After nearly a year of mourning the passing of a rock and roll giant in Joey Ramone, after all the post 9-11 anxiety, the whole War on Terrorism aftermath, how fitting, how wonderful, it is to hear from Joey Ramone one last time, and how punk of him to do it from beyond the grave. His posthumous solo debut CD, Don't Worry About Me is now out, and its release couldn't be more timely. Joey's back, in a sense, for one last time, and if he has anything to say about it, to paraphrase one of his songs, we're gonna have a real good time, and everything's gonna be real fine.
It's easy to assume Don't Worry About Me is nothing more than a shallow cash grab, the usual dog and pony show we always see when a rock icon passes away, but after one listen, you're hit with the stunning fact that this is one great record. Almost End of the Century great, or Leave Home great. Let's face it, Joey was the Ramones (the classic Ramones eagle logo is even used in the CD artwork), and this is the best Ramones album since 1981's underrated Pleasant Dreams. Produced by latter-day Ramones cohort Daniel Rey, the album bursts with vitality, mixing the giddy, bubblegum pop of classic Ramones songs like "Oh Oh I Love Her So" with heavier fare like "I Wanna Live".
Nobody from the punk era -- besides maybe Pete Shelley -- sung about love better than Joey Ramone. People are quick to remember his sardonicism, his dark humor that overflowed in songs like "Beat on the Brat", "I Wanna Be Sedated", and "The KKK Took My Baby Away", but his best songs were always his most optimistic ones -- the stories of how he wanted to be a girl's boyfriend, about falling in love by the soda machine at the Burger King, about missing his girl while on tour in Idaho, how she was the one. In fact, on Don't Worry About Me, Ramone sounds the most optimistic he's been in a long time, going back to when he sang "She's A Sensation" twenty years ago, and the album's first four songs get things off to a spectacular start in similarly ebullient fashion.
What a stroke of genius it was to cover "What a Wonderful World"! In just over two minutes, Ramone claims Satchmo's long-overplayed standard as his own, and manages to put just as much emotion into it, perhaps even more. Daniel Rey launches the song with an opening riff that sounds neatly lifted from End of the Century's "The Return of Jackie and Judy", before the rest of the band, which includes Marky Ramone on drums (he plays on six of the CD's 11 tracks), raucously (but tightly) chugs in. Ramone's vocals resonate with joy, and he hits the high notes in the song with relative ease. The performance of the song is note-perfect, shamelessly positive, and packs a huge emotional wallop to boot.
"Stop Thinking About It" is a classic Ramones song in every sense, three minutes of Rocket to Russia harmonies, something you'll be singing along with at first listen. "Mr. Punchy" is simple, goofy fun, and features whimsical guest vocals by British singer Helen Love and The Damned's Captain Sensible. The closest thing to a throwaway track on the CD, it leads up to the album's shining moment.
Ramone's ode to CNBC reporter Maria Bartiromo, aptly titled "Maria Bartiromo", is the kind of song only Joey Ramone could write, and easily fits in with the best songs from the first five Ramones albums. Here he shows the connection he shared with all of us: he was a normal guy (albeit very tall and odd-looking), not exactly a ladies' man, and was in no way ashamed of having crushes on television reporters. A stock market enthusiast, Ramone conveys his interest, singing, "What's happening on Squawk Box? / What's happening with my stocks? / I want to know". but then unabashedly (and charmingly) gives away his real reason for watching: "I watch you on the TV every single day / Those eyes make everything okay".
By the time the fifth track on the album comes along, things get a bit more interesting. The songs become considerably heavier (but not enough to contrast too much from the first four tracks), and the lyrics become more introspective. At times, painfully so, considering the illness Ramone was battling at the time. "Venting (It's a Different World Today") is exactly what the title indicates, with Ramone confessing, "I just don't understand". "Spirit in My House" hints at paranoia ("I got demons in my head and I should have stayed in bed"), while "Like a Drug I Never Did Before" paints a disturbing portrait of Ramone's condition: "My head's gonna blow brains all over the floor / Pressure like I never knew before". What will undoubtedly be the most quoted of all the songs on Don't Worry About Me, the powerful yet simple "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)", deals with Ramone's illness in blunt fashion: "Sitting in a hospital bed / Frustration going through my head . . . I want my life".
The whole key to Don't Worry About Me isn't the accounts of the pain Ramone was going through, it's his undying optimism. Times were very trying for him, but he describes his predicament in dry, self-deprecating fashion. The album resounds with life, not death, and in his cover of the Stooges' classic "1969", Ramone's vocals sound urgent, determined not to be beaten. Like the late filmmaker Kieslowski wrote in his legendary Decalogue, being alive is a gift, and that's precisely the theme Ramone successfully gets across, albeit in more succinct, New York fashion: "Live your life to the fullest and fuck everything". As he sings "Don't worry about me" at the end of the CD, it's as great a ride into the sunset as you'll ever hear. It's bittersweet, and I'm sure Joey won't mind if you shed a tear or two, for just a minute, but I'll bet he'll be a whole lot happier if you simply dig the hell out of his album, and then go out and enjoy being alive.