Joey Ramone, Who Died 20 Years Ago Today, Is Remembered as a Mensch and Punk’s Eternal Godfather

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A.D. Amorosi
·5 min read
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Even without today’s well-timed announcement that Pete Davidson would be playing Joey Ramone in an upcoming biopic, the 20th anniversary of his death would not have gone unnoted. April 15 stands out as Tax Day to many (even though in 2021, that doomy occasion won’t occur until May), but for some, it looms even larger as as the day the punk-rock flag flies at half-mast. The leather jacket-donning Ramone, with his humorously bleak lyrical outlook, exaggerated mop-top, lean frame and gnarly vocals remains undiminished as an icon by the passing years — now, as then, the very definition of a punk rock godfather.

Marky Ramone, the last remaining Ramone who has continue to carry on the faux family name, tells Variety, “Joey was a mensch. I miss him now more than ever. Blast the Ramones today in his honor.”

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“Joey Ramone was a beautiful cat,” said Steven Van Zandt in an email. “Pure rock ‘n’ roll, like most of us freaks who seek greatness by being incapable of doing anything else. The Ramones were one the important bridges of the ‘70s connecting the past with the future and will forever be an essential chapter in the history of rock.”

In 2001, the Ramones’ singer and frontman died in New York City after a seven-year battle with lymphoma. Joey was 49 when he passed, and was — according to both the Dictators’ Andy Shernoff and Bono — listening to U2’s “In a Little While” in his New York-Presbyterian Hospital bed when he died.

Born Jeffrey Ross Hyman in Queens, NY, he arose first as the singer of glam-punk avatars Sniper in 1972, then became the face of the Ramones from 1974 until their disbandment in 1996. Although he spent his professional life espousing the thrills of sniffing glue and spouting comically nihilistic barbs, having him actually die left the punk-rock community bereft.

Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy – the original Ramones, all deceased – never achieved million-seller status for any of their 14 albums or individual solo projects. (The group’s single “I Wanna Be Sedated” was finally certified platinum 40 years after its release, in 2018.) But like the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls before them, the Ramones’ musical and pop cultural reach extended far beyond the five boroughs, with Joey’s snarling vocals and gangly, leather jacketed image turning him into a 20th century countercultural icon.

And while commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Joey Ramone’s passing has gone without the sort of note commandeered by other legacy artists or members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, there have been new reminiscences and fresh news.

Today’s announcement is that “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson is signed to play Joey Ramone in the Netflix biopic “I Slept With Joey Ramone,” based on Mickey Leigh’s book of the same name. Variety reported earlier today that “I Slept With Joey Ramone” comes with the blessing from Joey Ramone’s estate, and that Leigh will serve as an executive producer on the film.

In further commemoration, the New York Post ran a handsome list of the “punk treasures inside Joey Ramone’s East Village apartment” — maintained by his brother, musician Mickey Leigh — which includes Joey’s report card from Forest Hills HS in Queens and Joey’s passport, sans his famed sunglasses. Leigh is also responsible for the annual anniversary celebrations of Joey Ramone’s birth, the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash, a live band-filled event that has its 20th iteration on May 20 with proceeds going to the Joey Ramone Foundation for Lymphoma Research.

Rhino Records, which holds the note on all Ramones reissues, publicized the release of the band’s “Triple J Live at the Wireless Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Australia, July 8, 1980” album in a limited edition of 13,000 copies for the July 17 Record Store Day Drop.

As part of his outreach to his contemporaries, Little Steven Van Zandt hosted Ramone in 1985 as part of the music industry activist group Artists United Against Apartheid, which campaigned against the Sun City resort in South Africa. Along with Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Keith Richards, Joey Ramone pledged alliance and allegiance by way of the song “Sun City.” The Ramones and Joey Ramone’s solo work, including his albums “Don’t Worry About Me” (2002) and “ …Ya Know?” (2012), have also been a part of Van Zandt’s “Underground Garage” radio shows on SiriusXM.

Podcast host and producer Alan Cross (“The Ongoing History of New Music,” “The Secret History of Rock”) posted a lengthy item on the days leading up to Joey Ramone’s passing, and the conversations they had, at his Journal of Musical Things website.

Andy Paley, a songwriter, producer and one-time Paley Brother, worked with Sire Records labelmates the Ramones when they were in Los Angeles filming the “Rock & Roll High School” movie and soundtrack, and calls Joey “a good friend, and a great guy. … Joey and I used to talk about pop — listening to pop, making pop — all the time. That’s what he wanted to achieve, making hits in the pop realm. They might not have achieved that fame when they were alive, but the Ramones and Joey in particular are way more popular now than they ever were.”

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