Remembering Joey Ramone

Long Live Rock Dept.
By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 8, 2010

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On top of everything else that was a drag about the decade just past, there was this: in a three-and-a-half-year span, we lost three quarters of the Ramones. And then CBGB closed.

But, as the saying goes, punk's not dead. Nor shall it ever be. And that'll be borne out on Friday night, at MIT's Stratton Student Center, where Legs McNeil and Mickey Leigh will read from their new book, I Slept with Joey Ramone (Touchstone).

McNeil is co-founder of the legendary Punk magazine and co-author of the definitive oral history of the early New York scene, Please Kill Me (Penguin). Leigh, a musician in his own right — Lester Bangs's Birdland, the Rattlers — happens to be Joey Ramone's brother.

In the popular imagination, Joey's enduring and endearing image is iconic: a tall and spindly geek, standing spread eagle onstage with the mic stand at a jaunty angle, imperturbably cool in ripped Levi's and black leather, with a shy face hidden behind tinted shades and a curtain of black hair. But Leigh and McNeil's book shows that beneath that affable exterior roiled a deeply complex and sometimes troubled personality.

The gleeful psychosis showcased in many Ramones songs — "Go Mental," "Psychotherapy," "I Wanna Be Well" — is perfect for awkward adolescents who feel ill at ease in the world. But few fans realized just how literally Joey lived some of those lyrics.

He was "somebody that was facing extreme adversity," says Leigh, but who "went on to overcome it and achieve amazing spectacular things."

Joey (born Jeffrey Hyman) was sickly and ill for most of his life. He suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even more shocking is Leigh's revelation that, when he was younger, Joey heard voices in his head — of such intensity that he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

It was so serious, says Leigh, that doctors told the family "he's going to be a vegetable. He's not going to be able to function in society. He's somebody you're probably going to have to take care of for the rest of his life."

But that wasn't in Joey Ramone's plans.

"How rock music and the Ramones saved Joey [from mental illness] is probably self-explanatory," says Leigh. "Despite what he was told, he dug deep and found it within himself to carry on and pursue his dream. Which he did."

Mickey Leigh and Legs McNeil read from I Slept with Joey Ramone on Friday night at the closing reception for "Katatonic," an exhibit by local photographer Kat Wong, January 8, 7-9 pm, at MIT's Stratton Student Center, 84 Mass Ave, in Cambridge.

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