By Sarah L. Myers
New York, USA
Images courtesy of Mickey Leigh
New York City, May 2007: I sat down with Mickey Leigh at Joey’s East Village apartment to talk about I Slept With Joey Ramone, the biography he’s writing with Legs McNeil. The time spent on the subject was relatively short - the rest of the evening had Mickey sharing photographs and memories... Mickey also played some records, and showed me other things in Joey’s apartment - the JAWS cookie jar, his one gold record (for Ramones Mania), and the drawers overflowing with cassettes and CDs. It was a special night, and listening to his stories was a great preview of what’s to come in the book.
I Slept With Joey Ramone
New York City, November 2009: Two and a half years ago I interviewed Mickey Leigh for the first time to discuss his new project, a book called I Slept With Joey Ramone. It was a family memoir, an inspiring story about a boy from Queens who overcame adversity to become a punk icon. It was early in the writing process, with the first of many deadlines coming up. The second time I interviewed Mickey Leigh, I held the finished book in my hand. I Slept With Joey Ramone is much more than a biography. Along with punk writer Legs McNeil, he has written an honest account of he and Joey’s life. We learn about Joey’s startling birth, the tragic death of the boys’ stepfather, his romantic relationships, life after the Ramones, and his untimely death at only 49 years old.
THIRSTY: The last time I was here was May 2007, and you had started writing. Just thinking back on that, how does it feel now that it’s finally here?
Mickey Leigh: How do I feel? I don’t know, I mean I’m not trying to be overly modest or whatever but after 45 years of rejection from major record labels it’s just hard to believe something is finally panning out. Maybe its because its the publishing industry this time. I’m just in shock! Put it that way. Yes, I am admittedly jaded, but I'm also very happy!
THIRSTY: And people have been waiting so long for this book to come out, so you must be getting tons of people just beating down your door at this point.
Mickey: Well, after hearing it will be coming out year-after-year, and it not happening, I think people kind of gave up. There were some things on the Internet like, “I’ve been hearing about this for years, I’ll believe it when I see it.” But I think it’s starting to sink in that it’s really happening. Ramones fans are very excited!
THIRSTY: It strikes me that people can take a band like the Ramones, a band that’s so loved and so revered, to the point that people become territorial they love them so much, and focus only on all of the fighting that seemed to surround them throughout their career.
Mickey: Well, it’s not just them. There are things like that with every band, and their fans as well, I guess. But you are talking about people who prefer to live in a fantasy world where every band lives together in happiness, like in a Beatles movie or something. And when they find out it's not that way, they panic or something and want to take sides. I don't know, this a confusing question. Then again, it wasn't a question was it?
THIRSTY: So have you gotten any negative feedback about writing a book about your brother?
Mickey: I’ve been getting negative feedback for 30 years. As soon as I got into a band or set foot on the stage, I was doing it because I was riding my brother’s coattails. I mean, there’s a faction of people that just have a lot of resentment for any relative of any celebrity. And I guess I’m sort of guilty of that too. I always thought a lot of people... I mean, like Ashlee Simpson (laughs), there are so many examples. Now any relative of any celebrity has their own reality show. And for the most part it’s usually true that somebody had a relative and started a band. I met Julian Lennon for a few seconds at the U2 show at Giants Stadium. And I said, “Julian, I’m Joey Ramone’s brother, I think we have something in common.” And he goes, “Well, yeah!” We started talking about it and I said, “I know what shit I go through, I can imagine what you go through.” There’s always been resentment and I guess it’s just a natural thing you have to deal with. I knew this was going to bring a lot of that.
Joey Ramone and Mickey Leigh
THIRSTY: How do you plan on dealing with all of that? Do you have a –
Mickey: A plan of defense? (laughs) No, my only plan of defense was to write a great book. An honest book and a balanced book and not go out of my way to attack anybody or make it personal. I said tons of bad things about myself in this book. I deprecated all over myself. Revealed all kinds of bad things. Things that I’m sure are in your other article! Things I’ve been talking about for years. If I’m going to make fun of somebody I try to do it about myself because I know how to take a joke. And that was a joke too. (laughs)
THIRSTY: The list of people you interviewed for this book was massive, and I remember in our first interview you said it was around 60 people. How did you decide who ended up in the book?
Mickey: I knew in my head how I wanted to tell the story. So I knew who I wanted information from. Or who to corroborate certain things with. Simon and Schuster really didn’t want any quotes. And I only wanted the most necessary ones, so we wound up paraphrasing many things, or i just wrote the story instead of using the quotes. I wanted to tell his story from birth to death. So I wanted to get bits from my stepbrother and stepsister, because that was part of the story. We had this family of four kids, and (our stepfather) got killed, and one day we come home and our stepbrother and sister, they weren’t there. They were taken away to live with their uncle. It was kind of a traumatic thing. I mean, you have this brother and sister, and then it’s just me and my mother and my brother again. So I wanted to get a couple of quotes from them. And of course my mother and every person that was applicable to telling the story, you know. I knew the characters in my head, and I knew how I wanted to tell it. And Legs was right in a certain aspect, that you never know what you’re going to get from these people. It could be something you’re not looking for, or it could be an amazing piece of information. I mean, I guess I knew because I was there.
THIRSTY: And this book is about Jeff Hyman. It’s not about Joey Ramone, the Rock Star. it’s about your brother.
Mickey: Yes, it's about my brother, Jeff Hyman, who also happened to be Joey Ramone. It is one and the same person, just a different name. It is about his family, his friends, his band, the women in his life, the people who inspired him, and the people he inspired.
THIRSTY: Who were Joey’s best friends?
Mickey Leigh (with guitar) and Joey Ramone - 1966
Mickey: His best friends? He had different best friends at different times. Not to make myself important or anything, but we were best friends. Until the early '90's when we had a big fight. But even then, according to him, I was his best friend. But, aside from "best friends" he had many other good friends. George Seminara, Kevin Patrick, Rachel Felder and Andy Shernoff, Richie Stotts, Chris Snipes later on. Too many to name. Legs was one of his best friends until later, until the 1980s. then there was a period in the 1990's where my brother seemed to like want to surround himself not so much with the old friends who knew him from the old days when he was just starting out, at CBGB’s when he wasn’t a big rock star. He just wasn’t associating with them anymore. He began to associate more exclusively with people who basically were huge fans of his; like the president of his fan clubs and people who created fanzines. People who idolized him. Those were the people he surrounded himself with. Daniel Rey was a good friend of his at that time. I don’t know if some of these people were friends because they had something to gain from being his best friend. But, obviously, there were many people were trying to benefit from the relationship.
THIRSTY: Do you think he distanced himself from old friends because he didn’t want to be reminded of his life before he was this big rock star? Or why do you think it really was?
Mickey: I mean, I guess I’m giving a real laymen’s diagnosis to that, but, like I said in that movie (“End of the Century” documentary), it was what he needed to do to feel good about himself, you know? I would have thought he had enough confidence in himself at that point, that he wouldn’t need that. Everybody is different, and everybody needs what they need. And I think part of it might have been the struggle he was going through with John, his bandmate, who was always treating him like he got treated in Forest Hills. John always treated him like a joke, like a clown, like a hippie, like a freak. So maybe because of that.
As the night wore on, Mickey told stories. We looked at pictures. Joey and Mickey with their stepfather, Joey and Mickey on Christmas morning (Joey got a slinky!), and Joey's ridiculously long legs jutting out in every shot. And just like last time, there was music. Mickey played unheard rough cuts of Joey's new solo record. Songs like "Party Line" - a heartbreaking doo-wop tale of love in the style of Joey's beloved Ronettes, and the kick-ass classic punk rock of "NYC". Sitting on Joey's couch in Joey's apartment, Joey's voice echoing off Joey's walls, I knew how lucky I was to be there. Also like last time, the night felt bittersweet. Recalling old memories often is, as Mickey acknowledged. I Slept With Joey Ramone was published on December 1, 2009.