I finally got around to reading I Slept with Joey Ramone, a memoir/biography by his little brother, Mickey Leigh (real name:  Mitchell Hyman), co-written with Legs McNeil.  I was disappointed and annoyed by it, but I stuck with it, because I knew that Joey dies at the end, and I wanted to read about what that was like.

Joey in the foreground, Johnny in the background.

Unfortunately, Mickey Leigh writes like a cub reporter for a high school newspaper.  If I were more tolerant of bad writing it wouldn’t bother me so much, I guess.  But to me, he uses way too many exclamation points.  Using punctuation to make something sound important just shows that you don’t know to use words.

He also has a very annoying habit of following the same pattern for dialogue.

“Blah blah blah,” Joey related (or confessed, recalled, exclaimed, continued, confided, etc.), “blah blah blah blah!”

Doesn’t look too bad the first time you see it, but after a hundred or so occasions, it gets pretty old.  When I’m reading something and the writing makes me think “Here we go again,” I find it pretty hard to pay attention.  The fact that the dialogue is painfully artificial doesn’t help things any.  I could give you plenty of examples, but I’ll spare you the agony.

Sentence variety is a good thing, as is credible and realistic dialogue, and there’s nothing wrong with writing “Joey said”  over and over instead of sounding like you wrote it with a thesaurus next to you, cracked open to the page with synonyms for “said.”

As far as I know, I Slept with Joey Ramone is Mickey Leigh’s first book, so I guess we should be tolerant and cut him some slack.  But in his acknowledgements, he thanks about a half-dozen different editors.  All of them ought to be fired for letting this badly written book get published the way it did.

Worst of all, though, is the fact that Leigh uses this book to talk about himself and his marginal involvement as a song-writer and musician.  He never really amounted to anything as either, and the book makes him sound bitter and  in his big brother’s shadow.  As ghoulish as it sounds, the subtext seems to be, “Hey, Joey’s dead now, but I’m at least as good and I’m still around.”  He also manages–though not very explicitly–to take some of the credit for the Ramones’s success.  Maybe he deserves some of the credit, but riding a dead man’s coat-tails with a self-serving memoir isn’t a good way to get it.

In that sense, he reminds me of Randy Fuller, who turned his position as Bobby Fuller’s little brother into a career–again, riding a dead man’s coat-tails, which I find very distasteful.

The book’s back cover has three promotional blurbs.   Bono, Steven van Zandt, and Jim Holmstrom have great praise for “Mickey’s cool new book.”  All three of them are presented very positively in the book, so no wonder.  (Holmstrom, by the way, co-founded Punk magazine with Legs McNeil, co-writer of I Slept with Joey Ramone.)

It’s mostly a bad book, but not entirely.  If Leigh is to be trusted, Johnny Ramone was an abusive control freak with white supremacist sympathies (don’t let the innocent farmboy oversized bowl haircut fool you).  Tommy had the sense to bail when things began to get dicey.  Marky never seemed to get over the stigma of being the new guy and pretty much kept his mouth shut.  Dee Dee, unfortunately, spent most of his time chasing after drugs.

Here’s what I didn’t know, and why reading the book wasn’t a total waste of time:  Joey (real name Jeffrey Hyman) was born with a great big tumor attached to his spine.  They removed it when he still an infant, but the prognosis wasn’t good.  Doctors doubted that he’d ever live a productive or functional life.  It left him with a variety of neurological ailments.  He was diagnosed with OCD well before anybody really knew what OCD was.  As a young man, he voluntarily committed himself to a psych ward, where he was diagnosed with hallucinatory and paranoid schizophrenia.  His immune system sucked–he had a habit of walking around barefoot, was always stepping on things and getting cut, which led to bad infections that almost killed him more than once.  As a freakishly long-legged frail boy with ears that stuck out like ping-pong paddles, he was teased without mercy growing up (it probably didn’t help that he ran like a girl and wore rose-tinted granny glasses).  His parents weren’t necessarily evil, that I can tell, but they divorced early.  His father was a hard-liner, one of those “Join the Army, like I did!  They’ll teach you discipline, which is what you need” guys (like the Army would ever take him).  His mother had her heart in the right place, I think, but her second husband died in a car crash on their honeymoon, and then she went through a string of boyfriends before finding a sympathetic stepfather for Joey.  Before that, they were always moving and strapped for cash.

But instead of listening to the voices and donning a tin-foil turban, or throwing himself under a bus, Joey immersed himself in the only single thing that made sense to him–music.  Even if you’re lucky enough to enjoy moderate success as part of a punk band, it’s still a damned tough life, and how Joey managed to do it is equally mysterious and admirable.

If Mickey Leigh is to be believed (to me, his writing style kind of strains his credibility), he had a good part in keeping Joey as sane and productive as he was.  I hope it’s not a case of Leigh taking credit for something he didn’t have much to do with (dead brothers can’t rat you out, after all), but I’ll give him credit for being a good brother anyway–which is no small praise.

If it were a high school essay, I’d probably give it a B.  But being something published by Touchstone (an arm of Simon & Schuster), they’re lucky to get a C-.

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