By Carolyn Kellogg
January 28, 2010
Joey Ramone was born Jeff Hyman in 1951 in Queens, N.Y.; his brother came along three years later. As kids, they listened to pop music and saw radio stars such as the Animals and the Shangri-Las; they only missed the Beatles at Shea Stadium because they were at summer camp.
Jeff was always awkward, but when his parents became the first couple in their community to divorce, his troubles grew more pronounced. Tall and lanky, he was a target at school -- even more so after his mother remarried and moved her sons to Howard Beach.
Eventually, the family returned to the old neighborhood, but stability remained elusive. The boys' stepfather was killed in a car accident and their mother rented out a room to stewardesses.
By the late 1960s, they stood out from the neighbors -- slightly poorer, slightly weirder. Adolescent Leigh learned guitar. Teenage Jeff went into Greenwich Village to see bands, got arrested for carrying drugs and went through a barefoot-hippie period followed by a glam period, as he struggled to find a cohort.
Jeff spent his life plagued by what we now recognize as OCD. By the time he was 19, Leigh writes, "[h]e hardly left the house anymore. He just stayed in and kept going though his repetitive rituals: putting on the same clothes every day; not throwing anything away; tapping; turning switches and faucets on and off; and repeatedly picking things up and putting them down. It could take him ten minutes to put a container of milk in the refrigerator and leave it there. My brother was in agony, trying desperately to hang on to his sanity."
If we're accustomed to such intimacy in rock 'n' roll memoirs, usually it comes from bandmates. Rarely do we hear from someone with this kind of shared history. Leigh is caring in his portrait of Jeff; he adored his awkward older brother.
Although Jeff's illness was severe enough to merit a two-week psychiatric evaluation, he eventually found his footing -- seemingly in sync with his evolution into Joey Ramone.
The rough outlines of what follows will be familiar to those who know the history of the band. Guitar player Johnny Cummings, an older friend of Leigh's, started out as the leader. His musical sense was key in shaping the band: When they recorded 1976's "Ramones," it was he who insisted on the stripped-down style that would be a blueprint for generations of punk bands to come.
Where was Joey in all of this? He was finding a new confidence on stage, although he had a tendency to fall down. The Ramones became regulars at CBGB, helping to put both the band and the club on the map. Sometimes they'd get lost or stumble, but they gained a reputation for playing with speed and intensity, without banter, guitar solos or slowing down. Leigh was there alongside, hauling gear and tuning guitars.
There are, of course, pieces of the story that Leigh doesn't know. That's where his collaborator, McNeil, comes in. The author of the outstanding "Please Kill Me," an oral history of punk, McNeil is skilled at weaving a coherent narrative from the voices of the various principals. When he appears in the book, it's always in the third person, as if to emphasize that this is Leigh's story. But make no mistake: McNeil was there, a fan and friend of the Ramones from the start.
As a result, "I Slept With Joey Ramone" combines a close-up look at Joey with an authoritative history of the band. Signed to Sire Records, the Ramones never had a breakthrough radio hit, yet now they're heard on radio all the time. Johnny's influence waned as Joey's rose, but the band remained remarkably consistent all the same.
This was a blessing and a curse: Depending on when you came in, the Ramones were either the raw 1-2-3-4 of street punk or tired, uninteresting punk goonery. Regardless, history has been kind to their legacy, burnishing their early records while brushing away the self-rehashes.
History was not so kind to Leigh, however. A natural musician, his bands never got much traction, as he notes here. His vocals on the Ramones' first record went uncredited -- he's on "Blitzkrieg Bop" and other tracks -- and he tried to get compensation when the Ramones sold the song for a Budweiser ad.
This led to a rift between the brothers, who had been close. At the height of Joey's fame, Leigh was busted for dealing marijuana. Only later, after one of Joey's chronic physical ailments got the better of him, did they finally reconcile.
During his last months -- he died in 2001, of lymphoma -- Joey was far sicker than people knew, and his decline is detailed with true grace. For all the hurts Leigh suffered, he has done right by his brother as both Jeff Hyman and Joey Ramone.
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