"I Slept With Joey Ramone"
By: De Fen
I recently had a chance to talk with Mickey Leigh about his book, I Slept With Joey Ramone. We discussed Joey, The Ramones, Punk Rock and more.
Punk Globe: First, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I just finished reading I Slept With Joey Ramone and thoroughly enjoyed it. Can you tell the Punk Globe readers why you decided to tell your story?
Mickey Leigh: Thanks for spreading the word about this book. I decided to tell the story our lives because I knew it was one worth telling. I didn't write it for Ramones fans specifically, though I was pretty certain they would be interested, but I knew if I told it honestly, and from the heart, that so many people would be able to find parallels in their own lives, and relate to the struggles within their own families. I felt certain that it could be beneficial to anyone who has had to fight through adversities of their own; that seeing what someone with as many issues as my brother had was able to accomplish would surely help them with their own. I also thought that if I didn't do this, and do it right, it would be a tremendous waste of an opportunity to inspire people. I knew I had to make it entertaining as well, or no one would bother reading the 400 pages I wrote. I know I wouldn't!
Punk Globe: I really liked the oral history type narration of I Slept With Joey Ramone. That so many different perspectives, via interview clips were woven around your narrative made for an interesting time piece. Did you plan to write it this way or did that come about working with Legs McNeil?
Mickey Leigh: That was the way I'd always envisioned it, even prior to the day I began writing the first lines, and that was long before Legs was involved. There were things I wanted said straight from the mouths of the people involved, as not only did I not particularity want to say them myself, but for several reasons. I knew that if certain things came from me, as opposed to the person who was actually saying them, I would more than likely be accused of slanting the truth, and fabricating things out of jealousy or bitterness purely to make my brother look bad. But you can tell when reading the book that even the people who said things that might be unflattering were people who loved Joey, and were not saying these things to be vicious. They felt comfortable saying them because they know me as well, knew what my intentions were, and were confident about what the overall picture would look like. I asked Legs to be the "co-writer" because when it became time to begin the process of finding a publisher I was told by the agent who would be shopping the book that, as I hadnít written a book before, I would have to take on a co-writer who's work had been published in order for him to shop it to major publishing companies. I chose to work with Legs not only because we've been friends for over 30 years, but he was also a very close friend of my brother's. Plus, he already had some interview material that I felt would be valuable. But, this was the way I wanted to present the book from the get-go. I wanted to flesh out the story with quotes coming from the actual people involved in order to have no question about the book's credibility, as I knew some people would find some of these things unbelievable. And despite the book being vetted by Simon & Schuster's legal team in order to avoid any lawsuits, there are a few people who refuse to believe certain things anyway- in a similar way as those people who believe Michael Jackson only slept with little boys because he loved children.
Punk Globe: How was it working with Legs McNeil? Had you ever worked on a project with him before, in all the years you had been friends?
Mickey Leigh: He had interviewed me for his book Please Kill Me, and asked me to play guitar in the background while he and (co-author) Gillian McCain were doing some of their book readings, for ambience. I'd also written a song called Please Kill Me for those occasions- but the only thing we'd ever seriously collaborated on prior to this was finishing off six-packs of beer.
Punk Globe: Some people insist punk started in the U.S. and some are equally insistent that it started in the U.K. I thought you made some interesting observations about punk being a musical revolution and a cultural movement that was launched together. Can you expand upon that?
Mickey Leigh: Like I said in the book, it was a real 'what came first, the chicken or the egg' situation, and that the evolution of "punk rock" stemmed from the garage bands of the 60's, and bands like The Who... and even Elvis = Presley, not Costello.
Punk Globe: In your book you mention your brother's messes in relation to his O.C.D. quite a bit. I don't think many people fully grasp the severity of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or that Joey Ramone struggled with this. Can you tell the Punk Globe readers a bit about this?
Mickey Leigh: Well, I'm not a psychiatrist, so I'm afraid I can't really explain in detail what causes certain people to able to control their impulses more or less than others. From what I've learned, everyone has this tendency to a degree- you might go back to make sure you closed a door completely once, while someone else needs to do it repeatedly until they can convince themselves they did it correctly. For some people with extreme OCD it becomes an issue of counting. Something in their mind, be it their own or an unrecognizable voice, tells them they have to turn a light switch on or off, or put a spoon down on the table a predetermined amount of times, or this voice tells them they somehow didn't put it down correctly, or in way they can just leave it there and move on.. Some people have to step off a curb, or repeat a variety of actions in just a certain way, or certain amount of times or they can't focus on anything else. In some cases it can impede the persons ability to function to such an extreme it may jeopardize their health, or even safety, in a multitude of ways. My brother was afflicted with this problem to a great extent.
Punk Globe: With any kind of "mental illness" there is such a fine line between recognizing the person's limitations without stigmatizing them or looking upon them as a poor thing. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Mickey Leigh: As you say there is a fine line there. When my brother's problems began manifesting to the point where he himself was becoming concerned in his early teens, my mother took him to doctor after doctor, who told us that he would never be able to function on his own, that he would most likely have to be taken care of his whole life, several of them went as far as to declare he would a vegetable. This is where the environment that person is in is the decisive factor. If in an environment that they get no support, no encouragement and are relegated to being treated as such, they may never thrive. On the other hand, if they do get those things, there is the possibility they can be productive. Fortunately for my brother, our mother was an incredibly nourishing person, and raised us in such a way to never think of any individual as useless because they may not be on a par with the status quo. That because a person might be struggling with whatever mental or physical condition they have been afflicted with, it does not mean they have absolutely nothing within them to offer society, or to contribute, be it artistically or another way. She instilled that in me, and though it was very difficult to grow up sharing a room with someone turning lights on and off, running the water in the bathroom for hours and hours, unable to throw things away; or to walk to school with him as he stepped on and off the curb while the other kids pointed and laughed- due to the way my mother raised me I was about as sensitive as a younger brother could possibly be. If I had been like a jock, or macho type of kid, I don't think he would have fared as well. I'll admit I lost it several times, but l never treated him as a hopeless lump of flesh. I encouraged him as much as possible, taught him how to play the guitar, and encouraged him to get into bands. When he found himself unable to deal with his problem and felt suicidal, he voluntarily admitted himself to St Vincent's Psychiatric Ward for evaluation. That was when I told him "don't worry, there's a little genius in every madman." We were not your average family. Our parents got divorced when we were very young. Our mother was an artist who encouraged us to recognize and express our individuality. I knew we were different from the other kids. My brother was not normal, and we lived in the same room, so neither was I. It was impossible for me to be. I shared his problems right along side him, and knew I had to, like it or not. We were both freaks. Fortunately he was able to tap into his inner strengths and realize them, unleash the incredible talent he had within him, and was in an environment that allowed him to thrive. And as fate would have it, thanks to rock & roll, it worked out pretty damn well for him.
Punk Globe: Some would say that alongside limitations, there are also advantages in terms of creative output. One of the things I loved best about the Ramones was that they presented a fully fleshed out alternate world. Do you think there is any truth to that or is that romantic b.s.?
Mickey Leigh: I repeat, there is a little genius in every madman. Put three madmen together who were able to tap into their genius and you get the Ramones. Tommy was not a madman, but the other three had enough craziness to make up for his normalcy. You have to be at least slightly abnormal to create original art, or you will have nothing unique to offer. Take Kathy Lee Gifford for example.
Punk Globe: In chapter 20 of your book I found some very interesting observations your brother made: "There were always punks in rock & roll" alluding to the black motorcycle aesthetic of early Beatles and as far back as Gene Vincent. You added that they all altered this aesthetic to become more commercially successful. I really like the idea of a sort of 'spirit of rebellion' as a phenomena in the creative arts that connects so many historical figures. The idea that Arthur Rimbaud and Joey Ramone for example could share a coca cola and likely share more in common than they might share with the status quo of their own centuries. Ha, this could just be more romantic b.s. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Mickey Leigh: Every individual is unique unto themselves. We all share a common denominator. Everything has it's value. Some people are gifted with thoughts and intellect that not everyone can relate to, and they are extremely valuable. Those people can inspire you in so many ways, and you can learn so much from them. And some people are afraid to realize just how much of a common denominator we all share or they don't feel as special. What I love about the Ramones is they didn't think of themselves as special or extraordinary, and they let people know that just because you're not a brilliant poet, or intellectual, if you're not Arthur Rimbaud, it's ok- you're one of us. They found the common denominator, they were the common denominator, and thank the powers that be they accepted that and didn't try to be Rimbaud. Believe me, not one of them knew who the hell Arthur Rimbaud was. You want Rimbaud, listen to Patti Smith. If you simply want to have fun, and listen to someone you can relate to you without a struggle, to everyday people, listen to the Ramones. Everything has its value.
Punk Globe: Concerning the lack of commercial success of The Ramones, do you feel that their aforementioned rebellious aesthetic had a lot to do with that?
Mickey Leigh: Obviously. But they weren't merely rebellious. They were also demented, warped, twisted, and insane. They had all those things going for them as well. And we all have a little bit of those things in us. Some people just try to deny it, and are afraid if they do allow that part of them to be known it might cost them their job- and they're probably right.
Punk Globe: Actually, it's very surprising that they weren't more commercially successful. I do say this as a big Ramones fan. I have often wondered if their lack of hits had anything to do with the fact that many of their albums sound like greatest hits collections and it's difficult to isolate "the song". Do you think there is any truth to that? Irregardless, it does seem that their lack of commercial success drove them to be so prolific. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Mickey Leigh: If you first become known for, and gain popularity by doing songs like " Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" "Beat On The Brat with a baseball bat" "Gonna Kill That Girl" "You're a loudmouth baby, you better shut it up, I'm gonna beat you up" " I'm a nazi baby I'm a nazi yes I am" and think you're gonna have commercial success, you're going to be very disappointed. That's one thing I think they could never quite understand, and it frustrated them. I didn't care if they had commercial success. I loved Frank Zappa who songs were also warped and twisted, and I equated them with him. Zappa knew it, utilized his appeal to non commercial market, played upon his approach of No Commercial Potential and thrived by not trying or expecting to be commercially successful. Like I said in my book, as far as them attaining commercial success I think they painted themselves into a corner from the get go, and couldn't get out it. Sure they had plenty of songs that could've/should've been hits. But they had an image. And the people who lay out money to back bands with the prospect of a return financially are gonna find much safer bands to invest in. That's show biz. And it ain't rocket science. So I don't get what the big mystery is. Screw the lack of a hit record. I loved them more for not caring about having a hit record, initially. I didn't love them for "Baby I Love You" with gooey violin parts that sounded like Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love."
Punk Globe: I found the sections in your book about the recording you, Joey Ramone and your father did to be hilarious and sweet. Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about "Hot Poppa"? Was it ever released?
Mickey Leigh: NO!! Not while I'm alive at least.
Punk Globe: Johnny Ramone came across very poorly in your book, (and others I've read as well) were you able to maintain any sort of relationship with him towards the end of his life?
Mickey Leigh: Yes, thankfully, but it was after great difficulty and only when he became very ill, and scared of dying. That was when he seemed to reach out to me more, and invited me to his house, and we would talk about movies, and music, and baseball, as we did when I best friends with him and we were in a band together- when I was 14 and he was 21. But I'm very glad we were at least able to do that, even if it was not for very long.
Punk Globe: Towards the end of your book you mention getting busted for pot. I thought the whole way you handled that situation was righteous. Do you have any thoughts you'd like to share about the criminalization of marijuana? Also, you said that the worms in the can that was opened were still wiggling. Were you referring to the stigmatization of having a drug related charge on one's record? Can you talk a bit about this?
Mickey Leigh: The worms in the can I was referring to was that the person they had wanted me to set up, my great friend and band mate in The Rattlers, who they finally did get in the late 90's was still in prison. He is finally free now. I thought that marijuana would certainly be decriminalized before there would ever be a non-white person elected president of the United States of America. I've had to adapt that thought, and find a replacement for the non-white person. Now I think that it will be decriminalized before a Jew is elected president. It's just pathetic that I was busted with 3/4 of a pound of pot, and there were ten FBI and DEA agents in my house, and two months later terrorists blew up bombs in the World Trade Center. Need I say more? It's just ridiculous; simply about money and selling prescription pills.
Punk Globe: Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about the Sibling Rivalry project you did with your brother?
Mickey Leigh: It was after I'd gotten busted, and I was still on probation. It was the best time my brother and I had with each other in years. I get very emotional when I think about that time we spent in the studio together. I'd hoped we would have been able to write new songs together for that, but for whatever reason that didn't happen. So, it wound up we had to use two of my other songs to fill out the EP. One of them was the original recording of The Rattlers "On The Beach" which my brother sang back-up vocals on; and the other was a song I'd co-written with my dear friend, and former Rattlers band mate Billie Bailley who passed away from cancer last summer. It's called Don't Be So Strange, which he is singing. I put it on the STOP album. Joey isn't even on that one at all. As a result of it being on the Sibling Rivalry EP those two songs have unfortunately become known as Joey Ramone songs. In fact, there is a youtube clip which attributes Don't Be So Strange to the Ramones, labeled as an unreleased Ramones track and accompanied by a picture of the first Ramones album. If you are going to ask me if being Joey Ramone's brother helped or hindered my career, you have your answer right there. But I cherish that time and that record, and I have hard time holding back the tears when I listen to See My Way, the first song on it, the only one we did record and sing together for that record. It's just fuckin' beautiful.
Punk Globe: Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about your column "My Guitar is Pregnant" in the New York Waste? Are you still writing that column?
Mickey Leigh: I loved writing that column and it was so beneficial for me- writing and editing it myself.I do plan on compiling those columns for a book. One of these days. I still write one for the Waste every once in a while. I wish I had more time to do it more often. I have so little time for anything these days aside from taking care of my brother's business and struggling with the all consuming dealings of Ramones Productions. That has become a horrific nightmare; a life draining, energy zapping, bottomless hole to hell. Between my partner, her lawyer, and worst of all dealing with her megalomaniacal manager John Cafiero there are long stretches I have time for anything else but dealing with that, much less write for the NY Waste. Writing these answers for this has taken me at least 5 hours, but that ain't your fault, and I'm very grateful that you are interested in these things.
Punk Globe: Can you tell the readers about The Rattlers, The Tribe, The Plug Uglies and other bands you've played in over the years and who you worked with?
Mickey Leigh: I have hopes to get all those things (save The Plug Uglies) back in action. There is a wealth of material, unreleased, and unrecorded tracks I want to get out someway, somehow. And songs I've written over the past ten years, I'm very much looking forward to getting back to that, and getting back to playing out. I can't wait til things simmer down and I can do that. I'm raring to go. Getting hungrier by the moment to just be able to play again. There are several projects I'm working on, when possible. One called The New Yorkestra comprised of a multi-ethnic musicians from all over NYC, another called The Forest Hillbillies- a gathering of my hometown buddies; a bubble gum band called Y- a collaborative effort with my brilliant guitarist/songwriterpal Mike Beiber...I can dream, right?
Punk Globe: Do you have any links or website you'd like to share with the Punk Globe readers?
Mickey Leigh: http://www.joeyramoneplacerio.com/ I opened a store in Rio- Joey Ramone Place, a punk merch store, a percentage of which any proceeds I might make will go to a charity for children in the favellas there, which are some of the worst in the world. I hope to raise as much as possible for that. I opened the store last June. It's being run for me by the family of an old friend from Forest Hills who moved to Rio 25 years ago. That is another tremendous amount of work. Man, I'm tired, but feel fulfilled in so many ways.
Punk Globe: Again, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. As I read your book I couldn't help but think it'd be a great read for all outsiders, be they intentionally outside the status quo or unintentionally so, particularly the kids. I suppose I made some parallels between your book and the 'It Gets Better' campaign as it's not uncommon at all for some of us in the Queer community to latch onto particular icons who may not be Queer queer, but definitely queer as in odd.
Mickey Leigh: I'm proud of that video- think it came out great. I had no money to put into it, ( I'm not as wealthy as some people think, but not complaining) but me and the guy who does my websites -who prefers to avoid bringing attention to himself- worked really hard on it; and the Rattlers song, I Won't Be Your Victim, conveys that message so perfectly. I so much wanted to do something that might bring attention to that issue and am still trying my best to get it seen by as many people as possible.
Punk Globe: Do you have any parting words for all the weird kids?
Mickey Leigh: Stay weird.