We’re A Happy Family

Written by Gerry Visco on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Mickey Leigh may have slept with Joey Ramone, but it was nothing special. Joey snored and he hogged the sheets. But they were only sleeping and Joey was there to comfort Mickey, who was having a nightmare—the two are brothers after all. We never find out in I Slept With Joey Ramone, Leigh’s new memoir, whether Ramone was good in bed—despite a series of girlfriends—but I’ll confess, it was initially the tongue-in-cheek kiss-and-tell title that inspired me to pick up the book.

Fame and fortune can change a family for the better, but in the case of Joey Ramone and Mickey Leigh—born Jeffrey and Mitchell Hyman—it also provoked intense sibling rivalry. This is not some glitzy bio, but a very personal history of a family that just happened to produce a famous son. Co-written by punk writer Legs McNeil, the book reveals that it wasn’t easy living in the shadow of Joey Ramone.

So why did Leigh and Legs McNeil decide to write the book? “We were having a homosexual relationship, and one morning I turned over and said, ‘Mickey, you should write a book about your brother,’” McNeil told me. The perpetually scowling punk scribe was kidding, of course, but The Ramones were always about humor. Anyway, McNeil is not merely a co-writer of the book but a character in the story. “When we went to CBGBs for that first time to see The Ramones, it was quite impressive,” he says. “There were only around 35 people there that night… I’d never seen anything so authentic on stage.” Of course, unlike the elegant John Varvatos boutique housed there now, CBGBs was gritty. Leigh describes the place as “warm and friendly,” but Ramone would call it a “slum bar,” redolent with the aroma of dog shit, wood paneling and sawdust scattered on the floor. At the time, there was a Bowery flophouse above the bar and you’d have to make your way past the “stumbling, piss-soaked drunks” in front.

This isn’t just another punk-rock throwback, though. In Leigh’s book, Ramone, who is usually described as sweet and awkward, can come across as paranoid and aggressive. What the book makes clear is that Ramone struggled with mental illnesses including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and schizophrenia—in high school he pulled a knife on his mother. His day-to-day functioning was complicated by the illness and whoever lived with him had to put up with lots of irritating habits and take care of his numerous sicknesses.

And there’s the crux of the story. Although Leigh never was a member of The Ramones, he was an integral part of the band but never got the credit or compensation he deserved. (As the band’s road manager, he made $60 a week for two years. When he quit, the next manager made double the amount). Johnny Ramone was extremely dictatorial and belittled Leigh’s attempts to get recognition for working with The Ramones. For example, when Leigh sang back up on the first record, they neglected to credit him. He showed Joey how to play guitar, helped transcribe songs into sheet music and actually introduced Joey to Johnny and Tommy. Part of the problem was the constant in fighting among The Ramones: Joey and Johnny stopped speaking for years after the latter stole the former’s girlfriend; Dee Dee was a hustler and heroin addict who constantly argued with the others. This atmosphere made it difficult for the band to function—and to hang on to a drummer. Unlike The Ramones, Leigh was a trained musician—he played in plenty of bands, including one with rock critic Lester Bangs—and put time and energy into the band, but Joey would accuse him of riding on his coattails.

As the band’s former manager Monte Melnick wrote in his book On the Road with The Ramones, “Mickey and Joey put out a record called Sibling Rivalry. That says it all,”

Three years apart in age, the brothers grew up in a middle class Jewish family in Forest Hills. Their parents divorced when they were young children and they lived with their mother, a strong presence. Their father was distant and strict, and they actually had a better rapport with their two stepfathers. As Ramone became a teenager, his mental illnesses worsened and became a burden on his family. [Worst of all,] it was undiagnosed until his late teens, when he admitted himself into a hospital. “The patient’s personality structure is consistent with diagnosis of Schizophrenia, paranoid type…obsessive-compulsive defenses,” the medical report published in the book reads. “I remember thinking that music was the only hope for my brother and me, that one of us had to make it somehow.”

So it’s dishy, but is the book any good? Yes. It’s well written with entertaining details—though an index would have come in handy—and Leigh attempts to be fair, impartial and honest, giving a balanced picture of growing up in his family. If anything, the book could use more of the bravado and humor The Ramones were known for. The most moving part of the book is at the end, when the brothers were brought together after years of petty arguing by Ramone’s diagnosis of lymphoma.

As Handsome Dick Manitoba, owner of the bar where Ramone played his last show (and a former bandmate of Leigh’s) tells me, “Shakespeare would have had a field day. It’s got everything you need to be a great story.”

>I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir by Mickey Leigh with Legs McNeil (Touchstone), 384 pages