Death changes how you listen to an artist. You can't help it. Try putting on Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" this week and not thinking about her lonesome end. It's pretty much impossible. Of course, eventually the shock of death fades a bit and it's just another song by the Doors. There's a ton of famed posthumous albums, from Nirvana's "MTV Unplugged" to Roy Orbison's "Mystery Girl" to George Harrison's "Brainwashed."
Some after-death albums are better than others, some are obvious record-company attempts to catch in on leftover bits and bobs (hello, Tupac Shakur!). Occasionally, you get one that's a defining final statement by an artist who knows the end is near. Warren Zevon's "The Wind," the latter albums of Johnny Cash, and one of my favorites, Joey Ramone's "Don't Worry About Me."
Is it morbid? Hipster nostalgia? Probably a bit of all of the above. But 10 years after his death, I still find myself listening to and enjoying a Ramones fan curiosity -- the only solo album by lead singer Joey Ramone, released a year after his death from cancer in 2001.
"Don't Worry About Me" doesn't break the Ramones mold. Short, sharp and punchy, it's got that distinctive Ramones sound but shot through with a slightly more introspective air, and underneath the punk/pop you realize this is a loose concept album about Joey's life, and his battle with lymphoma.
"Don't Worry About Me" is a 34-minute catharsis for Joey, recording the album from his sickbed. Look at the song titles -- "Stop Thinking About It," "Like a Drug I Never Did Before," the marvelous "I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)". "I Got Knocked Down" is a song for anyone dealing with the horror of their body or a loved one's body failing -- "Sitting in a hospital bed / I want my life," Joey sings. There's nothing too deep or metaphorical about this -- it's Joey's very real frustration, delivered with the same blunt passion the Ramones would bring to lines like "Now I wanna sniff some glue." But "Don't Worry About Me" isn't a downer of an album. With typically goofy Ramones songs like "Mr. Punchy" or a cover of the Stooges' "1969," it's a defiant, resilient album. He doesn't ask you to feel sorry for him -- hell, the final song is the title track, "Don't Worry About Me."
Off-center covers of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" are cliche by now, but man, I still love Joey's take on it, which opens the album with an ecstatic blast, a punch in the face of death and fate. Knowing the singer is gone now, too young, lends it an extra poignancy -- is that manipulative, I suppose? But something being manipulative doesn't mean it isn't also based on truth. As last blasts raging at the darkness go, "Don't Worry About Me" is one of my favorites. Play it at my funeral.