Remembering Joey Ramone: A Talk With Mickey Leigh

(As a longtime Ramones fan, I was very moved by Mickey Leigh’s memoir about growing up as the younger brother of Joey Ramone, who died tragically of cancer in 2001. The book has just come out in paperback with a new epilogue. I was thrilled to have a chance to ask Mickey Leigh a few questions. — Levi)

Levi: Though it has a sort of jokey title, I sense that I Slept With Joey Ramone is meant to be a serious entry in the field of punk rock literature, along with many other good books like Rotten by Johnny Rotten, Go Now by Richard Hell, Poison Heart by Dee Dee, Please Kill Me by Legs, the new Just Kids by Patti Smith, even And I Don’t Want To Live This Life by Deborah Spungen. Why do you think punk rock has become so literary, or has it always been so?

Mickey: Firstly I’d have to say that, in my opinion, the term “punk rock literature” could serve as a prime dictionary example of an oxymoron. That said, it appears you have a perceptive sense of senses. Jokey title aside, I certainly did mean this to be a serious literary entry, in any field. What I mean by that is — let’s say, for example — that a book about the life of Sigmund Freud does not necessarily have to be an entry in the field of psychiatric literature. This book is about the person, not the field.

Though serious, I had to accompany it with material entertaining and humorous enough to balance out the seriousness. As the subject matter was so emotionally sensitive for me, if I hadn’t done that I would never have been able to finish it. I shed so many tears writing it, if I didn’t make myself laugh often enough, I would never have been able to complete it — nor would I expect anyone else to.

Levi: One thing many of the books mentioned above have in common is a sort of heavy tone, a psychological intensity, and your book certainly fits that description. Your book reveals that Joey Ramone struggled with borderline mental illness throughout his life, starting in his teenage years. Of course, Joey’s lyrics made this no secret (Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment, I Wanna Be Well), but it’s still rather alarming to read your stark account and realize how he must have suffered at times, especially as he tried to maintain his “cool” in public. Was this subject difficult for you to write about?

Mickey: See answer to question #1. Although, to clarify for you, as I said in the book this was a device used to desensitize the feeling of being an outcast, which dates back — to my recollection — as far back as the Gee, Officer Krupke song in West Side Story:

Officer Krupke, you’re really a square
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!

We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed,
We’re the most disturbed,
Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.

So take him to a headshrinker.
Society’s played him a terrible trick,
And sociologic’ly he’s sick!

We are sick, we are sick,
We are sick, sick, sick,
Like we’re sociologically sick!

Levi: Despite his struggles, Joey seems to have lived a happy life, and he was well loved by amazing numbers of people (as a big fan who saw the Ramones in concert about twelve times, I was one of them). He was also a political activist with enthusiastic personal beliefs that often got him labelled as the “punk hippie”. Do you think he retained his idealism through his life? As his big brother, did he influence your ideas, or did you influence his?

Mickey: That was something that was thoroughly mutual. In that aspect we were always in total agreement. We always discussed, supported, informed, and equally influenced each other. In the book, and to this day, if anyone, I credit our mother for encouraging both of us to keep open minds about those issues.

Levi: Like both you and Joey, I’m from the Yellowstone Blvd./108 Street neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens. I’ve always thought that the north side of Forest Hills gets no respect. People think we’re rich because we live in Forest Hills, but there’s no Tudor buildings or tennis stadiums on the 108 Street side. Do you miss Forest Hills? Do you want to give a shout out to Halsey and Forest Hills High?

Mickey: I still live in Forest Hills. Though we grew up on the “north side” — mostly on 110th st, and then right near where you did, on Yellowstone Blvd, I moved to a studio apartment in one of the “Tudor” buildings on Burns St. when I was 20 years old, in 1974 — a studio apartment about four blocks from the Tennis Stadium. The rent was $150 a month. Three years later I moved to a one bedroom in the same building in which I’ve been living for the past 30 years. I pay $722 a month but face the Long Island Railroad tracks, which are about 20 feet from where I’m sitting right now. I can’t hear the TV or the person on the other end of the phone when the trains go by. I often wave to, and occasionally moon the people in them when they slow down or stop, even at this late age. (Hey, fun is fun, and it always will be!)

But, yes, back then — although they used to have great concerts in the Tennis Stadium with bands such as The Beatles, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Dylan — this was a very snooty area. I’m pretty sure I was one of the first Jews to be fortunate enough to get an apartment here. I still have both my Halsey and Forest Hills High School t shirts, still fit into them, and wear them proudly.

Levi: You’re a musician, punk scenester and writer in your own right. What’s next for Mickey Leigh?

Mickey: I’ve, unfortunately, had to put my own life on the back burner to look after my brother’s affairs, as he is not here to do it for himself. I’ve spent most of the last ten years taking care of that and Ramones business while trying to fit in time to write that book. I organize the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash every year to keep his flame burning and also raise money for lymphoma research, opened a Joey Ramone Place store in Rio which 20% of profits will go to children in the favellas (slums), currently finalizing a new Joey Ramone solo album. There is a movie in the works based on my book, which I’m involved with.

But I hope to get back to my own life very soon. I hope to get back to work on another book I started about our adventures hitching to Rockaway Beach, am finally putting together songs for a new album of my own material, just finished a video to bring attention to the current spate of bullying and gay bashing utilizing a Rattlers song I wrote called I Won’t Be Your Victim a whole lot of things. I get tired talking about myself. So, what’s next is I’m gonna make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and go to sleep. Check my websites for updates. And … thanks very much for asking!!

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