How I ended up in the grocery store with Joey Ramone
As the first Chicago punk/new wave/alternative artist ever to play the legendary CBGB’s in New York on April 12th and 13th 1977, my band and I were excited to first bring Chicago punk to New York. At the time, we were all between the ages of 17 and 20 with the only exception being my 23-year-old drummer. With all of us still living at home, our parents paid for our trip, thankfully, since we weren’t earning enough money as a band to pay for our little excursion. As we navigated the trip, some of the band and road crew decided to ride in my drummer Larry Mysliwiec’s old green van, while the rest of us flew. Along with my band came my road crew who were the people who assisted with the practical matters of musical gear, sound and stage set up. In addition, those wild freaky friends of mine notoriously referred to as the Skafish entourage also joined in for the adventure
Right as we were just beginning our descent from high in the skies to landing at JFK airport in New York, I noticed Skafish entourage member Steve who was sitting right next to me. He had cupped his hands together and was throwing up because he took too many drugs on the plane flight there. It added an extra sense of tension to the landing for all of us, but luckily, Steve didn’t OD through the plane touching down. Unfazed, however, he returned to doing drugs shortly afterwards. I was adamant that my band and I were to never do drugs or drink and we didn’t, but preventing my entourage was a different matter, of course. I wasn’t their daddy and mommy!
A while after checking into our hotel, it was time to go down to the club. Carrying an oversized powder blue suitcase, I remember walking down the street toward CBGB’s along with some of my road crew and entourage, taking in what was around me. The neighborhood looked dingy, dark, desolate and felt tough, just like the city I was raised in, East Chicago, Indiana. As this was my first trip to the Big Apple, I was somehow expecting that sense of “the glitz and glamour of New York,” but instead we were in the run down and dismal Bowery, not strolling down Park Avenue. As I entered the club, I psychically absorbed the feeling of a sense of cool detachment and dinginess, not the feeling of excitement that one would think comes with entering an important rock ‘n’ roll haunt. No one there really seemed to be thought of or treated like a star. I immediately met Hilly Krystal, owner of CBGB’s who was quite friendly and nice to me. My first impression of Hilly was that he was tough, not intimidated by anyone, surprisingly open and non-pretentious. “Welcome. You’re a member of the club” was the feeling I felt emanating from him toward me.
Along with my large suitcase, I settled monetarily in the dressing room while taking in the surroundings: the club house pooch, a Doberman pincher who pooped virtually everywhere and all of the Ramones who were in attendance for both nights of my shows. I also noticed Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys who seemed to be working as a waiter in the club at the time. Various photographers who were there to capture Skafish, local punks and a journalist from Variety magazine (who ended up writing a nasty review about us) filled out the room. My entourage for this trip included the Twiggy Girls: one 17-year-old girl named Donna and a boy named Michael who was 19, both of whom I went to high school with. They dressed as identical clones of Twiggy the model: mini skirts, matching wigs, identical outfits, giggling in unison while walking and dancing as one. As they settled in, the Twiggy girls started mingling around the room and flirted with everyone in sight. The dressing room, which was shaped and sized like a narrow pantry with no door on it, had tons of graffiti on the walls — repeatedly saying, “Brian Jones is alive!”
I observed Joey Ramone walking from the front part of the club where the audience was all the way past the dressing room where I was to the back of the club which led to the john. Don’t call it a bathroom – certainly not a restroom! It had tons of graffiti, smelled horribly and lacked privacy, which made it really tough for girls. On his second pass by me, I yelled out, “Hey, Joey.” I remember not being sure if he just didn’t hear me or was ignoring me. Then, a few minutes later on his third pass, Joey stopped and looked at me and said, “Is this the world famous Jim Skafish?” I was startled, yet I also felt immediately comfortable in his energies, so we just started talking and got acquainted. After our conversation, I did my first set. The audience was into what we were doing, cool, (what does one expect – this was New York?) somewhat taken a back by the strangeness of the performance yet not violent as so many of the Chicago audiences had been toward us since we debuted in February 1976.
I next crossed paths a few months later with Joey and the Ramones in the summer of 1977 when the Skafish band opened for The Ramones at Club B’Ginnings in Schaumburg Illinois. All of the wonderful free spirited punk and punkette kids from the city hijacked a bus to the show, so this upper end rock club looked like it was invaded from another planet, the planet I come from. I like to think of it as Planet Skafish, where anyone can look like and absolutely be anything they want to be and the idea is to perpetually not conform. That is the real spirit of punk! As a true event to remember, there was such a tremendous aura of excitement for both the Ramones and my band from the audience that night. Right after I stripped down to an old ladies old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit with babushka, we went into our set finale, “Sign of the Cross.” I was dousing the audience with authentic blessed Catholic holy water (from a religious supply store) when I noticed Taco Ramone coming on stage in sunglasses defiantly holding a beer mug in his hand. Taco Ramone wasn’t actually a Ramone, but a really great guy who worked at La Mere Vipere, the club which converted from being a gay bar to Chicago’s first punk dance club in May 1977. At first I was confused, as I was used to being physically threatened and attacked while on stage, but Taco wasn’t doing anything except standing at one end of the stage, looking tough. Later that night he told me that he was on stage just in case anyone there got out of hand and tried to rush the stage to harm us. He was ready to protect us, but there turned out to be no need, luckily.
We played CBGB’s again back to back for two nights in early December of 1977, this time with the Cramps. There was an obsessed Cramps fan at the front of the stage who literally screamed throughout their entire set at such an ear shattering volume that I could continually hear her above the PA back in the dressing room directly behind the stage. The Ramones were on tour at this time, so we didn’t get to see each other this trek. At one point during my set, Skafish guitarist / vocalist Karen Winner was singing a portion of the Bobby Darin classic, “Beyond the Sea.” For this piece, I was sitting down like a toddler on stage playing with a bright rainbow colored beach ball. Then, I kept giving it to a guy at the front of the stage but he didn’t want it at all… so he gave it back to me – then I gave it back to him more forcefully… then he threw it back at me — I threw it harder at him…this kept going on and on until he turned around and stormed out of the club in disgust — but I did get to keep my beach ball. Both our April and December 1977 shows at CBGB’s led to our first international feature story in England’s New Musical Express in April 1978. Written by legendary punk writer Mykel Board and entitled: “New Messiah Scores With Deviants,” the story also featured pictures he had taken of us at CBGB’s. His story introduced Skafish into international consciousness.
In the summer of 1978, we opened for The Ramones a second time at Club Monopoly in Chicago. We finished sound check around dinner time, and Joey came up to me and said, “Come on with me.” When I first met Joey in April of 1977, I felt an immediate connection, kinship and camaraderie with him as we were both social misfits; he didn’t fit in and I obviously didn’t either. Joey always seemed quite introverted to me and in a way, uncomfortably shy. He wasn’t stereotypic in any way, didn’t open up to people easily, had a hard time finding a girlfriend, all of which I quite loved about him. So I thought it would be great to go wherever Joey wanted me to go and we left the club. As we were walking down the street I was not at all sure of our destination, how long it would take and what we were going to do, but I was fine. People were gawking at us a lot and I liked that.
Skafish: “Joey, why did you guys get a new drummer?” (Original drummer Tommy Ramone had been recently replaced by Marky Ramone who had previously played with Richard Hell.)
Joey: “Tommy just freaked out. One day when we were on tour, and he just jumped out of the van and completely freaked out.” Tommy said, “That’s it! I’m not going to tour ever again.”
Skafish: Is he OK? I hope he’s OK. What about your new album? (They were doing “Road To Ruin,” their fourth LP.)
Joey: “We did some county and western on it! We did some ballads too.” (The references here presumably are to the tracks “Don’t Come Close” and “Needles and Pins
About ten minutes later we finally arrived at our destination. No it wasn’t a hip record store or a thrift shop with bizarre tattered vintage clothes – of all places, it was a grocery store filled with suburban housewives and screaming kids. Why were we there? What could we possibly be doing at a grocery store? I walked in alongside Joey, who was a bit taller than me. I’m about 6’3” maybe 6’4” and I would put Joey at about 6’5” or 6’6.” Joey looked like he always did: ripped blue jeans, plain canvas tennis shoes, his trademark black leather jacket and sunglasses which I observed to be prescription sunglasses, not just vanity shades. I had on torn and tattered boys swim trunks, which I had pushed up my rear crack to let my fanny cheeks hang out and a too tight t-shirt on.
Right away, my first instinct was to go into survival mode. OK, who’s gonna attack us? Where are the exits if we have to make a run for it? If we have to, we’ll fight back! So we kept on walking and of course, the “normals” were staring. To me, it’s hysterical to speculate on what they could have thought: “Did they just get out of a mental institution?” Better yet, “Did they ESCAPE from a psych ward and should we call somebody right away to take them back where they belong, maybe the fire department or the police?”
There’s a reason why I’m saying “mental institution.” In April of 2007, I was speaking on the phone with Dave Frey, the manager of the Ramones. He told me a story that years ago, the Ramones pulled into a 24 hour self service gas station/quick mart late one night in Texas. All four Ramones and their road manger went into the store while getting gas and bought a couple of items. When the band went back to the van and their road manger was still in the store at the counter, the cashier, an elderly woman said reverently and sincerely to him, “Sir, it is so kind of you to take them out of the mental institution and watch over them like this. God bless you.”
Back to the grocery store — Somehow, reflexively, my next mode of thought was to observe Joey and how he was handling all of this. I started monitoring him as I tuned out the surroundings: bright garish overhead lighting, sales on produce signs, screaming kids etc… Joey remained stoic and unfazed, walking deliberately with a sense of being quite closed off to whatever and whoever was around us. That was his way of being cool, as if he had already learned survival skills for these types of situations. In that moment, I remember admiring his detachment, as I was much more sensitive to whatever and whoever was around me.
Then we reached our destination. No it wasn’t for beer, Coca Cola, or even a little snack before the show – It was… cosmetics!? I was in disbelief. Not because I wouldn’t go to cosmetics, but because I would have never thought that Joey Ramone would be shopping in cosmetics. Why were we in cosmetics amidst a bunch of made up sales women trying to sell Estee Lauder and hypo allergenic foundation to upper middle class housewives? As we were standing at the cosmetics counter, looking like the oddest freakiest couple on planet earth, it dawned on me that everyone in the grocery store might just be afraid of us – in their minds, we could maybe be criminals… So I just stood alongside Joey, quietly and observationally. He bought two items: cover stick and face powder. I probably looked like a person who had just been punked, or frozen in time – like when you’re mind goes completely blank for a moment…Where am I? What’s my name again? What day is today? I can’t quite recall…
Then all these analytical thoughts started racing through my head: If Joey is wearing his sunglasses which he always wears on stage, why would he buy cover stick, you know, to put under his eyes to hide bags and dark circles? Who would ever see under his eyes anyway with his sunglasses on? Why face powder? His hair covers most of his face on stage, the glasses cover the rest, so what is it for? I never did bother to ask him why, but I figured, “Hey, it’s perfect. Why not?” We maybe startled some housewives and that’s good enough for me. In a very nonchalant way, Joey simply took some bunched up crumpled up cash out of his pocket, no wallet but just out of the front pocket of his jeans. He paid for his items and we were on our way back to the club.
When we got back to the club, it was mid evening. All of us were in this rather small dressing room at Club Monopoly before the show: the Ramones, Skafish band and my road manager Jimy Sohns. (Jimy Sohns is the singer of the legendary Chicago band “The Shadows Of Knight,” who first hit it big in 1966 with the classic “Gloria.” That song alone went on to sell 4 million copies worldwide and several hits followed for the band. As Jimy’s career had gone through those well known ups and downs of a life in rock ‘n’ roll, he recently had become my road manager.) Jimy Sohns was casually strumming his vintage Rickenbacker guitar and no one was paying much attention till the subject of the guitar came up: “Oh, this is the guitar we used to cut Gloria with,” Jimy stated.
Johnny Ramones’ eyes lit up and seemed to bug out of his head. “I’ll give you a thousand dollars cash for it right now,” Johnny offered for the guitar. Jimy, as one would assume, refused to part with his historical axe. Johnny still persisted for a while as he really wanted it, but Jimy wouldn’t part with this piece of rock music history. As I was exiting the dressing room, I don’t remember Joey having done any vocal warm ups before his set, but I do recall that later down the road, he did study opera for a while to train his voice which is a great idea, one I highly recommend for any singer.
That evening, we did our performance and the Ramones followed with theirs. Joey was in good voice and the band played their songs about the same speed on their records; maybe a bit faster. At tempos similar to their studio recordings, the lyrics and vocal melodies were still quite audible. I really loved the Ramones clever, well-written songs of this era featuring Joey’s very distinctive voice. The audience was fantastic – not as wildly dressed as the July 1977 show, but a bit more laid back and hip.
Months later, I was told that The Ramones were looking for me to see if I was lurking around at a show of theirs at The Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, which I couldn’t attend. Different Ramones were asking where I was hiding as that was something I might have done. “OK, where is Skafish? Is he around the corner or something?” Right after my first LP was released in the May of 1980, I went backstage to a Ramones show at a Chicago college and I gave Dee Dee Ramone my first LP. I remember him repeatedly saying, “Now which track is the best one?” I surmised that he would probably recall the first track, as he wouldn’t have to think about it. So I told him, “The first track is the best one.” This way, he could put on the record and not have any trouble remembering which track is the one I recommended for him to listen to.
Back in the day, Joey did find a girlfriend who moved in with him and accepted an engagement ring, only later to break up with him. After the break up, she ended up marrying Johnny Ramone and consequently stayed married to Johnny until he passed on. This disappointment further emphasized Joey’s alienation and for the rest of his life, he never made a serious or long lasting commitment to another woman. This contributed to Joey and Johnny not speaking for many years, which required an intermediary to be on tour. Even in the small confines of a tour bus, they didn’t speak to each other, so the intermediary would have to pass messages between the two of them. The intermediary would speak on John’s behalf, “John says our shows are selling out in Spain, so we should add some more tour dates to make some money.” Joey would then respond, “Tell John that I am – thinking about it.” As one their albums was aptly titled, “Too Tough To Die,” the Ramones weren’t going to merely fade off into the sunset, even amidst financial stress and personal issues. Now that Johnny and Joey are both in spirit, it is my sincere hope that they can resolve whatever barriers came between them.
In 2001, I remember getting the mail and preparing to read the new Rolling Stone, when my eyes caught part of the cover: “Joey Ramone 1951-2001.” I was stunned and felt paralyzed. All of the images: memories, performances, scenes and experiences I shared with Joey and the rest of the band started racing through my mind, like a flash slide show I wasn’t in control of. I felt resentful and sad that Joey didn’t achieve the success he rightfully deserved and now it was simply too late for him. He was gone… At first, it didn’t seem real to me, as most of us initially feel when someone we know leaves this dimension. I started to cry and I was quickly going into emotional overwhelm, when I rushed downstairs into my basement where I keep a little spinet piano just to privately write songs on. I took all of the pain, sadness and disappointment of that moment and channeled it into an alternative rock / pop song for Joey named “Forever Fetal,” a song I do plan on recording. I co dedicated the song to my band member Barbie Goodrich who transitioned into spirit, also from cancer, about 6 years prior.
It’s ironic to me that as I’m writing this over thirty years after I first met Joey Ramone, I recently noticed that Joey and I crossed paths again, this time on the Internet in rock ‘n’ roll cyberspace — as both being included on a list entitled: The 16 ugliest men in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. My, oh my, how flattering! Wouldn’t my mommy and daddy be proud of me? (LAM=Laughing at myself!) Yet to me, Joey Ramone represented everything that is beautiful about rock ‘n’ roll: a home for the disenfranchised, a special singing voice, a unique individual with a one-of-a-kind essence and a timeless icon…