Ahead of the Pack
Joey Ramone keeps the rock alive
By Sara Bir
The casual Ramone fan tends to view the band as one Ramones-y mass, a monster with four identical sulking heads. Even though they shared the same assumed last name, the same torn-up blue jeans, the same black leather jackets, and haircuts that were not the same but equally awful, the Ramones, like the Beatles, had distinct and individual personalities grouped together under a collective mission and aesthetic. Joey was infamously left-wing; guitarist Johnny was infamously right-wing; bassist Dee Dee was infamously insane. What they shared was a dynamic scrappiness, the stuff of true punk.
It is Joey's extraterrestrial praying-mantis physique and nasal Queens accent that most people latch on to and identify with the hoodlum image. Lyrically and musically, though, Joey was always the most sentimental Ramone. He adored boppy pop music and three-minute teenage love symphonies as much as the gritty rock and roll and metal that worked its way onto Ramones albums. Joey-penned songs became increasingly upbeat and radio-slick: "She's a Sensation," off 1981's super-bubblegummy Pleasant Dreams, can easily hold its own against a bona fide Jeff Barry/Ellie Greenwich-penned oldie.
With Don't Worry about Me, Joey's long-awaited posthumous solo album, this love of classic pop rock shapes almost all of the 11 tracks. Not a carbon copy of a Ramones record, it sounds like a record the Ramones would put out if all of them were Joey. Spirited, accessible, catchy, and ultimately uplifting, it glows with the indomitable drive and surly positivity that was Joey Ramone. From the rock and roll-injected cover of "What a Wonderful World" the album rolls right into the best track, "Stop Thinking about It." Punctuated with Phil Spectoresque piano jolts and Joey's inimitable oh yeahs in spades, this is the song that should be the elusive big hit Joey always yearned for.
Proving it is possible to create a chorus that simply repeats a CNBC news anchor's name, "Maria Bartiromo" finds Joey giving us his most offbeat--and dangerous--love song; one listen and you are destined to spend the rest of the day bellowing "Maria Bartiromo! Maria Bartiromo!" to the ponderous glares of random passers-by.
"I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)" sees Joey, discouraged but determined, facing the lymphoma that recently took him from us: "Sitting in a hospital bed / I want my life / It really sucks." Classic Ramones tradition saw the boys battling all that is crummy--typically, a soggy hamburger or late '70s radio or Tipper Gore--only this time, in a sadly ironic twist, it is Joey's own painful terminal illness.
My own favorite Ramone has always been the enigmatic Dee Dee, whose lyrics had a dark, brooding depth; even so, I would not buy any of his solo albums--Dee Dee is scary to the core. Scary on the outside but cradling a heart of gold inside, Joey was the proletarian Ramone, always happy to bask in his hard-earned fame, devoting himself to making sure the world would not have to brave the 21st century without honest rock and roll.
Happily, Don't Worry about Me contains only good songs and several excellent ones; Joey has skirted the dreaded "Oh, the Ramones are broken up and Joey's dead, which is too bad, but his solo album really stinks." Vibrant with positive energy, handclaps, sing-along choruses, and hummable singles, the bittersweet release of Joey's solo album is good enough to be the swan song for pop music's definitive ugly duckling.
From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.