Joey Ramone was not supposed to die of cancer. He was supposed to walk up on stage in a few years with the rest of the Ramones at their induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, play a few songs, and announce a reunion tour. “Its great to be here in Cleveland toniiite! Take it C. Jay!”
The first time I ever saw Joey, the Ramones were playing at The Mad Monk in Wilmington, N.C., in November 1987. They had been my favorite band for years, but I had never seen them live. After conning a roadie into telling me which hotel they were staying at, I went there to wait for them to arrive.
At around 7 p.m., I was walking around the front of the hotel when I turned the corner and saw Joey standing under the canopy, looking like a human preying mantis or a huge spider. He was wearing all black and had a thick mane of hair, with legs so thin it seemed impossible that they could support his 6-foot-5-inch body. Always willing to accommodate a fan, he signed a couple of albums before he left.
After that first encounter I saw more than 100 Ramones concerts from 1987 to 1996, first as a fan, and–over the years–as the band’s friend. I got to know Johnny Ramone first, and it hampered starting a friendship with Joey because he and Johnny didn’t get along too well [Johnny ended up marrying Joey’s girlfriend]. He considered me “John’s friend” until 1994, when I toured Canada with them that summer. Joey asked if he could travel from show to show in my car instead of in the Ramones van. Riding in the car, we had hours to listen to music, talk and build a friendship. Later, he said it felt more like being on vacation instead of on tour.
A gentle person who always noticed more than you thought he did, Joey was introspective, and he could be shy, but when he got going he could talk for hours about a wide range of subjects. Critics over the years suggested the Ramones were dumb, but Joey was a poet, a fragile guy, an artist … someone who was saved by Rock and Roll. I can’t imagine what he would have been doing all those years if he hadn’t been in the Ramones.
The Ramones had adopted a regimented touring schedule over the years that didn’t allow for much free time, so whenever Joey had a free minute, he made the most of it. It was the summer of 1994 when the Ramones were touring Canada, and we arrived in downtown Montreal a few hours before sound check. Joey had some time to kill, so we searched the club for a pool table, but they didn’t have one. We strolled down the block to find one, and shocked fans, not expecting to see Joey Ramone just walking the street, came up to him to shake his hand or to take a picture. Some musicians or actors can disguise themselves, but Joey was so tall that he always kind of stuck out, no matter what.
We found a pool hall and began playing, watched by more than a dozen Ramones’ fans that had followed us into the place. Joey loved playing pool–he could play for hours. After our first game, I was bumped out of the action, so fans began coming up and asking if they could play Joey. He proceeded to take on fan after fan in rapid-fire succession, having the time of his life: a new opponent every few minutes, and all the pool he could play. You could tell Joey loved the interaction with his fans on a level beyond “Can I have your autograph?” For once, he was just part of the crowd, playing some pool and waiting for the show that night.
Joey was pretty calm off stage and he took things in stride, even when there was cause for alarm. We had a harrowing experience in San Diego in 1995 when the Ramones opened two shows for Pearl Jam. The rest of the Ramones wanted to go back to the hotel after their set, but Joey wanted to stay and watch the band. So when Joey asked me if I would drive him back to his hotel later, I figured that we’d walk back to my car after the show and then I’d drive him to the hotel.
We watched Pearl Jam from the side of the stage until the concert was almost over, then we started to leave. I told Joey that the car was at my hotel, but that we could walk there easily. He seemed unsure about it, but said OK, so we headed up the ramp to the parking lot and started walking in the direction of the hotel–that was when I realized I’d made a big mistake.
Hundreds of fans were leaving the concert, and when they saw Joey they started coming towards him. Things quickly started to get out of control; Joey looked over at me and deadpanned, “I bet this would never happen to Eddie Vedder.” I was starting to panic until I saw four girls getting into a small car. I ran over to them and said, “Can you give us a ride to the hotel?” “Sure!” said the driver, after seeing that Joey was one of the hitchhikers. The six of us piled into her small car and peeled out of the parking lot. The girls were screaming and laughing, ecstatic to have Joey in their car. Somehow, we made it safely to my car.
“You know, Rick, that was pretty dangerous,” Joey said, lecturing me as we drove to his hotel. “Tomorrow, you should park your car at the coliseum.” I agreed.
“It was fun, though,” he added. “Did you see the expression on those girls’ faces? Hilarious.”
The last time I saw Joey on tour, The Ramones were playing the final show of the Lollapalooza tour in Los Angeles. There was an after-show party at the Viper Room on Sunset, and Joey asked me if I would go with him. “I can’t,” I said. “I’m taking the red-eye back to North Carolina and my plane leaves in four hours.” “Oh, that’s okay,” he said. “Don’t worry about it. Maybe next time.” Well, there never was a next time.
Goodbye Joey. Thanks for everything.
Ramones fans, e-mail the author at email@example.com.