I was born in 1954. Hence I grew up in the 1950s into the 60s experiencing all the cultural and political currents of those eras. In the mid-to-late 1970s, when I first started writing, my head and musical tastes were turned by the rise of punk rock, which I witnessed from a fairly early point at the movements legendary ground zero in Manhattan, CBGB.
Hence Im a sucker for the book I Slept With Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir by Ramones younger brother Mickey Leigh with punk scene chronicler Legs McNeil (whose tome Please Kill Me is an essential oral history for anyone interested in the musical and cultural revolution that was New York punk). Im also well disposed to it as Leigh is (full disclosure) a dear friend, and in my flack days I did PR for his band The Rattlers and an album he released by his previous band Birdland with famed rock critic Lester Bangs as its singer. I also knew and became friendly with Joey in the 1980s.
Even without such associations, I would have been disposed to I Slept With Joey Ramone. As its double entendre title and literal subtitle indicates, its anything but the usual rock star bio.
In its early chapters about Joey (Jeff Hyman) and Mickey (Mitchell Hyman) growing up in the 50s in Queens, N.Y., its redolent of my own youth, capturing how that decade felt through a childs eyes and how rocknroll grabbed our attention in a way that compelled us to follow its clarion call. It also conveys the essences of being children of divorce and growing up outside the norm.
As older brother Joey hit his teens, it became obvious that in addition to being physically different with his tall and gangly physique, he suffered from such mental disorders as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and possible touches of psychosis as well as physical challenges and ailments. The experts predicted that he would never amount to much more than an emotional cripple and a burden to society.
But Ramone instead became a progenitor of punk rock and a genuine rocknroll icon. Leigh relates with loving candor and insight both the difficulty of living with a troubled older sibling as well as the wonderment of how Joey transformed himself through his love for music.
The origins of The Ramones including Joeys hippie past that he sought to bury underneath his punk identity and their career that never broke into the big time are covered with an insiders knowledge and insight. The unique characters and internal dynamics of a rock band have rarely been revealed so fully and skillfully.
The book is also a telling tale of sibling love and conflict, and shows how the success and fame that Ramone did achieve affected the relationship between Leigh and Ramone as well as the rest of the family. Since Leigh is also a prodigiously talented musician, songwriter and singer, it also illuminates how some musical artists can make their mark while others remain less known despite their efforts and gifts.
It is capped by the touching rapprochement between the brothers as Ramone fell ill with lymphoma and died in 1991. The Ramones were eventually inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a city block in New Yorks East Village is now named Joey Ramone Place amazing achievements for someone who was branded a loser early in life.
But behind every star and legend is a real human being, and in rock music they are almost always as flawed as they are gifted. Leigh was in the perfect position to show the full picture of the making of a musical icon, and he does so with insight, love, compassion and unflinching honesty (and proves himself a skillful writer of prose in the process). He also tells a classic American tale of brotherhood and family, warts and all, and the times in which he and his brother and the rest of us have grown up and lived. Few writers have ever gotten not just behind the music but inside it and the people who create it as skillfully and revealingly as Leigh, and the humanity within Joey Ramones life story and how Leigh tells it makes this a biography and memoir that soars beyond just the musical connection to offer a story to which most all of us can relate.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2010
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