I, like millions of other folks, have never liked New Year’s Eve. There’s too much pressure to have the time of your life just because some numbers on a calendar are changing. Give me a game night with some good friends, a little champagne, the TV turned on just long enough to see the ball drop at midnight and I’m good to go.
However, there’s one New Year’s Eve that stands out in my mind and that’s the New Year’s Eve I spent with the Ramones. I didn’t grow up a Ramones fan- I was a little too young and they were a little too scary in their black leather jackets (no matter how sweltering the temperature). However, as anyone who has ever lived in New York knows, the Ramones were practically the City’s unofficial mascots, so after I moved to the Big Apple, a friend visiting from Chicago and I decided to see them on New Year’s Eve at Irving Plaza.
I couldn’t get over what I’d been missing. Each of the songs-rarely ever more than two minutes each– were adrenalin bursts of aggressive pop delivered by band leader Joey Ramone. He was tall and impossibly gangly, his overgrown bowl cut causing him to constantly swipe the hair from his face with one hand while his other hand rarely let go of the mic stand. And the sunglasses never came off. I still have the t-shirt and the memories.
But more than that, that night set off a musical exploration for me to go back and learn more about punk, learn more about music that my little Top-40 focused mind when I was growing up in N.C. had routinely and stupidly ignored. Great music does that–it invites you to explore further and follow tributaries flowing in directions you never expected.
Later, I was very lucky to get to know Joey Ramone. By then the Ramones had broken up and Joey was spending his time working with a band called the Independents and the legendary Ronnie Spector. I was talent editor at Billboard and he’d call me to tout his acts. We talked about the Ramones’ split and despite the tremendous regard the band had overseas and in certain U.S. cities, he felt like they were denied mainstream success. He told me, “I feel very underappreciated,” he said. “I know life ain’t no fair, but there’s no justice . . . We gave our all, and we just get shitted on left and right [in the U.S.].”
Usually, however, when Ramone called me, he was upbeat and wanted to talk about music and the acts he was working with. He never knew that my heart leapt in my throat every time I picked up my phone and I heard “Hey Melinda, it’s Joey Ramone,” on the other end. The thrill never wore off, although he was amazingly humble and clearly didn’t expect any special treatment. After he was diagnosed with lymphoma in the late ’90s, we continued to talk occasionally–mainly about the music, although sometimes we talked about his illness if he brought it up. There was something very gentle and childlike about him and I treasured those conversations. His love for music was genuine and infectious and his belief in the acts he worked with total and unwavering.
Ramone died in 2001 and since then, the Ramones’ legendary stature has only continued to grow. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, their first year of eligibility– further confirmation of their status as one of the godfathers of American punk music. Legions of subsequent musicians cite the band as a major influence. I think that would make Joey smile.
Happy New Year!