Friday, October 26, 2012

I Slept With Joey Ramone by Mickey Leigh and Legs McNeil

How’s that for a title that gets your attention? No, this isn’t one of those glamorous, tell-all, rock star groupie memoirs. In fact, I cannot imagine any of the members of the punk rock pioneers, the Ramones, even using the word “glamorous” in a sentence…except perhaps to describe a pizza.

I Slept with Joey Ramone is the affectionate account of lead singer Joey Ramone’s complicated relationship with his kid brother Mickey, who also wrote and played music, but lived in Joey’s shadow.

The sections relating the brothers’ childhood in Queens were especially informative, and had the same sense of deep camaraderie that I loved in Frank McCourt’s first memoir Angela’s Ashes, with just a couple of brothers looking out for each other in the big bad city. You learn about their fascination and burgeoning love of rock music, thanks to the Beatles and Phil Spector’s wall of sound.
Joey, being older, really looks out for Mickey at first but his health issues (there are several, both physical and mental) changes that dynamic. As teenagers, the younger brother becomes more popular, making friends and playing music with some of the older kids in the neighborhood. Somewhere down the line, Joey got a chance to play and sing as well. With the Ramones’ success, the dynamic switched again and Mickey feels that Joey never allowed it to switch back. Though Mickey made important songwriting and recording contributions to the Ramones, he was rarely, if ever, credited for them.

For those of you unfamiliar with the band, please seek out their debut self-titled album. You might hear Mickey providing some sublime background vocals in the terrific tracks “Blitzkreig Bop” and “Judy is a Punk.”

The conflicts of Joey and Mickey are really born out of Joey’s inability to stand up to Johnny Ramone, the band’s hardened guitarist who had a chip on his shoulder about everything, including the fact that Mickey quit from his menial job as the band’s roadie. For most of the band’s tenure Johnny and Joey never spoke to each other, and despite the name Ramone being fabricated (it was a name Paul McCartney used in hotels as to not attract attention), the group really behaved like a dysfunctional family.

Though they were extremely influential, the band never achieved the sort of fame and fortune that their imitators achieved. Relative to a struggling Mickey though, Joey was doing very well.

Before reading this title, I had given another Ramones book a whirl, the autobiography Lobotomy by Dee Dee Ramone. Now, Dee Dee was a terrific songwriter. Many of his songs are driven by an intense sense of alienation, self loathing, and hard drug use. They’re also actually quite catchy and over in about two minutes. A 300 page memoir, on the other hand, is a long, excruciating, downward spiral.

Mickey Leigh’s book is much more positive than Dee Dee’s, possibly because Leigh has always been grounded by a strong work ethic without having to succumb to the distractions of fame. He tries his best to see his brother’s side of the story and eventually they do find reconciliation. Legs McNeil, editor of the quintessential account of 1970’s New York punk Please Kill Me, further helps Mickey organize fifty years of memories into a heartfelt story of fighting and forgiveness.  For people who want a strong account of the entire history of the Ramones or a story about an unconventional family, this book will get the job done.

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