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Monday, May 17th, 2010
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I Slept with Joey Ramone: A Family Memoir


Piercing the Shell of Punk Anomie

A review by Maria Damon

A Minneapolis event celebrating this publication concluded with Mickey Leigh singing several Ramones songs, accompanied by a trio of local rockers on drums, bass, and guitar. In contrast to the Ramones' wise-guy adolescent-on-speed sound, Joey's younger brother's was wistful, sweet, and even tender. Later, getting my book signed, I remarked on it to Mickey. "I never feel closer to my brother than when I'm singing his songs," he acknowledged.

And so it is with this book, a complex study of Jeff (Joey) and Mitch (Mickey) Hyman's intense sibling relationship over more than four decades, a relationship problematized by fame, illness both physical and psychological, multiple role reversals, competition not only in the same field but in the same small community, family dysfunction -- the works. Mickey's tone rides the waves quite naturally, from baby-brotherly adoration through the we're-in-it-together alliance in the face of their parents' serial monogamy and the wrenching disruption that it caused in their lives, the excitement of roadying during the Ramones' early success, the honest dismay of discovering Jeff's investment in Mitch/Mickey's continued floundering ("I don't know what I'd do if you made it," he confesses to his little bro during a moment of drunken honesty), moments of rapprochement and episodes of rageful resentment over Joey's refusal to acknowledge Mickey's creative input, and finally the period of closeness brought about by everyone's having to face Joey's approaching death from lymphoma.

For the most part, Mickey Leigh and Legs McNeil make a great writing team. There are poetic moments: after their mother marries for the second time and they move into their stepfather's house as a "blended family," the brothers, eight and five respectively, still get to share a room, but "our voices sounded different at night here. There were new echoes and new shadows… Luckily we had each other to commiserate with, but we were still very lonely." Mickey is not afraid to pierce the shell of punk anomie and talk about the real heartache underneath. Banal and commonplace as scenarios such as middle-class divorce were to become in the '70s, they were less common in the early '60s, and the Hyman kids found themselves on the edges of their social world, especially when their mother was widowed after her second marriage and the family found themselves in straitened circumstances -- in the middle-class, conventional world of the time, a single mother who had to take in boarders to feed her kids was looked at askance by former friends and neighbors (as were the kids, for that matter). In this sense we are reminded that the punks of the '70s came to consciousness in the 1950s and early '60s; it's easier to understand, then, their dramatically performative rejection of that era's cloying image, especially for white, middle-class men.

In any case, though the phenomenon of the "broken home" was to become less anomalous, the pain was/is real; the dramatic term says it all, and Leigh captures the sadness of the five-year-old boy whose world has changed irrevocably. Jeff, moreover, suffered other forms of pain unique to his, um, uniqueness: a difficult birth, immediately following which he underwent serious surgery for a teratoma that left him with spina bifida and chronic pain; a degree of OCD that severely affected his quality of life, relationships, and living conditions; a compromised immune system (further affected by drug and alcohol use for much of his adult life) that meant hospitalization whenever he cut his foot on something in the unfathomable mess that was his apartment floor or suffered similar mishaps that would be trivial for others; and of course his iconic "look," the weirdly long torso and legs, the physical awkwardness that, before it became a rock star's asset, made him the butt of ridicule for much of his life and left him painfully shy and depressed. In fact, images of Joey Ramone, unmistakably recognizable as they are, make clear how rare it was to see his face; usually it is hidden behind the (also iconic) dark glasses and hair. As the "normal" younger brother, Mitch's job was to protect and defend the freaky (and freakish) beloved brother with whom he shared much: musical and cultural taste, typically left-liberal Jewish politics, and a dark (and/or "sick" in the mode of Lenny Bruce and Mad Magazine) sense of humor -- as well as the Forest Hills neighborhood friends and acquaintances that would later become the other founding Ramones: John Cummings and Doug Colvin, two psychopathic personalities who tended toward right-wing fascism and/or violence, and Tommy Erdelyi, like the Hyman brothers a wise-ass Jewish kid with accompanying political leanings. Again, like the gender issues, the ethnic politics of the 1950s and early '60s emerge here with knowing subtlety.

I Slept with Joey Ramone refreshingly avoids glorifying or even dwelling on the excesses that accompany the rock life, staying close to its stated focus as a "family memoir." While there is plenty of mention of "getting wasted" even beyond punk's heyday into the late '80s and on, these remarks seem parenthetical, though they should be understood as painting a backdrop against which these personal relations play out. During the Ramones' glory years, Leigh sticks to his relationship with the band (as its underpaid roadie and occasional musical consultant) and his brother, documenting the years of closeness, then estrangement and resentment, then rapprochement. Throughout the decades, the brothers took turns being on "top," with Mickey eventually floundering, working as a bartender and small-time pot-dealer on the fringes of the action as his seemingly more helpless and hapless brother became a star.

These volatile matters are handled with a combination of delicacy and forthrightness; amazingly, one can see both sides of the arguments. This is partially a function of the authors' intersplicing of interview material with others close to Joey Ramone and Mickey Leigh amidst Mickey's more linear narrative (a technique that is occasionally marred by repetitive phrasing such as "he explained" without clear indication that this is retrospective), but it is also a function of Mickey's apparently genuine desire to present a full picture. There are certain elisions, but readers can easily infer which difficulties are being soft-pedaled and why.

In fact, rather than recommending this primarily for Ramones fans (one FAQ about this book is, "Why another Ramones book?"), I would suggest that anyone who has experienced complex relations with talented and troubled siblings could read I Slept with Joey Ramone with enjoyment and empathy.

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