Many extraordinary things happened in the wake of Joey Ramone’s death from lymphoma on Easter Sunday. The lead singer of a band that never had a gold record (a band I managed from 1975 to 1980) got the lead obituary in the New York Times. Vin Scelsa described the outpouring of grief as the most massive for a musician since John Lennon died in 1980. Even the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser wrote a column approving of him.
Like Peyser, Joey came from Queens and found a warm welcome in the cruel and fickle New York That Matters. When the Ramones got off the subway in the East Village, they belonged, at last. Queens, for its part, was happy to see them go.
The Ramones were Not Forest Hills, as surely as the Kennedys were Not Beacon Hill and the Hollywood moguls were Not Pasadena. And as much as Tommy, Dee Dee, and Johnny Ramone didn’t fit into that world, Joey was even more of an outcast. He reached his full six-foot-six-inch height at 14, shared none of the local ambitions, and wore Carnaby Street-style velvets – and was picked on, bullied, and scorned. So he reinvented himself and never looked homeward (except for song inspiration). Back there, they studied for the SATs and got cars for their 18th birthdays. The Ramones skipped school and took the subway.
Were they a joke? Was Little Richard a joke? Is Eminem? You don’t get it – stay home. Still, Joey lived to see most of his rock-’n’-roll dreams come true, except for that elusive hit record. (Although the band sold enough tickets in twenty years of touring to retire as millionaires.) Shrewdly, sarcastically, and succinctly, the Ramones lit fires all over the world. While bands that outsold them will be lucky to end up as footnotes, the Ramones are on the shortlist of twentieth-century innovators.
Joey had been battling lymphoma for years but kept his struggle private. “What I hate is they keep saying it’s leukemia,” he told friends. “Can’t they get it right?” Would he set them straight?
“Some guy from Spin is coming to interview me,” he told friends. “He’ll have to ask ‘How are you?’ because I’m in a hospital, y’know? I think I’ll answer, ‘Oh, fine, a little cancer here and there, but okay, y’know?’”