I am merely expressing delight in the fact that I was able to recognize this important step in rock 'n' roll when it was happening.

When the Ramones played their first gigs in California, battle lines were drawn. Fans became close friends. (Sawyer introduced me to [writer and TV host] Art Fein and the three of us drove to the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Calif., to see them and have remained friends through the years.)

The others -- and there were many more of them than us -- became the enemy: lovers of all things Eagles and Peter Frampton and disco.

Were the Ramones the first punk-rock band of the modern era (meaning post-New York Dolls)? Pere Ubu and the Droogs both issued records before them. However, the Ramones were certainly the most significant and the first band to take it to levels never before reached by either the Dolls or Iggy & the Stooges. The Ramones provided the blueprint for nearly every punk-rock band from the time of their debut album to this day, including the Sex Pistols, Nirvana and Green Day.

In Los Angeles, bands that understood the lesson shortened their hair, shortened their songs and played fewer chords faster. The genie was out of the bottle. Bands like X, the Weirdos, the Dils, the Zeros, the Germs, the Go-Go's and Black Flag could now exist, have followings and make records.

A scene formed and the first Ramones album was played at every one of its parties. The only commercial radio station in Los Angeles to play the Ramones was KROQ, but only on Rodney Bingenheimer's Sunday evening show, where the band became the Beatles.

I met Joey Ramone when the Ramones first came to L.A. In 1977, I was lucky enough to see the group play at CBGB -- its home turf. Joey invited me and some friends to his apartment, around the corner from the club, and we called Rodney during his show. That evening L.A. first heard of the Cramps and Lydia Lunch, who were in the room with us.

I saw one of the Ramones' last shows in New York during the mid-'90s. During the early '70s I attended several "rock'n' roll revival" shows ... Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Ballard. I was there for a history lesson, but folks in their 30s and 40s were sayin', "Yeah! This is how it was."

At the Ramones show I stood there, boppin' my head, thinking to myself: This is Chuck Berry to me. This is myJerry Lee Lewis. This is like Hank Ballard. Kids who must have been in diapers when the first Ramones record was released were there for a history lesson. I said, "Yeah! This is how it is."

After he Ramones broke up [in 1995], Joey remained active in a positive sense. He promoted shows featuring bands he liked. He co-produced some of Ronnie Spector's best music in decades. He would spend large amounts of time talking to fans in front of a club. I didn't know him very well, but from what I knew of him, Joey Ramone was a good guy.

Light a candle tonight for Joey Ramone and play "Blitzkrieg Bop" real loud.

(Freddie Patterson published Back Door Man magazine.)

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Cath Carroll:

Eleven years after punk rock changed the course of my life, during my first trip to New York, I found myself feeling culturally disoriented at a loft performance on the Lower West Side. The room teemed with gleaming FOSY (Friends of Sonic Youth). It was loud and I was lost. It was time to seek out my old friend, the wall.

There truly is something about a wall, its hard comfort speaking an international language of belonging to all who lean against it. Ten minutes later, a grinning man with a Texas accent approached me, "Ma'am, could you make room for my friend at the wall?" His companion stood, narrow, stooped and steady, towering over both of us. It was Joey Ramone. I thought, given his celebrity, that he'd want the whole wall to himself. I indicated my willingness to give him my space.

"No, no, that's OK," said the Texan as Joey quietly took up his place against the wall, beside me. The Texan scampered elsewhere and Joey questioningly offered me a drink from his open bottle of beer, a sweetly silent gesture of trade and wall kinship. One of us! What stayed with me for years -- after the initial tourist thrill of "I am drinking Joey Ramone's beer! In New York!" -- was an unexpected sense of his gentle vulnerability.

My tape recorder had already borne witness to many hours of musicians, some of them heroes, sober and otherwise, all chattering away. With all those words, few had affected me and had said as much as Joey Ramone did in that silent encounter in a noisy room. He was what he was. And always will be.

(Cath Carroll is a writer and musician.)

Michael Hill:

When I was researching an article on the Ramones last fall for Mojo, several of Joey's old friends and colleagues referred to his health problems, but most of them sounded optimistic, as if the worst were behind him. In our telephone conversations, Joey himself displayed an infectious, boyish enthusiasm for rock 'n' roll and still seemed somewhat awestruck about how long and far the Ramones' influence had reached. If a life could indeed be saved by rock 'n' roll, then, by the sound of it, Joey should have been with us forever.

"The thing that I find really great these days," he said, "is that the band, it's like a continual hand-me-down, like a staple. As far as I'm concerned, there isn't anything thrilling going on [in pop music today], but there are a lot of bands that definitely have spirit, that are fun, that aren't full of themselves or take themselves too seriously, like Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid. "

Green Day, in fact, had been encoring with the Ramones' "Blitzkreig Bop," and Joey really dug that. In our final phone call, we talked about how U2 had just paid tribute to the group by covering "I Remember You" at a Dec. 5 Irving Plaza show, a few blocks from Joey's apartment. Maybe he could even have heard the echoes of all those people singing along if he'd leaned out his window. Joey reacted to all these homages in his funny, self-deprecating, just-this-side-of-deadpan way: "It's cool. The band's, like, timeless."

I hope that was a comfort to Joey in the end: how much he mattered, how much he still matters, how improbable, amazing, and, ultimately, inspiring his career was -- and will continue to be. He just wanted to have something to do, and somehow he managed to change the world. It all seems so simple now.

"We wanted to be ourselves," he told me. "So that's what we did."

(Michael Hill, a journalist, was managing editor of the New York Rocker and also an A&R man for Warner Bros.)

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Anthony Buccella:

I met Joey Ramone in the bathroom of the Cat Club during a Butthole Surfers show. All I said was hello and he said "hey" in his thick Queens accent. That was all that was said and that was good enough for me.

(Anthony Buccella is a developer for the online version of the Wall Street Journal.)

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David Cassel:

After my senior year in high school I bought "Ramones." Since I was living in a teeny tiny town in the Midwest -- and I bought it at a mall, at a Sam Goody-type store -- it was possibly one of the hippest things I'd ever done. The Ramones were like an id for me in my over-controlled suburban world. The other icon was Wendy O. Williams, who shot herself a few years ago. I guess a lot of punks end up dying young -- but at least Joey kept fighting till the end.

I'd liked how the Ramones appropriated rock 'n' roll for their own punk purposes. When Joey and this gritty, stripped-down New York City band sang "Fun fun, Rockaway Beach," it was strangely subversive. For that reason my favorite Ramones album was always the Phil Spector-produced "End of the Century." (I always thought that would've been a great Y2K song.) Eventually they also did "Acid Eaters" -- with Joey covering songs from the '60s -- and it was amazing how well the covers worked.

I guess I'd say that plundering the roots of rock 'n' roll gave them a primal significance of their own. For me personally, they are synonymous with "punk," so it's hard for me to even imagine the landscape without Joey Ramone. When Napster came along, I downloaded some Ramones classics, and discovered someone had even created a techno-style "Ramones mega-mix."

Everyone's remarking on what a likable guy Joey was in real life. It made punk rebellion seem that much more accessible -- like an alternate community that would always be there. It's hard to really grasp that Joey Ramone isn't there anymore. I like what Mike Watt said on his mailing list:

"Sheena is a punk rocker. So am I. Miss you, Joey."

(David Cassel has written for Salon and Wired News and edits the AOL Watch mailing list.)

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Allison Anders:

I was sent the news about Joey Ramone's passing via e-mail from Thurston Moore and then by Mike Watt, and passed it on to my family and friends. My daughter Tiffany, who's 26 and a musician, wrote to me and her pals, sad about the news. Later in the morning I received back from my e-mail a link to an obit on Joey from Byrds founder Roger McGuinn. This all only begins to show the range through several generations of Joey's impact, both in his music and his passing.

I tried to explain to my son last night who Joey Ramone was and why I was so bummed. He's 11, this kid, and I had to speak to him in now terms and the best I could do was go, "Well, you know how you love Green Day? Well, there wouldn't have been Green Day without the Ramones."

Listening to the songs played on the news reports on TV and on the radio, I was left with this sad sense of longing -- I couldn't dare call it nostalgia: I wish rebellion and defiance came today in such a brilliant, fun, ironic form as it did in the Ramones. Breaking through these feelings, and the memories of hearing the Ramones for the first time on Rodney Bingenheimer's KROQ show, it was 2001 again and my son asked to listen to his "clean version" Eminem CD in the car as I drove him to school.

It only took a few verses of Detroit's own to feel, all the more profoundly, the loss as well as the contributions of Joey Ramone. Those three chords and dumb-smart ironic lyrics Joey and his band made legendary hit me so much more to the core than the endless twists of verbiage-by-the-pound coming out of the CD player at me. My son, I know, really wants me to like Eminem. And I don't wanna be an uncool mom, but ...

"Maybe I'm getting old," I thought. But as the day wore on, it became very clear to me that what was good enough for his sisters is good enough for him. It's time to get that boy a Ramones record.

(Allison Anders is the writer and director of the films "Gas Food Lodging," "Grace of My Heart" and "Sugar Town.")

Mat Honan:

Joey Ramone brought punk rock to London, introducing it to the likes of the Sex Pistols and the Clash . But more importantly to me, he brought it to Montgomery, Ala.

In the mid-'80s, when I was in middle school in Montgomery, a friend turned me onto "Ramones." Like "Dark Side of the Moon" or "Nevermind," "Ramones" is one of those albums that I'll always remember hearing for the first time.

The Ramones were my introduction to punk rock. This wasn't the Zeppelin/Floyd/Tull bloatware that I associated with rock 'n' roll. It was revolution, even if I was late to the party. Through the Ramones I discovered the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, the Minutemen and a host of other bands who seemed to have a lot more to say than any of the pretty-boy hair-metal bands of my era did. The Ramones said more with four roughly strummed chords than any of the guitar-pyrotechnic bands of the '70s and '80s did with a thousand arpeggios.

Through the Ramones I was turned onto the progressive politics of genuine punk rock and the D.I.Y. ethic. As much as I love, say, the Dead Kennedys, they never could have done that for me, as I wasn't ready for something that "out there" as a kid whose only previous exposure to punk was via radio-friendly knockoff music that had been filtered through the safer strains of new wave.

But the Ramones were Punk Rock 101 for me and hundreds of thousands of kids like me in middle America. We weren't able to head down to Max's, the Whiskey or the I-Beam on the weekends. We had no hipster aesthetic to follow. We were just kids alienated from the status-quo who didn't know where to turn for cool.

And that's where Joey Ramone came in. Not only was he a fellow traveler, but he was also accessible to folks like us. Not too weird for a 13-year-old with an attitude problem.

I remember high school, riding in my friend Brian Marshall's car, listening to the Ramones and getting high. "Beat on the Brat" wasn't going to change the world, but in the backwaters of Alabama it was a call to arms. And the thing is, songs like "Beat on the Brat," "Sheena is a Punk Rocker," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "Blitzkreig Bop" and "Rock N' Roll High School" inspired musicians the world over to pick up guitars, writers to pick up pens, and disillusioned youth to cry out, "I'm not going to take your bullshit anymore." And in that sense, Joey's otherwise simple lyrics did change the world. Or at least my world, and maybe yours too.

(Mat Honan is an editor at Macworld.)

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Bob Lee:

Haiku for Joey Ramone:

First rule is: reduce!
Broken down: "1-2-3-4!"
As manifesto

(Bob Lee has played with the Rotters, Mike Watt & The Black Gang, Backbiter and Jon Wahl & The Amadans.)

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Corin Tucker:

The Ramones were a real inspiration to Sleater-Kinney. I think they just represented a kind of a joyfulness, the romantic spirit of punk rock. Their songwriting was simple and beautiful and they really obviously loved music. My favorite song is "Danny Says," the one about being on tour. I just love that song. It kind of romanticized, to me, being in a band -- it made it seem like the coolest thing in the world. I guess it was sort of a lifestyle to look up to.

Joey Ramone was not about a stylized corporate package. He was this truly unique character. His whole being was identified by rock 'n' roll, and it just suited him so well. He in turn gave a huge gift to rock 'n' roll and to punk rock.

He was really the gentleman of punk rock, this really enigmatic sort of male figure. I think men and women could look up to him as a great rock star. [Sleater-Kinney's 1996 song] "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" is about filling the shoes of male rock stars and sort of taking over their power. But we wrote that song about men that we really admire, and Joey Ramone was No. 1.

(Corin Tucker plays in Sleater-Kinney)

Jodi Shapiro:

I didn't know Joey Ramone, but I felt like I did; after all, he was born and bred in New York, just like me.

I was just a kid when the first Ramones record came out, but my cousin Scott wasn't. He played the role of the cooler, older but not-so-wiser brother to me, and it was Scott who introduced me to the Clash, the B-52's, Kraftwerk and the Ramones.

One night, when Scott was supposed to be taking me to see a G-rated movie, we took the downtown 2 train instead of the uptown. When I asked him where we were going, he said "It's a secret; don't tell your mom. It's going to be a hundred times more fun than the movies." I was kinda scared, but really excited. I kept swinging my feet and kicking under the seat in anticipation.

Forty-five minutes and a train change later, Scott was taking me through the doors of the very R-rated CBGB. (There was no PG-13 back then.) We had to stand in the back because it was so crowded (or maybe because I was way underage) and he put me on his shoulders. It was loud, and there were four guys up on stage who dressed just like regular guys from our neighborhood with one exception: They had guitars.

It was all so new. It was exciting. It was like no other music I had heard before, yet it reminded me of the stuff my parents listened to on WCBS-FM, the oldies station.

To use the most clichéd cliché, it changed my life. Nothing would be the same after that. I got more into punk rock. I went to junior high. I am sure my mom knew where Scott took me that night, but she never said anything. Maybe because she's a Ramones fan too.

Joey Ramone was 10 years older than Scott. Scott was 10 years older than me. Both of them are gone now, and I miss them.

(Jodi Shapiro has written about music for Rockpool, Reflex and a bunch of other magazines that don't exist any more.)

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Bob Massey:

In the springtime of 1989, when I thought I was a badass but really I was a college freshman, two of the other misfits on my hall wheedled me into a road trip to catch the Ramones. (I had the car.) I'm like, Fuhgeddaboudit, it's 1989, are those guys still alive? Good Lord. I was all obsessed with Hüsker Dü and the like. You know, the newer, harder stuff. C'mon, when the Ramones coughed out "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker," I was eight. But I went.

There towered Joey. He spat: "ONETWOTHREEFOUR!"

God.

I'd seen some thunderous shows, but I had to admit I was shocked at the purity and muscle that roiled that huge room. None stood still. None stood unmoved. The power was bliss. I repented.

Cut to: 1994. I'd just purchased the final album Hüsker Dü would release, a live document called "The Living End." I guess I was still hanging on to that band, sort of the way my folks' friends faithfully bought every tepid new Bob Dylan record. MTV had done a little spot on it and they asked Joey Ramone what he thought of the Hüskers. His reply, from behind those shades and that hair, went: "Well, I always thought they were ripping off the Ramones."

I was pissed. In a way that any ex-teenager will recognize immediately, Hüsker Dü had sort of saved my life. Just who the hell did this pompous jackass think he was?

Then I saw it: Hüsker Dü, "The Living End," track 24: "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." It closed out the record.

Forgive me. Again.

(Bob Massey writes for the Washington Post, Spin and other publications.)

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Cory Brown:

Jeff Hyman wanted to be a rock and roll star, but the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens was just where rock stars are bred, not groomed. After all, Forest Hills had already yielded Simon & Garfunkel, the Rascals and Leslie West of Mountain. It was a neighborhood of mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants then, many of them already second- or third-generation with shortened last names and rules about speaking English in the house.

Back then, you could almost call it a suburb, with doctor's offices on the ground floor of many apartment buildings. The only evidence of this old neighborhood that still exists today on the stretch of Queens Boulevard that served as its nexus is Ben's Kosher Delicatessen. The rest of the block is now strip joints, tchotchke shops and newsstands that sell bad coffee.

This was not the place to become a rock star. For that, you had to take the subway into the city. Jewish rock stars weren't as uncommon as one might think, but they'd also changed or shortened their names. Everyone knows Dylan was Zimmerman and some know the aforementioned West was a Weinstein. When Jeff Hyman changed his name to Joey Ramone, though, it didn't have the same ring of assimilation. It didn't seem as though he was subscribing to the old rules that Jews couldn't rock publicly as Jews, that only white America rocked.

Then again, you just couldn't know for sure. The Ramones had named themselves after an old Paul McCartney pseudonym, back from the days of the Silver Beatles when he called himself Paul Ramon and wore denim and leather, bombing in small clubs in Germany. Jeff and his friends wanted to recall the era when Paul still rocked and found themselves bombing in small clubs in Manhattan.

Until it clicked. Sire signed them and a million bands were born. Whether you're a fan who considers the punk rock cataclysm to be their first CBGB gig in 1974 or the release of "Ramones" in 1976, odds are you don't consider 1985 to be a significant year for either the Ramones or for punk rock. However, that's my cataclysm.

That year, the Ramones released their single "Bonzo Goes To Bitburg," about then-President Ronald Reagan's disgraceful visit to a Nazi cemetery in Bitburg, Germany. The song is an unrecognized gem, an infectiously catchy vintage Ramones tune from their post-vintage period. Nobody had considered the Ramones anything close to a political band, but Joey stepped up.

Bonzo goes to Bitburg then goes out for a cup of tea
As I watched it on TV somehow it really bothered me

he sang. And:

Shaking hands with your highness
See through you like cellophane
You watch the world complain, but you do it anyway
Who am I, am I to say?

It wasn't a perspective shared by the rest of the band, either. Guitarist Johnny Ramone was a staunch conservative and when the otherwise unremarkable "Animal Boy" album was released shortly after the single, the song was retitled "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down" due to his vehement protests. But for a second, Joey showed the world that he was still Jeff Hyman from Forest Hills, Queens or, perhaps more importantly, that Joey Ramone, punk rock icon, was a Jew.

(Cory Brown owns and operates the Absolutely Kosher Records label out of San Francisco, California.)

Bruce Pavitt:

I was 17 years old, working nights at the record department of Korvette's in suburban Illinois. It was Christmas season, 1976.

After peeling away the cellophane of the newly released "Ramones" album, I dropped the needle and played the entire record, front to back, full volume.

This event initiated what was to be the first in a remarkable series of job lay-offs.

Joey Ramone, R.I.P.

(Bruce Pavitt is a founder of Sub Pop records.)

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Monica Kendrick:

All the damn time, in an allegedly iconoclastic (hah!) field like rock criticism, privately we ask ourselves: Why are our heroes heroes? Why them?

I sat up straight when I came across this passage, about his adolescence, in John Cale's autobiography, "What's Welsh for Zen?":

"I retreated into the luxury of my interior universe, which was filled with music. In my imagination I carved out a niche for myself among the artists, Beat poets and musicians on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where I was convinced that John Cage was at that very moment performing a rendition of his silent 'Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds.' ... As I lay in bed and gyrated to the beat of Elvis cutting loose on 'That's All Right (Mama)' or dug the underground sound of Coltrane talking with his horn, what kept my heart alive was the knowledge that only 3,000 miles away, and five hours later that day, these people were actually doing the very things they were known for. They were alive! And soon I would join them, somehow I knew I would. I knew. I knew. I knew."

Fast forward a few decades, change some names, and substitute his nowhere town in Wales for my nowhere town in the Virginia mountains, and I could have written those exact words. I too had a long-distance love affair with faraway New York City, where Things Are Happening At This Very Moment and I'm Wasting My Life By Not Being There!!!

At 14 or so when the Ramones entered my life I was transitioning from thorough-going metalhead to diehard indie rocker, and although the CBGB scene was in fact nearly a decade past its peak, I knew, I knew, I knew, that someday I would be there, where Patti Smith would look at my poetry and tell me I had potential and I could go see the Ramones play every single night.

The Ramones, man ... They the one band that the odd handful of metalheads, punks and indie guys I knew could all agree on; no matter what your subcultural affiliation, it was impossible not to recognize that the Ramones were simply rock 'n' roll itself, distilled into an essence.

That was obvious to me in my parents' basement, seething with useless, outlet-less, trapped pubescent froth and boho-to-the-bone but stuck-in-the-Bible-Belt piss and vinegar, bouncing off the walls to "I Wanna Be Sedated": "Nuthin' to do/Nowhere to go-oh/I wanna be sedated," which was so right because if you listen to the music, it's not the least bit sedated, and these guys may want to be sedated but they know it ain't gonna happen.

And for me, with nuthin' to do nowhere to go-oh, I guessed I might as well be sedated for another bunch of years 'til I could finally blow that no-horse-town popstand and go ride those subway trains on the "Subterranean Jungle" album cover. Maybe even someday go ride around with the Ramones, who out of all of 'em seemed most like the guys you'd really want to eat pizza, drink beer, and get busted for speeding on the BQE with: real guys, tough but sweet, funny as hell, high energy, troublemakers full of attitude but truly lacking a genuinely mean-spirited bone anywhere in their collective body, guys to make any cynical girl's inner Riff Randall come shamelessly out to play, jumping around in spiked dog collar and bobby sox; the kind of guys your mother really would like down in her heart if she was the kind of mom who still remembered that she too had a bit of a wild side.

That's why those girl-group covers made so much sense and felt so right -- if there was ever a white male Ronnie Spector, it was Joey Ramone, and when a friend landed a boyfriend who looked a lot like him, she was justifiably proud and the rest of us duly envious. "Put me in a wheelchair/Put me on a plane" indeed. A plane to New York. Right now.

I never got to hang out with them, but I did see them play for the first time at 15 in a college auditorium in Radford. It was the show of shows, a full-body immersion in every type of feeling I wanted to have in my life forever. I wanted it to never end, and in some sense it hasn't. Even after they broke up -- final album, farewell tour, the whole bit -- people rarely referred to the Ramones in the past tense: they were not just a band, they were a force, an energy, an archetype that cannot cease to exist in the collective unconscious, even if the historical figure it's based upon might in the mundane world.

Nowadays I'm happy to be part of the music scene of Chicago, but I've never stopped loving New York from afar, nor has that terrible feeling of Things Are Happening There And I'm Stuck Here ever gone away completely. Right now, for example, I'm not really at my desk in Chicago: I'm in front of CBGB, crying and kneeling in front of one of the street memorials that spring up to acknowledge a community heartbreak; I'm leaving flowers and a hand-lettered sign with hearts and skulls on it that says "Goodbye Joey I Will Never Forget You." I'm 14 years old.

(Monica Kendrick writes for the Chicago Reader.)


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