Joey Ramone’s posthumous debut, Don’t Worry About Me, was released the year after his death in 2001. The album wasn’t great, but to its credit, Ramone had completed much of it before he succumbed to lymphoma. It’s a fair bet the disc closely stuck to the vision he’d hoped to put forward. Granted, his vision didn’t differ radically from that of the Ramones: After three decades of fronting the iconic punk institution, he enlisted some former Ramones-mates and producers to turn Don’t Worry into a faithful eulogy for the group—a eulogy that wound up being his own. Similarly, he couldn’t have predicted that one day his name would be slapped on …Ya Know?, a collection of demos inflated into fully fleshed-out songs thanks to Ramones producers Ed Stasium and Jean Beauvoir (plus guests like Joan Jett, Steven Van Zandt, and Cheap Trick). As a tombstone, it’s superfluous. As an addition to the Ramones’ canon, it’s only slightly more essential.
Despite a handful of tracks that sound exactly like, well, zombified demos, …Ya Know? has some fantastic moments. The curiously (but not unwelcomingly) AC/DC-ish opener “Rock ’N Roll Is The Answer” struts and snarls in counterpoint to the bright-eyed, knock-kneed Ramone, who minces no words in his love for his chosen muse. “I Couldn’t Sleep” is a souped-up rockabilly riff-fest that sparkles with hooks; “What Did I Do To Deserve You?” repurposes portions of one of the Ramones’ signature songs, “Beat On The Brat,” a winking acknowledgement that the band always did so. But when the album trots out its first proper Ramones cover, it stumbles; a version of “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” is a disjointed mess of jazz guitar and tinny drum machine. Always a melancholy song, “Merry Christmas” is reduced to a hollow, unintentionally depressing mess. The slump is immediately rectified by the Jett-aided, T. Rex-checking “21st Century Girl.” Jett—who, like Ramone, has never been shy about her giddy synthesis of garage rock, girl groups, and glam—adds gravelly backups to Ramone’s eternally boyish snarl.
…Ya Know’s most poignant track is also a T. Rex reference. “Life’s A Gas” is an acoustic version of the upbeat yet bittersweet anthem from the Ramones’ 1995 swansong, ¡Adios Amigos!, although the title refers to the T. Rex classic of the same name. But by rendering it hushed and unplugged, Ramone (or at least his exhumer) aligns it reverently with Marc Bolan’s softly strummed lullaby. Smartly placed at the end of …Ya Know?, it closes the disc on a ghostly note: “So don’t be sad / ’Cause I’ll be there,” croons Ramone, his sentiment as haunting as it is calming, “Don’t be sad at all / Life’s a gas.” His troubled yet triumphant life certainly was, to put it lightly, a gas. At its best, though, his body of work transcends him, offering a distilled ideal of rock ’n’ roll that celebrated and caricatured American culture at the same time. Ya Know? may not effectively or conclusively punctuate that ideal—but at least it’s a lovingly executed, sufficiently tuneful excuse to revisit a legend and his vision.