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By: Sarah L. Myers

It’s rarely disputed that the definitive image of the Ramones is Roberta Bayley’s 1974 cover photo for their debut album, four figures black and white against a brick wall around the corner from CBGB. Joey’s hunching over to match his height with the others; Johnny is defiant, hands in pockets; Tommy’s unassuming, boosted by the curb behind him; Dee Dee is fragile, but only under the thickest layer of his switchblade persona.

This image seems to be the only thing that remains unchanged over the years, representing an ideal lost through lineup changes and inner betrayal and forever lost with the death of Joey Ramone in 2001. What they lost the world gained and suddenly the Ramones are everywhere, their logo stamped on nearly anything vying for credibility or a shelf at Urban Outfitters. When Dee Dee’s heroin took him in 2002, and Johnny lost his life to prostate cancer two years later, the wave of belated praise only grew stronger.

Ramones 1976
Ramones 1976 (click to enlarge)

My image of the Ramones is a little different. Always partial to the stark blue and white cover of 1984’s Too Tough to Die, I recognized the significance not only in its title but in what it held inside. Dee Dee’s songwriting had graduated to a new level of street sophistication in songs like “Howling at the Moon” and “Planet Earth 1988.” He also gave us the signature tale of his unraveling mental state, “Wart Hog.” Within three albums Dee Dee would exit the group and become Dee Dee King, the white rapper born from inside rehab. Marky was hanging out to dry somewhere, his place on the cover taken by the nearly anonymous Richie. These were my Ramones- complicated, dramatic, bruised, yet resilient.

There had to be a place for them somewhere. There had to be someone who looked up at those bowl haircuts and black leather jackets and saw the matching gray suits of the Beatles. It was Joey I loved the most. Joey was my Paul McCartney. I daydreamed about walking through the winter wonderlands he sang about in “My My Kind of Girl”. He was so sweet and positive. When Johnny knew they had no chance at mainstream success, Joey kept believing, driven by an optimistic heart. This nature was characteristic of the gentle spirit who wrote the lyrics “I met her at the Burger King/ we fell in love by the soda machine.”

Already in existence seven years before I was born, and active another eleven before I discovered them, the Ramones didn’t have much time left to affect me. Desperate to catch them before retirement, I lied to my mother and crossed state lines to witness their opening set for White Zombie in late 1995. I was only 14 years old, but held my spot firmly amongst the slam dancing skinheads in the second row. Only a few feet away from Johnny’s famous pose, I lost my voice screaming the words and mentally recorded everything I was seeing, knowing it was part of a history running on its last legs. Every song was my song. True to form, they ended the set with “Pinhead.” I was lost, my voice gone and legs buckling.

I kept my eyes on Joey after their set, and followed him when he approached a barrier to greet a few fans. It was only for a moment, but during our quick hug I looked behind his rose-colored lenses and saw his eyes. His hands were freezing and he towered over me like a rock star praying mantis. Everything suddenly seemed too little, too late. The Ramones officially retired eight months later. Joey hosted parties and performed in his beloved East Village. I went to Journalism school and moved to downtown Chicago, keeping the Ramones as close as I always had, dreaming one day I would interview my hero.

Joey Ramone - Photo by Arturo Vega
Joey Ramone - Photo credit: Arturo Vega (click to enlarge)

I was a sophomore in college when I read the news about Joey’s passing. Easter weekend, New York City. It was raining the day I found out. Suddenly I was 14 years old again, holding Joey’s hand and walking through the snow, blinded by the white as well as by puppy love. I immediately missed him, though I had spoken just three words to him - “you rock, Joey!” I was crushed. Not long after I felt it again. Researching a story while interning at the local paper, I read on the newswire that Dee Dee had died, as well. The Ramones were my life. I felt cheated. They were nothing if not survivors - too tough to die.

Two years later I lost the other man in my life, then spent the following two years battling the same illness that took Joey. Through it all I had the Ramones. It’s a dramatic statement that music keeps people alive, but in my case I know it’s true. I made it through knowing one day I would have that magazine I always wanted - and I would interview my heroes, all in the name of my best friend, all because I was “thirsty” for life. In spring 2007 I headed to New York for two things - the opening day at Coney Island (“round the coast and around again”) , and to interview Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh. He had invited me to spend an evening in Joey’s old apartment on East 9th street.

It still looked as it did in all of those interviews - Joey propped up on the red coach with a hole in his sock, talking about CJ joining the band; Joey against the window on the cover of his solo album; Joey next to his framed posters of The Who, The Stones, and The Doors. Evidence of his sense of humor was everywhere. A cookie jar on the desk looked like a shark and played the “Jaws” theme when opened. His tapes and CDs were more organized, and filled drawers under the TV, which was playing a baseball game. Mickey and I had a wonderful conversation that night, and I spent about an hour going through old photographs of Joey. Personal touches from his life were all around me. It was one of the greatest nights of my life.

In that apartment, I thought of my final images of the Ramones as a unit from the documentary, End of the Century. Rather than show up drunk and sing along to the screen, as so many patrons did, I chose to listen and observe intently. While his musings drew inevitable laughter, Dee Dee seemed haunted by the demons he kept behind the gate of his many defense mechanisms. As telling a final shot as any, the film’s final frame has a door shutting in his face, his broken and exhausted voice sighing, “Poor Dee Dee.” He died two months later in Hollywood.

With their influence spreading from t-shirts to books, from cover albums to The Simpsons, it’s no longer a question of how great they were and what they gave us, but who will be next in truly employing that punk rock mission of making something out of nothing. Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee could have only been the Ramones. What else could the future have held for four self-described creeps from Forest Hills?

What we’re left with now are moments and memories- Joey’s forced Cockney accent on the painfully early demo of “I Don’t Care,” or Dee Dee shouting his “1-2-3-4” with the zeal of a Bay City Roller trapped in a punk’s frame. My favorite Ramones moment will always be when Johnny’s Mosrite comes through in the first verse of “Danny Says.” Never has Joey’s voice sounded so affecting. Out of place in the sunshine jungle of Los Angeles, he longs for New York, snowy Christmases and a girl he would soon lose to his guitar player. This was Joey’s favorite Ramones song as well, and is the best example of his talent, bolstered by Phil Spector’s layered and shimmering production.

Up until now I’d always said the Ramones were my band. I’ll never let them go but I am finally ready to share them. This one’s for you, Joey.





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