Pal Joey

Posthumous solo debut shines a light on Joey Ramone's defiantly upbeat final days

Seemingly on the lighter side, "Mr. Punchy," with its "Happy Jack" childishness and huge guitar, is not only a tribute to the Who, but also 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 eternal romantic, and "Maria Bartiromo" is his love song to CNBC's business anchor/diva, who helped make his Wall Street dabbling feel therapeutic. "I watch you on the TV every single day," goes the lyric. "Those eyes make everything okay." 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.

Just as "Maria Bartiromo" good-naturedly spills business culture's false cachet of sophistication to reveal the trash culture beneath, "Searching for Something" celebrates the simple wonder of spiritualism, stripped of mystical pomp. It's about a meditation retreat he took upstate, "for some spiritual comforting." The glimmering pop-folk arrangement and clever, bubble-gummy exaltation of a guru ("My-my-my-my-my baby, everybody wants you") scream out the Kinks, a band without whom there could have been no Joey Ramone.

Joey Ramone: The former Jeffrey Hyman faced down his illness with humor and optimism.
Joey Ramone: The former Jeffrey Hyman faced down his illness with humor and optimism.

And while 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 smooth, narrow 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 comparisons to Ronnie Spector. If a sound made by a human can describe a ray of sunlight at dawn, this is it.

For a while, against the odds, things had in fact been looking bright. After his diagnosis, Joey had struggled through symptoms and side effects to stay upbeat, throwing rock 'n' roll bashes around town, eating out often and well, frolicking with Lesher, bonding with Leigh. Now, late in 2000, a commitment to health food and exercise seemed to be reap 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 laying 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 American rock's most pivotal band since the 1950s 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 Jeffrey Hyman left more than a musical legacy. Like all great artists, he had employed 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 audio tape, 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 incorporating the salvage into an upcoming book, Surviving Joey Ramone.

According to Lesher, among these obscurely placed, recorded bits of her son's spirit are fragments that reveal "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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