"It's easier to sell a lot of records than it is to make rock 'n' roll history."
So said Joey Ramone, delivering one of many nuggets of punk-rock wisdom uttered during his short but eventful life. The quote nicely encapsulates the philosophy of a band that never had a hit record in the US, never stopped touring in a van, and played thousands of live shows, mostly in clubs and theaters, where rock 'n' roll can really happen, rather than stadiums fit for soccer riots.
I'm happy to have come across this quote, for it proves that Joey truly understood The Ramones' full impact on all that is still good about rock 'n' roll music. With these words, he's willing to forgo the bullshit modesty a more traditionally "successful" pop star might feign. Joey understood that the mission he'd taken on to stand as a beacon for actual, vital rock music for fans who were blessed to recognize it was much more fulfilling in the long run than a midriff-baring pop diva's 9-month whirlwind success and "Behind the Music" episode. And he had the honesty and confidence to stake his claim in the long and dirty history of rock's uneven soil. If anyone deserved this self-recognition during his lifetime, it was Mr. Joey Ramone. The Ramones' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year may seem to some a long-overdue "official" recognition of a band that sparked more ingenuity, creativity and devotion than even the most gargantuan of rock monsters. To Joey, I'm sure it would have been a sweet gesture, but completely unnecessary. He knew what he had done.
And he continued to do it, right up until his death from lymphoma in April of 2001. Joey put his name behind some excellent live gigs featuring his favorite bands in various NYC venues, notably the now-shut St. Mark's Place and punk palace Coney Island High. He also produced an EP for one of his heroines, Ronnie Spector, who finally got to sing a song Brian Wilson wrote for her called "Don't Worry, Baby"; her volatile husband, Phil Spector, had insisted she never use it. And Joey began writing and recording songs for his ultimately posthumous solo debut, most positively named Don't Worry About Me.
His band lineup couldn't have been more perfect: longtime friend Daniel Rey produced and played a wicked crackling guitar, bass duties fell to Andy Shernoff of the unbeatable Dictators, and drums were split between Frank Funaro (Cracker; the Del Lords) and the mighty Marky Ramone.
Never let it be said that the Ramones were a "message" band, carefully constructing couplets to bring the young and faithful together in the name of a credo (unless you count "Hey, Ho, Let's Go!" as a credo), a philosophy, or anything more than fun and mistrust of authority. However, it's plain to see that Joey Ramone put much thought and passion into the simple lines he penned for Don't Worry About Me, as well as the choice of covers. Having fought a world-class disease in private without need of sympathy from anyone, he opens his swan song release with the life-celebrating "What a Wonderful World" (made most famous by Louis Armstrong). It's a testament to Joey's continuous belief in all that is good about even a tough life. Joey was always the romantic Ramone; he never pretended to shy away from love and always let his audience know his passions.
The rest of the album continues in fine Ramones tradition, gritty guitars and half-mumbled lyrics. There are some new themes, both of struggling with his demons ("Stop Thinking About It," "Spirit in My House," "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)") and singing the praises of what's good, the most "Ramonesy" example being Joey's love song to MSNBC's financial reporter, "Maria Bartiromo." Purist brats might sneer at the thought of one of punk's elders singing lovingly about his stocks and the woman who tells him about them day and night, but what could be more punk?
"Searching for Something" finds Joey visiting friends upstate and finding serenity far away from the East Village and Bowery where he's known. "1969" seems like one of those songs that you just include on the record because you've always wanted to cover it, and so why the hell not? Joey, with his lymphatic cancer, is doing what he's always done having fun.
Ending with the title track, "Don't Worry About Me," is a touching choice that leaves a bittersweet taste. Joey Ramone lived a life-cut-short to its fullest, and this song suggests he had no regrets. A note to his ever-loving fans, "Don't Worry About Me," the song and the album, leave us with both a crack-like addition to the Ramones archives and a personal soul-baring jaunt that only a man made more real by his cartoonishness could pull off. Proper tribute to this demigod in black leather is simply putting this CD on and listening to a message from the most unlikely philosopher since the birth of punk.