Joey Ramone was arguably the biggest punk-rock star of the 1970s.
A looming presence on New York’s music scene, the Ramones vocalist died 20 years ago today, on April 15, 2001, at age 49, taken down by lymphoma. But he lives on via 16 albums and many of his most valued possessions, which are maintained by his younger musician-brother Mickey Leigh.
A talented guitarist in his own right, Leigh, who’ll be putting on the 20th annual Birthday Bash for Joey on May 19, allowed The Post to check out key items from the archive, including those stored at Joey’s former East Village apartment.
Here are some of the most telling mementos and the stories behind them. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School
Joey’s report card from Forest Hills HS in Queens, presented to Jeffrey Hyman (his real name), shows a student with mediocre grades — save for art, math and citizenship. But those numerical grades hardly tell the tale of his academic life. “School was bad,” the band’s former manager Danny Fields, author of “My Ramones,” told The Post. “Joey was taunted and mocked and thrown down staircases for being [6-foot-6] tall. He had a hard time and was the most unlikely of rock stars, but you’re not writing about the people who bullied him.”
Leigh agreed that Forest Hills High was no picnic for Joey, who graduated in the late 1960s: “He was at the peak of his hippiness in high school and wore a sheepskin coat. People saw Joey walking into school and they would say, ‘Who is that freak?’ I’d say, ‘He’s my brother.’”
Picture of Joey
Hanging on the wall of Joey’s old apartment on East Ninth Street is a portrait of him, drawn by his artist mother, Charlotte, and dated 1972. The picture, which shows Joey staring straight ahead, was meant to be a comfort for her son.
“Joey had OCD,” Leigh, co-author of “I Slept With Joey Ramone,” told The Post. “It got so bad that he checked himself into St. Vincent’s psychiatric ward for a two-week evaluation.” He was only 21 at the time, but obsessive-compulsive disorder plagued him for life. “Joey was not in a great emotional state and my mother thought [the portrait] would cheer him up. Soon after, he began playing my Yamaha acoustic guitar.”
Just as the Ramones were forming around 1974, Joey wanted to write songs for the group. But the former drummer — he played skins for a Queens band called the Intruders and also initially for the Ramones — had no guitar chops. “So I showed him how to play Alice Cooper’s ‘I’m Eighteen’ on this guitar,” Leigh said. “But he was left-handed and I’m righty. So I told him to just play the lower three strings.”
After more than 100 run-throughs, Joey learned the song but added a personal touch. “He sang his own lyrics. It was the Ramones’ first song, ‘I Don’t Care.’ A day later, he wrote ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’ with the same chords,” Leigh said.
Later came “Beat on the Brat,” inspired by a spoiled, screaming kid in a playground near his boyhood apartment building. “He composed a lot of Ramones songs on this guitar,” his brother said. “As strings broke, he never bothered to replace them. He didn’t need to.”
Hellbent for leather
Joey Ramone went through a succession of leather jackets, including the classic Schott motorcycle numbers that he and the other Ramones wore onstage.
“Joey and the other guys came out of the glam-rock scene,” said Leigh. “Initially, my brother wore a black vinyl bodysuit, but that didn’t really work. So they came up with the leather jackets as part of their style.”
The cool-looking garment evolved into something of a second skin. “Joey wore his leather jacket at home,” said Fields. “I knew a guy who delivered hamburgers to Joey’s apartment, and he told me that Joey would come to the door wearing pajama bottoms and a leather jacket. He wore it in the hospital. For him, I think, the jacket was like a security blankie.”
Passport to stardom
The Ramones toured the world, garnering more acclaim abroad than at home, and this passport was Joey’s golden ticket to the stardom he craved.
“I’m not sure that Joey loved getting on airplanes, but he loved playing out of the country,” said Leigh. “Early on, at clubs in Connecticut and New Jersey, there would be 12 people and bikers would yell, ‘Play ‘Free Bird!’ Years later, in Argentina, they were treated like The Beatles.”
Indeed, his financial adviser Marty Lutschaunig shared a similar memory: “Joey was in his room, in Brazil or some place like that. He held his phone out the window and I heard a racket. He said it was people from 12 stories down, calling out for him.”
Shades after dark
Joey was famous for his variously tinted granny glasses. Leigh figures he began sporting them in 1967 and never let up. He had rotten eyesight and initially wore what his brother calls “regular Buddy Holly glasses.”
Then, “at 16 or 17, influenced by John Lennon and Roger McGuinn, he begged my mom to take him to the eye doctor so he could get prescription sunglasses” — wearing them without the script would have been impractical. “She went along with it,” Leigh said. “She didn’t know he would wear them all the time. But he did.”