High Times Greats: Joey Ramone

The dean of all punks gave a legalization lecture in a 1995 issue of High Times.
High Times Greats: Joey Ramone
Joey Ramone by Andre Grossman

In a conversation with Eric Danville for the January, 1995 edition of High Times, Joey Ramone explained why pot should be legal and hard drugs should not. We’re republishing the article to celebrate what would have been Joey Ramone’s 69th birthday on May 19.

This is not the story of a survivor. And it’s not the story of a comeback, either, because Joey Ramone never really went away—he just went back in time.

Ever since the Ramones released their first album in 1976—full of short sonic bursts that brought much-needed excitement to a world full of kids and ultimately helped change the face of rock ‘n’ roll—they’ve done more than just break musical barriers. Going from the dingy halls of the Bowery’s CBGB, where the graffiti and the attitude are both an inch thick, to South American football stadiums and the cheers of 50,000 adoring fans, they’ve crossed cultural, racial and international barriers as well.

Fresh from a trip to Japan, where fans and press alike staked them out at hotels and restaurants, Joey Ramone has an interesting perspective on the chemistry that has kept the band going for the last 20 years. “It’s a chemical imbalance,” he laughs, referring to the original lineup of Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy. “It was a coming together of four distinct personalities. We all knew each other from the neighborhood. We were all outcasts.”

“A lot of our songs came out of personal experience. We wrote about things that affected us directly: TV, drugs, frustration, politics. Musically, we were coming on the heels of the Vietnam War—you know, Joan Baez. It was bullshit: disco and corporate rock like Donna Summer, C.W. McCall, Boston, Journey, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Eagles, Styx. Then came the Ramones, totally alien of anything.”

Now, after having seen so many musical trends come and go, the man who helped set rock ’n’ roll back on its sometimes deaf ear finds little difference between the rock hierarchy of today and their forebears. “People take themselves too seriously,”
says Joey. “They don’t have personalities. I enjoy having a good time and making music fun and enjoyable. I like to create exciting situations that ordinarily wouldn’t exist. Even the band is more fun these days.”

Part of that fun definitely rubs off on Acid Eaters (Radioactive), the Ramones’ 18th album and a real flashback to the ’60s, right down to the psychedelic cover art—no doubt inspired by Joey’s own collection of original Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom posters by artists like Rick Griffin. With this record, the band trips out on such classics as “Journey to the Center of the Mind,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and “Out of Time,” performed in the blazing 4/4 style that helped them prove you can change the shape of things to come.

Considering the thrash-and-burn sound that has become their trademark, what could they have possibly been thinking growing up on the streets of Forest Hills, Queens? For Joey, at least part of what created the Ramones was going to the WMCA Good Guys shows at the old Paramount Theater in Manhattan and the RKO shows hosted by legendary deejay Murray the K. “The sixties was the most influential time in rock ’n’ roll,” Ramone says. “The fifties was the birth, the conception, but the ’60s was the infancy, before the more experimental periods. I’m into everything. I love Ray Charles, Little Richard, the Stones, the Kinks, the Who. There’s so much great music, made by distinct individuals. ”

The Ramones’ distinctly American sound—perhaps the most distinctly American rock sound since the Beach Boys—has always paid homage to the music of the ’60s, whether it’s working with producer Phil Spector or recording songs like “California Sun” and “Needles and Pins.”

After hearing their version of the Doors’ “Take It as It Comes” on their previous album, Mondo Bizarro, the record company suggested they give a few other hippie anthems the same shock treatment. Delving deep into the band’s collective musical memory, they decided to record some of the songs that affected them when they were kids. “We went for our most obscure favorites, like ‘7 and 7 Is’ by Love, stuff by the Seeds, the Troggs.” Once the work began, Acid Eaters peaked in typically fast-and-furious Ramones fashion. “The project came together totally spontaneously,” enthuses Joey. “We recorded it in three weeks. It was fun.”

The Ramones’ unique sense of humor is as twisted as ever. Having ex-porn queen and current labelmate Traci Lords sing backup on “Somebody to Love”—the result of a “mutual fascination”—echoes the days when Joey would sing about pinheads and sniffing glue.

“Dee Dee and John used to sniff glue on the rooftop and then they progressed on to Carbona [cleaning fluid],” he recalls. “We all went through drug periods when we were in our teens. It was fun. Our sense of fun. Some people share it.”

But, after doing his time on the late-night New York club scene, the only place Joey Ramone wants to be sedated is on stage. “In 1990, my life changed. I’m sober these days, but I’m better off for it. I love that secondhand pot smoke, though!” he laughs. “When you’re getting fucked up, you’re pretty nonproductive. I was able to fulfill my ideas, but sometimes it was very difficult. I have nothing against pot. To me, it’s just an herb. I’m down on hard drugs. I don’t think hard drugs should be legal. I’ve done ’em, so I can say that.”

For Joey Ramone, the politics of pot don’t extend to legalization, but instead to decriminalization and government regulation, with the taxed revenue directed back into the country’s coffers. “If pot cigarettes were available, it would help the deficit,” he says. “I think prostitution should be decriminalized too. People are very frustrated in America. There should be a district. That way they could get their rocks off. Is it better that they go out and rape and kill somebody?”

“Pot laws are totally fucked up. You can kill somebody and get out in five years, and you could get busted for a joint and be in jail for forty. There should be boot camps for lesser offenders. But why should someone have to do hard time for an ounce of pot? That’s absurd. ”

Joey has a more libertarian attitude towards drug use, at least as far as it affects him personally. “I had some good times. It was all a learning experience,” he says. “I don’t see it as bad. I don’t condemn it or condone it. I believe in experiencing life. Adventuring—that’s what life’s about. You gotta fall down and learn how it feels. I believe to each his own, you do what’s best for yourself. Now that I’m more focused, it’s easier to do a lot of things I wanna do.”

Joey Ramone is currently featured on two compilations: In Their Own Words (Razor & Tie), a collection of acoustic performances recorded at New York’s Bottom Line nightclub; and Godchildren of Soul: Anyone Can Join (Rhino), an R&B tribute album. And in the germination stage is the first album with his side band, Resistance, slated to include Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” and the prochoice rallying cry, “Fascists Don’t Fuck, They Just Screw.” Joey and Resistance have made occasional appearances at political rallies for such diverse and worthy causes as Rock for Choice, Rock the Vote and Democratic dark horse Jerry Brown.

While Joey Ramone’s outlook could certainly be jaundiced by the events of the past two decades, it seems that, even while going back in time, he’s always looking forward. “You gotta know what you want and go out and get it, ” he says philosophically. “It ain’t comin’ to you.”

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