When Joey Ramone died of cancer in 2001, his band's place as the godfathers of punk appeared cemented for all time. One problem: the Ramones weren't really punk. Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee (who died of a drug overdose in June) dressed in black leather and scowled like Bowery thugs, but they actually played some of the loopiest pop music ever made. Blitzkrieg Bop's famous "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" was an homage to the Bay City Rollers, while Joey--singer of the immortal line "I'm a Nazi schatze"--was the deadpan alter ego of Jeffrey Hyman, a nice Jewish boy from Queens.
A humorless tribute to the Ramones is like a sexless tribute to James Brown, yet half the thrill of the new all-star Ramones tribute, We're a Happy Family, comes from hearing irony-impaired acts swing and miss at their heroes' greatest hits. James Hetfield bellows "I was a Green Beret in Vietnam" on Metallica's version of 53rd & 3rd as if he were auditioning for Oliver Stone, while Marilyn Manson, who once seemed a suitable heir to the Ramones (or at least Alice Cooper) turns The KKK Took My Baby Away into a bland bit of Goth melodrama. The Ramones' songbook demands energy and wit. Rancid gets the energy prize, flying through Sheena Is a Punk Rocker an inconceivable 58 seconds faster than the Ramones did, while Bono drops into a drolly perfect growl on U2's Beat on the Brat. But it's Kiss, the least credible contributing act (and the act that cares the least about credibility), that delivers the only great cover, imbuing Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio with an over-the-top nostalgic wackiness that Joey, who grew up on the Shangri-Las and Dion, would have loved.
Now that the Ramones are history, Lou Reed is the last of the New York City avant-rockers still soldiering on. He too has been mislabeled--icy and pretentious--although he's begging for it with his latest project. The Raven, as Reed tells it, is a two-CD "movie for the mind" inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. (Reed's girlfriend Laurie Anderson did a Moby Dick performance piece in 1999; maybe they're working their way through a 10th-grade syllabus?) Half the album is narration--from The Raven, Annabel Lee, etc.--performed by Willem Dafoe, Steve Buscemi and Amanda Plummer in their best Scooby-Doo villain voices. It is exactly as annoying as it sounds.
The other half of The Raven, however, is songs, the best of which are a continuation of the weary romantic journey Reed has been on since his Velvet Underground days. None are verse-chorus-verse accessible, but Perfect Day and the fiery duet I Wanna Know (The Pit and the Pendulum), with the Blind Boys of Alabama, prove that Reed is still attuned to the knocking on his own chamber door. "One thinks of what one hopes to be," he sings mournfully, "and then faces reality." --By Josh Tyrangiel