Music History

Twenty years ago today, we lost Joey Ramone. Here’s what happened.

In the late 90s, I was working on a book on alt-rock. As we got closer to the publication date, my editor suggested that we get some well-connected person to write an introduction to the book. “This would act to boost your credibility,” she said, “Plus it never hurts to have a famous name on the cover. That’ll help sell copies.

After much discussion, we decided that the best guy for the job would be Joey Ramone.

I made some calls and after much begging, I was able to get Joey’s home phone number. I worked up some courage, called him up and had some really cool conversations with him over the next couple of weeks. His contact information is still in my iPhone.

But no matter how politely asked or what I offered, he demurred. He was a rock star and had better things to do, I guess.

He did, actually. He was trying to stay alive.

In our conversations, he did mention that he wasn’t feeling well and had a wound that wouldn’t heal. But Joey had a life-long reputation of being sickly, possibly due to his Marfan syndrome. But the truth was that Joey had been fighting cancer–a form of lymphoma–since 1994 or 1995. In the late 90s, it began to get worse. We didn’t know it at the time, but Joey’s cancer was the real reason The Ramones stopped touring in 1996. Close friends and members of the NYC punk scene knew Joey was sick but kept it a secret. They’d heard that Joey had been spotted at a New York clinic that specialized in lymphoma treatments

At one point, he thought about telling everyone that he’d “come down with a little case of cancer,” but since the chemo was working, why bother?

After The Ramones retired, Joey’s health confined him to his apartment in the East Village for long stretches at a time. He really got into playing the stock market, spending hours watching CNBC and trading stocks on his computer. He apparently became quite a competent day trader.

On December 30, 2000, Joey left his apartment to (so I’ve heard) attend an optometrist appointment after breaking his glasses. He hit a patch of ice and fell–and because Joey was so tall, it was a long way down. He broke his hip. Badly.

Doctors had to take him off his cancer-fighting drugs–drugs that weakened his immune system–so he could undergo surgery for the break. That was just the opportunity the lymphoma was looking for. The surgery was successful, but Joey never recovered. He was released from the hospital for a few days in February 200 but was soon readmitted with an infection and metastasizing cancer. He never went back to his apartment again.

The cancer destroyed what was left of his immune system and one by one, his organs began to shut down. People knew the end was near and there was a steady stream of visitors. Even Bono gave him a call.

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 15, 2001, Joey’s family was called to his room at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. And at 2:40 pm that day, Joey passed away. He was only 49, a month short of his 50th birthday. He was listening to music–U2’s “In a Little While”–when he died.

Joey was buried on Tuesday, April 17, at Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, which looks across the river to Manhattan. May 19 was declared National Joey Ramon Day by Congressional proclamation. The American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol building that day was given to the family. The band was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. And on November 30, 2003, the city of New York renamed the corner of Bowery and East Second Street “Joey Ramone Way.” It’s just steps from where CBGB used to be. It’s also the block where the photo for the first Ramones album cover was shot. It’s also the most-stolen street sign in the history of the city. (It’s currently installed 20 ft above the pavement.)

A lot has been written about the impact The Ramones have had on the development of not just punk but all rock’n’roll. You can draw a straight line from thousands of today’s rock bands right back to what The Ramones did back in the day–through grunge, through hardcore, through all the colours of punk and even encompassing parts of the metal scene. But it’s also the small things that tell the story. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong named his first son Joey while Tre Cool has a daughter named Ramona.

All the original Ramones are now gone. But what started as a goof by four guys from Queens ended up changing the world.

By the way, I still have Joey’s phone number and address in my phone. I’m never going to delete it.

BONUS: A look at the treasures inside Joey’s apartment.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37808 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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