Scraps of Joey

A new posthumous solo album is a revealing glimpse at Joey Ramone's optimistic final days

Seemingly on the lighter side, "Mr. Punchy," with its "Happy Jack" childishness and huge guitar, is a tribute not only to the Who but to Joey's ability to spot the silver lining in the pall of pharmaceutical side effects. Says Lesher: "He used to say that all the medication that he had to take just got him punchy."

If Dee Dee was the Ramones' nihilist, Joey was the romantic, and "Maria Bartiromo" is his love song to CNBC's business anchor/diva, who helped make therapeutic his Wall Street dabbling. I watch her at the big board every single day, goes the lyric. Those eyes make everything OK. Joey e-mailed the words to Bartiromo while he was working on the song. "I was flabbergasted," says the anchor, herself a Brooklynite with the Ramones in her blood.

Although it's safe to say that Louis Armstrong was no major influence on the Ramones' sound, the version of "What a Wonderful World" that opens Don't Worry About Me says more about its singer than anything else on the album. In the context of terminal illness, its sweet observations absolutely radiate: "I see babies cry, I watch them grow/They'll learn much more than I'll ever know." As on the rest of the album, Joey's sharp, lilting voice -- the instrument that defined his old band but was often held back by production-skimping resident skinflint Johnny Ramone -- has never been better. Over a supercharged monument to the classic ballad, he soars beyond his frequent comparison to Ronnie Spector. If a sound made by a human can describe a ray of sunlight at dawn, this is it.

Joey Ramone
Joey Ramone

For a while, against the odds, things were in fact looking bright. After his diagnosis, Joey had struggled through symptoms and side effects to stay upbeat, throwing rock & roll bashes around town, eating out often and well, frolicking with Lesher, bonding with Leigh. In late 2000, a commitment to health food and exercise seemed to have reaped something of an upswing. But close to Christmas, a week after recording his final note in Rey's home studio, he slipped on some ice and broke a hip. The accident landed him in New York Hospital and complicated his treatment.

"I think his system kind of broke down after that," says Lesher, "and all sorts of other horrible things started to happen."

Says Leigh, "Me and my mom, neither one of us could eat or sleep. We were thinking of him lying there, and we were kinda withering away with him. I still feel the rawness of all that pain he was suffering." They sat with him, spoke to him and played music for him, until the heart of one of rock's most pivotal bands since the 1960s stopped around 2 p.m. April 15, 2001, after nearly 50 years.

"Everybody has been influenced in the past 25 years by the Ramones," says Shernoff. "You can't not have been influenced -- it's like saying, 'I wasn't influenced by the Beatles,' you know? You're lying. Or you're ignorant."

But Jeff Hyman left more than a musical legacy. Like all great artists, he had used a highly sophisticated filing system. "He remembered where everything was, and his place was a mess," says Lesher. Since his death, she and Leigh have braved a blizzard of audiotape, videos and inscribed odds and ends. "Like a receipt from a pizza delivery we were about to throw away, and you look at the back and there's song lyrics written on it," says Leigh, who is organizing the salvage into an upcoming book, Surviving Joey Ramone.

Among these obscurely placed records of her son's spirit, according to Lesher, are fragments of "his story of himself when he was young, his experiences growing up."

I was a loner and proud, reads one of the scraps. Rock and roll was my salvation.

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