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PHOTOS by Holmstrom
Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone's little brother, organized a touching, emotionally-charged, All-Star tribute to his big bro on April 30th at CBGBs. He wanted it to be, as he put it, "from the heart and to the point." It opened at 8:00 p.m. with a bagpipe performance of "Amazing Grace": a touch of class.
Then emcee Handsome Dick Manitoba spoke for awhile about his memories of Joey that began when he saw this weird-looking tall guy who went to all of the Dictators shows in 1974. Dick found out later this mysterious stranger was named "Joey Superstar" and related how he later became his close friend. "The Ramones and Dictators played all over the country together!" (Not often enough if you ask me!) Manitoba also made some funny, self-effacing comments about how Joey always had an AMAZING head of hair... Of course, so did Manitoba, back in the day!
Then Richie Stotts, the Plasmatics lead guitar player and a very close personal friend of J.R.'s, took the stage and remembered Joey's gift to him after Richie bought a cool pickup truck: air horns. Not just ordinary air horns, though, these were the air horns of Armageddon. And then Richie added more memories - personal stories that revealed what a great guy Joey was to have as a true friend. Richie was pretty broken up about sharing these memories. Like so many of us, he's gonna miss the guy.
Monte Melnick then read some Ramones lyrics that meant a lot to him - including some that mentioned him by name. (Monte was a very close friend of Joey's even though, as their road manager, he had to be the guy to kick their ass once in a while. He'd have to tell them to get in the van or else they'd miss the gig, fer cryin' out loud! And he drove the van to the venue most of the time. But if you know anything about life on the road with a rock 'n' roll band, you know how close friendships like the one between Joey and Monte can be: "We're A Happy Family.")
Danny Fields, the Ramones first manager, (and also The Stooges first manager), was next. He gave a long talk, reading from many of the emails and letters he'd received recently. It was downright depressing. But this is the reality - there are so many of us who miss him. Danny's delivery was eloquent in that way.
Yours truly followed Danny, and I tried to lighten the mood by talking about a newspaper story about memorial I'd just read, erected by upstate New York Ramones' fan Ken McHale, as well as the Mutant Monster Beach Party story.
I stepped off the stage and ran into Joan Jett(!). Weird! I introduced myself then suddenly she and Kenny Laguna, the record producer, walked up to the stage. Kenny talked about his early experiences seeing the Ramones, and how great they were. Then Joan talked about touring with the Ramones back in the 1970s ("Sometimes they hated us, sometimes they hated the Ramones, sometimes they loved both of us"), and describing how cool/weird Joey looked onstage. She tried to imitate that unique way he stood onstage. Unlike most of us, Joan and Kenny spoke without any prepared notes, and Joan, even though she said she wasn't good at off-the-cuff-remarks, really captured the essence of Joey and what he meant to her in the way only another rock 'n' roller could do.
Joey's barber came on next, and described what it was like to cut Joey's hair (something I think every Ramones fan was always curious about). Then there was a short music break. Mickey Leigh filled in for Joey while Danny Rey and Andy Shernoff, who play on Joey's upcoming CD, performed "Questioningly," which is Joey's mother's favorite Ramones song. (Charlotte was in the audience that night, just as she was for so many of Joey and Mickey's live performances.)
Debbie Harry and Craig Leon, who produced the Ramones' first LP and worked with Blondie on several records, were up next. Debbie told a funny story about the time she was driving upstate, thinking about Joey, and suddenly saw him waving at her from the car next to her. Then she got personal and related how she felt like Joey was one of the first people in the New York scene who she felt became a true friend. Debbie seems particularly sad about Joey's passing. Even though I knew both of them at the same time, I never realized before that there were such deep feelings between them. Craig remembered the time he first saw the Ramones live at CBGBs and tried to get Sire Records to sign them immediately. Craig did a great job on that first Ramones LP and without him, there might never have been RamonesMania. He kept their sound raw, violent and primitive, and avoided sweetening it the way it was for all their later records from Leave Home on. It was just like we all heard them at CBGBs when they first blew our heads off.
Roberta Bayley spoke next, and related a story about the time that she brought her underage nephew to a club. After lots of back and forth with the management, and her promises to keep her young nephew away from alcohol, she brought him in to meet Joey. And the first thing he said to the kid was, "Want a beer?" Well, eventually everything was made okay when Joey smuggled one into the Men's Room so Roberta's nephew could be Grownup for a Day.
Legs McNeil was next to take the stage, and decided to throw away his notes and pay tribute to Joey's close friends and family - his brother Mickey, his mother Charlotte, his good friends Arturo Vega and Danny Rey - who were there until the end. They were the close circle of friends who saw Joey through his painful ordeal (lymphoma cancer, complicated by a hip operation in early 2001 after Joey fell down in the winter ice and had difficulty coming back from the operation because his immune system was weakened from years of chemotherapy). And they were in the room when Joey finally passed away on April 15, after listening to a U2 song...
George Tabb took over next, but he was kind of drunk, but he did manage to mention in a clear voice that listening to the Ramones helped get him through high school. And college. And that once upon a time, being a Ramones fan meant you were part of a special community, but this sense of community is somewhat lost. He tried to capture the spirit of punk rock as he spoke, but managed to offend half the people in the audience (as usual). But George was trying to capture the sense of outrage that early punk rock created. And it worked. So thanks, George.
Kitty Kowalski of The Kowalskis read an email she wrote to Joey while he was ill, one she wanted him to read when he got better. But - like so many of us - she was unable to get to see Joey in those last few months because he was so ill. It's always tough when you're unable to say a final goodbye to someone who's been a good friend and who's meant so much to you for a long time. Kitty's words really hit home.
Next up was the Odd Couple: Judith Kuriansky, who used to host a sex advice radio show, and Bobby Steele, one of the original Misfits. Dr. Kuriansky told a story about the time she asked Joey to tell her his favorite sexual fantasy, and how all he could say was "Sexual fantasy... Sexual fantasy... " over and over for the rest of the night. She never did find out. Bobby remembered just what a cool guy Joey was to know, and how much he'll miss him. And then told the most astonishing story of the night: Bobby brought Joey to meet two young fans of his. The first kid asked Joey to autograph his Ramones record cover, and Joey obliged. Then the next kid, a bit of a mercenary, pulled out a big pad of paper and asked Joey to sign every page. Joey obliged.
He started signing every single piece of paper the kid brought with him. One after another after another. After Joey signed around 500 of them, Bobby finally talked him out of signing any more. But, as Bobby said, that was Joey. "He couldn't say 'No' to anyone."
Next up was deerfrance (the first-ever PUNK magazine receptionist, backup singer for John Cale, singer for Floor Kiss and doorperson at CBGBs. She tried to remind us that Joey was a guy who would not be morose and depressed about death. She remembered a time she ran into Roberta Bayley the day Elvis Presley died and how the two of them then ran into Joey and marked the sad occasion by buying some cow brains and spreading them around CBGBs.
Afterwards, Roberta could not remember the incident, and insisted she was somewhere else on that day. I suggested to deerfrance that the real "brains incident" took place after a photo shoot Joey, Roberta and I did for Rocket to Russia (for "Teenage Lobotomy"). In fact, I almost based my little speech on it but thought it might offend some people in the audience if I recreated the incident (as originally planned), and spread cow brains all over CBGBs. But deerfrance insisted it all happened exactly as she remembered. Well, who can prove her wrong? Joey obviously had a thing for brains.
Whatever. The point deerfrance was trying to make is that, as much as we miss Joey, he would not want his friends sitting around feeling sorry for themselves because he died. He'd want us to celebrate his life. And make some jokes. And have some fun!
After deerfrance, many more people took the stage to pay tribute to Joey: James Rizzi, one of Joey's favorite artists, Andrea from The Freaks, Robin Rothman (a very close friend of Joey's back in the day), Noel from the Continental, and many others.
But the point had been made: Yes, Joey was special because he was part of the Ramones - the coolest rock band of all time. Yes, the Ramones were cool, and changed our lives. But the thing about Joey was, even beyond that, he was one of the coolest guys we ever met. He was special. One of a kind. Someone you never, ever forgot after you met him. Someone who made the Ramones that much more special. And this is what has made his passing so difficult for many for us to accept.
After the speakers finished, some tapes of Ramones music played and a few bands performed. Joey's hand-picked band for his upcoming CD release (stay tuned for details) played some more songs, with Mickey Leigh sitting in for songs like "I Remember You." Jesse Malin of D-Generation X performed a song one impartial observer told me sounded more like the Ramones than any band he'd ever heard in his life. (And this was an original composition, no less.) George Tabb hit the stage with his band Furious George and caused some wonderful chaos when he invited all the Ramones fans to come up on stage and sing their favorite Ramones songs along with his band. Finally, Meat Depressed finished things up with their Ramones medley from their upcoming Ramones tribute CD 1-2-3-4 (complete with a Pinhead dancing along with the "Gabba Gabba Hey" sign) along with some covers like "Babysitter" and "The KKK Took My Baby Away."
Then it was over.
And a new sadness took over.
At the very end of the night, as we were leaving CBGBs, someone mentioned to me that they wanted to tell the story about the time he saw Joey Ramone play live when he was just 12 years old. "Big deal," I said. "So you saw the Ramones when you were a kid. So what?"
"No, you don't understand, I grew up in Forest Hills. I saw him when I was 12, but I'm 48 years old, so he was probably 13. He was playing drums. I just wanted someone to hear about it."
Wow. What a great memory to have. Must have been an amazing concert. Wish I was there.
Bye, Joey - see you later!