"Old punks never die," goes a waggish maxim, "except when they do."
It's a sentiment to which fans of the Ramones can relate. By September 2004, just eight years after the band that inaugurated punk completed its final tour, three of its four founding members had died, leaving only the group's former drummers (Tommy, Marky, Richie) and latter-day bassist (C.J.) to keep "Ramones Mania" corporeal.
That they've failed doesn't much matter. Ten post-breakup compilations and a half-dozen video documentaries have made the Ramones' transition to non-corporeality a smooth one.
But nothing has made it smoother than the solo recordings of its lead singer, Joey Ramone. The first, the over-optimistically titled Don't Worry About Me, came out in 2002, 10 months after his death at 49 from lymphoma. Powered by a barn-burning version of the Louis Armstrong standard "What a Wonderful World," Daniel Rey's buzz-saw-perfect Johnny Ramone imitation on guitar, and Marky Ramone's beat-perfect Marky Ramone imitation on drums, it could've passed for a solo album in name only.
Now comes ...Ya Know? (Relativity), 15 demos that Joey recorded over the course of his career, gussied up by a who's who of longtime Ramones associates (Ed Stasium, Joey's brother Mickey Leigh, Richie Ramone) and big-name fans (Joan Jett, Bun E. Carlos, "Miami Steve" Van Zandt).
They've done their hero proud. One would never know from the finished results that they'd ever been unfinished-or from Joey's confident singing that he spent much, if not all, of his life feeling like a misfit (hence the mountain of hair and perpetual shades that he hid behind even while becoming one of rock's most iconic frontmen).
Listen closely, however, and, amid the Ramones-worthy din and catchy hooks, those feelings come through. "I'll never be happy without you here," he sings in "Seven Days of Gloom" (rhymes with "here in my room"). And although he declares that "Rock 'n Roll Is the Answer" at the outset, he eventually gets around to realizing that "There's Got to Be More to Life" than the rock 'n' roll routine of "paying dues," "a cocaine schmooze," "MTV," and "fighting with the record company."
But the most tellingly vulnerable moment occurs in the concluding track, "Life's a Gas." Despite singing "Don't be sad 'cause I'll be there," he enunciates the title refrain so that it sounds like "Life's a guess." Given the song's acoustic setting and Ramone's chronically precarious disposition, that interpretation, sadly, makes more sense.
If any punk has made more of being a perpetual misfit than Ramone, it's John Lydon, the former Sex Pistol who, as Johnny Rotten, changed the course of pop-cultural history 36 years ago. Since then he has led a band called Public Image Ltd. that, besides being on hiatus for most of the last 20 years, has really just been Lydon and a revolving cast of musicians.
The latest PiL lineup began performing live in 2009, and now it has recorded This Is PiL (PiL Official). Ever the scattershot, equal-opportunity misanthropist, Lydon inveighs against man's inhumanity to man but not always so it's clear exactly what he has in mind.
The fiercely pounding "Terra-Gate" ("Take what you make, what you hate, integrate, inter-hate, it's too late...") probably has something to do with the War on Terror. As for the funk-akimbo "Human" ("None of us are the enemy. / And 'they' are the same as you and me / save for the trick of education / and the parental politician"), it packs a wallop.
But it leaves the unpacking to us.