I only saw the Ramones live once, at the late and unlamented Plateau Auditorium. It was the day of my 17th birthday, and my girlfriend had scored some tickets, even though I sensed that an evening spent listening to punk rock was not her first choice for a birthday celebration. (She only made it through about 3 songs of the Ramones’ set, as I remember). We had good seats, quite close to the stage. Lucien Francoeur, formerly the leader of the local kind-of-punk band Aut’ Chose, got things started with an aggressive set, bordering on the hostile. The mood was dark and angry, just right for an evening of punk rock.

The Ramones began their set abruptly to a blast of white light. Dee Dee’s legendary “1-2-3-4” launched them in, if I remember correctly, to “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”, which, like many of the early Ramones, was basically a Beach Boys song set to buzzsaw. The songs sped by with hardly any transition, and it was all over in 45 minutes or so. (The band played more than 20 songs in that short time – asked why they wrote such short songs, Johnny once retorted, deadpan, that their songs weren’t short, the band just played them fast, which raises interesting metaphysical questions when you think about it). The anger and aggression that the opener had attempted to instill on the proceedings had been replaced by sweetness and, well, a kind of poppy innocence. The Ramones were a high-shool band on amphetamines rather than a dangerous band of social malcontents trying to overthrow the System. By the short set’s end, scowls were replaced by smiles, and we all poured out onto Calixa-Lavallée street bopping like idiots to the echos of “Cretin Hop and “Glad to see you Go”. To this day, I don’t think I have ever heard 45 minutes of purer, more unadulterated pop.

To me, Joey Ramone (né Jeffry Hyman, nice Jewish boy from Queens) always seemed like the ultimate rock and roll innocent. While guitarist Johnny (with his well-documented penchant for Nazi memorabilia) and Dee Dee (with his man-sized drug habit) wore the moniker of “punk” quite easily, Joey was more like a cartoon character, or rather, like a character from one of those ’60 and ‘70s TV shows featuring bands like the Monkees or the Archies. As I perceived the Ramones, it was Dee Dee who wanted to sniff some glue and beat on the brat. Joey wanted to hang out on Rockaway beach with Sheena and the Surfin’ Bird.

It was the tension between the punkishness of Johnny’s furious downstroke strumming and Joey’s pop sensibilities that made the Ramones truly distinctive, at least over the course of their classic first four albums, released in a flurry between between 1977 and 1979. Their songs were loud and fast, but they were also ridiculously catchy. I always suspected that the “punk” label prevented them from achieving the mainstream acceptance that their songs so obviously screamed out for. If the Sex Pistols were punk, the American radio programmers were having none of it, at least not back then. Today, the punk label has been made safe and saleable by bands such as Blink 281 and the All-American Rejects who have cashed in by retreading old Ramones riffs. But the Ramones were probably victims of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious’ antics. In a parallel universe in which politicized, angry English punks had never existed, the Ramones would have been top 40 regulars. I first heard “I Wanna be Sedated” and “I Wanna be Your Boyfriend” (to name the first two Ramones ditties that come to mind) over thirty years ago, and they have been an integral part of my personal mental soundtrack ever since.

After finishing Mickey Leigh’s touching memoir, I Slept with Joey Ramone, I felt that my image of Joey was still basically right. Severe psychological problems that were never properly addressed, including (at least) obsessive-compulsive and anxiety disorders prevented Joey from ever really growing up. And though his warped psyche was capable of generating some pretty awful behavior, the dominant tone of this “family memoir” is one of love, acceptance and forgiveness.

Mickey Leigh, you should know, was born Mitchell Hyman, younger brother of the aforementioned Jeffry. Like a lot of middle-class American kids, Jeff and Mitch listened to a lot of music, picked up instruments, and dreamed of making it big, or at least, of making it.

Lightning struck for Jeff when he began playing drums with two neighborhood kids, a guitarist with a nasty streak and some troubling right-wing views by the name of John Cummings, and an army brat named Doug Colvin, who played bass. Colvin was supposed to be the singer of the band, but realized he couldn’t sing and play bass at the same time. Joey reluctantly carried his 6’ 5” frame from behind the drum kit and tried his hand at singing. While early reports were that he quite literally couldn’t figure out what to do with his body, he quickly developed his legendary stance, slightly hunched over his mic, wearing dark glasses, and moving from stage center only when the time came in the Ramones set to bring out the Gabba Gabba Hey flag at the end of “Pinheads”.

The Ramones became the stuff of legend, though they never got rich. Mitchell, who was probably more musically talented than any of the Ramones, never really got anywhere, though he formed bands, some of which seemed at various points like they might be about to take off. He partnered with legendary rock critic Lester Bangs, and released a truly oddball album featuring Bangs’ bizarre vocals on songs such as “I’m in Love With My Walls”. Other bands such as the Rattlers and STOP made promising debuts, garnered some critical acclaim, and promptly fell apart.

I Slept with Joey Ramone is therefore, among many other things, about the operation of the fickle finger of fate. Mitchell is reduced to roadying on an almost volunteer basis for the Ramones in their early days, only to be summarily dismissed when the band’s needs started exceeding his abilities. He does some uncredited vocal parts on some of the Ramones’ most famous songs, such as “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and even pitches in with some songwriting assists. Despite Joey’s promises, these all go unrecognized and unremunerated. Joey, it seems, was dispositionally unable to stand up to the authoritarian Johnny, who seemed hell-bent on keeping Mitch out of the picture. He makes ends meet by doing some low-level dope slinging in Manhattan. His arrest and shakedown by the authorities in “War on Drugs” America makes for some of the most arresting reading in the book.

The book obviously also provides us with a privileged look into the dynamics of a band that became increasingly dysfunctional over time. Joey and Johnny stopped speaking after Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend (a fact that makes sense of the lyrics to a decent mid-period Ramones song – “The KKK took my Baby Away”). Drummers came and went, and the band increasingly found it difficult to figure out what it was about. Albums became, with few exceptions, more and more desultory. Basically, the band never really figured out how to grow up. It didn’t have the smarts to engineer a Green Day-style Dookie-to-American Idiot reinvention, so it kept on cranking out albums out of grim necessity, under successive producers (including the legendary and sociopathic Phil Spector) who though that they could breathe new life into the band. The band finally called it quits in 1996, a good 10 years too late.

But the book is above all other things about brotherhood. Mickey Leigh/Mitchell Hyman paints a psychologically complex portrait of his brother, and writes very movingly about the complex of emotions that runs through their relationship. Leigh paints with a rich palette, and the picture that emerges rings true. Even when they are behaving appallingly toward one another, they are always deeply connected by their past, by their shared love of music, and by the love that is never completely erased by the fights and enmities. Leigh writes most movingly about Joey’s final days, when the layers of jealousy, rivalry and pettiness were stripped to reveal a pure and unsullied brotherly love.

You can count the really great rock memoirs on the fingers of a very small number of hands. Dylan’s “Chronicles” is so weird and idiosyncratic that I am not sure that it counts as a rock memoir at all. Dean Wareham’s “Black Postcards” from a couple of years back was great, and I am really looking forward to reading the Patti Smith memoir of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Place I Slept with Joey Ramone at the top of the list.

Posted Sunday, February 14th, 2010 at 7:35 am
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Responses to “An Elegy for Joey”

Антон Павлович

I only saw the Ramones live once, at the late and unlamented Plateau Auditorium…..

еннто точно…

Kylie Batt

Жаль, что сейчас не могу высказаться – очень занят. Но освобожусь – обязательно напишу что я думаю….

I only saw the Ramones live once, at the late and unlamented Plateau Auditorium…..

Kylie Batt

Очень неплохо!…

I only saw the Ramones live once, at the late and unlamented Plateau Auditorium…..

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