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By: Sarah L. Myers
Photos: John Nikolai

Another sold-out crowd celebrated what would have been Joey Ramone’s 57th birthday, as the annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash continued for its eighth year at New York’s Irving Plaza. Ramones fans from all over the world, as well as those from Joey’s native Queens, packed the venue and sang along with video of classic performances like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Rockaway Beach”. It was just a warm-up for an evening that still promised Mary Weiss - Joey’s idol and original member of the Shangri-La’s - a Dictators reunion, and an touching set from Joey’s brother, Mickey Leigh.

Semi Precious Weapons
Photo: John Nikolai (click to enlarge)

New York punks Charm School gave the night a kick start with their short, blistering set. Their cover of “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do” had the entire crowd chanting along, throwing their fists up to the “Wait! Now!” chorus in unity. L.E.S Stitches, another favorite on the scene, brought no frills - their straightforward 1970s-style punk recalls the Ramones during their “Rocket to Russia” period. Local H launched into yet another Ramones cover as singer Scott Lucas comically introduced “I Just Wanna Have Something to Do”: “Charm School beat us to it but we’re gonna do it our way!”

Glam rockers Semi-Precious Weapons got a huge response, with lead singer Justin Tranter channeling Ziggy Stardust with his platform boots and a chubby fur coat. Tranter prowled the stage, both cheetah and Iggy-like, snarling and spitting at the crowd while striking pose after gorgeous pose. SPW’s single, “Magnetic Baby”, was a blast, and with a chorus of “it’s not my fault that I look better in her party dress!”, the guys definitely played the part. Another set of Ramones covers came from Joey’s close friends, The Independents. Joey managed the band in New York, and was constantly promoting them through his “Joey Ramone Presents” concerts in the city.

Richard Lloyd
Photo: John Nikolai (click to enlarge)

As part of Television, guitarist Richard Lloyd was responsible for ushering in a cerebral blend of art and punk rock. Television were one of the first bands to play CBGBs, and pre-dated most recognized punk bands by a couple of years. Having shared bills with Patti Smith, and coming up at the time of Suicide, Television influenced the Talking Heads, Blondie, and Dee Dee Ramone, who recalled seeing Tom Verlaine sing “Venus de Milo” to a sparse crowd when CBGBs first opened. The crowd was much, much larger but the sense of intimacy translated with Lloyd’s new band, Smufty Dogs.

Fans were also treated to footage of Joey giving interviews and rare live performances. Lines formed in the halls for merchandise and raffles, and to sign a huge poster of Joey, courtesy of Hurley, which is debuting its Joey Ramone surf collection this summer. A rotating cutout of Joey, in board shorts holding a surfboard, circled close by.

After much anticipation, former MTV VJ and the evening’s MC, Matt Pinfield introduced Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom, whose set concluded with a rapturous version of “Search and Destroy”. This was the reunion everyone had waited for: JP Thunderbolt, Ross The Boss, Andy Shernoff (quite possibly the tallest punk rocker next to Joey himself), and original loudmouth front man Handsome Dick Manitoba. This lineup brought the Dictators together with the trashy class of their 1975 debut, “Dictators Go Girl Crazy”. With its fast cars, cold beer, and hot girls glory, and a specific photo of the guys in black leather jackets at a White Castle, that album sparked the fires in John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil, who started PUNK magazine shortly thereafter.

Mickey Leigh
Photo: John Nikolai (click to enlarge)

Finally, in one of the most elegant, poised moments of the night, Mary Weiss performed the classic “Out in the Streets”. Weiss’s voice echoed off the walls and filled the venue, the crowd singing along. Trash and Vaudeville’s Jimmy Webb danced in the balcony, and a soft glow rose from the cell phones thrust in the air. Few songs have had more of an impact - “Down in the Streets” is the punk rock “My Way”, having been covered by everyone from Debbie Harry to the New York Dolls. Without the Shangri-La’s, the Ramones might never have existed, and Joey wouldn’t have written his own version of “Leader of the Pack” with “7-11” (“Oncoming car ran out of control, it crushed my baby and it crushed my soul.”) Not until Mickey took the stage was Joey’s presence more felt.

Leigh continued this Birthday bash tradition shortly after his brother passed away from lymphoma in April 2001. Joey’s family had a huge celebration planned for his 49th birthday, and decided to go ahead with the plan on May 19. It’s gone on every year since then, moving from clubs like Coney Island High and The Continental to the grandiose Fillmore at Irving Plaza. It’s a fitting destination given Joey’s love for the legendary San Francisco venue. When directing the Ramones in “Rock n’ Roll High School”, Alan Arkush even shows up in a scene wearing a Fillmore East t-shirt.

Taking the stage with close friends of the Ramones family, Mickey performed a heartfelt version of “I Want You Around” with even more affection than the original. This is how we loved seeing Joey - soft spoken, sensitive, and gentle. Mickey’s version was just the same, and a perfect tribute to his brother. A dedication was also made to Joey and Mickey’s mother, Charlotte Lescher. Charlotte encouraged both of her boys in their careers and never stopped championing their achievements. Along with Mickey, she helped organize each Birthday Bash after Joey’s passing. Charlotte passed away in January 2007 at the age of 80.

Every classic was there: “Something to Believe In” (performed with Ramones producer and former Plasmatic Jean Beauvoir), “Cretin Hop”, and “Rock n’ Roll High School”. But it was “What a Wonderful World” that has undoubtedly become the Birthday Bash theme song. Mickey reached into the crowd, grabbing hands in the audience and kneeling to sing to them while saluting his brother: “And I say to myself, thank you, Joey!”

On what would otherwise be a somber day, the Birthday Bash brought everyone together for one reason. Having taken such a loss and transforming it into a night of celebration is just what Joey’s family wanted. It’s been seven years without him, but it’s been seven years of friends and family celebrating a truly extraordinary life. There was a spirit in the house that night, as there will be next year and every year after. Happy birthday, Joey.

"Growing up and hanging out on the same streets as Joey, I feel a real connection with his spirit and where he was coming from. I bring a little bit of Joey with me to every show. I guess it’s a New York thing."

-Joey Lanz, The Bullys
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More photos by John Nikolai
(click to enlarge)