“Are they all brothers?” I asked naively. “No, they're The Ramones.”
I don’t know what’s scarier: That most of my recent blogs have either been about dead people (Dan Melnick); books largely about dead people (“Pictures at a Revolution”); or the living dead (my story about the Rolling Stones and the creation of “Exile on Main Street”).
Actually, now that I think about it, with Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ — who many have assumed to be a walking cadaver for years — announcement Monday that he was quitting drinking (he didn’t mention anything about heroin or cocaine but, hey, we take what sobriety we can …) many now assume he actually is dead.
No, actually, the story today sort of combines all three — I wanted to mention the just-published book “I Slept with Joey Ramone” (Touchstone, $28), a pretty beguiling and sensuous title that is only betrayed when you realize it’s written by his younger brother Mickey. And what Mickey meant was that they shared the same apartment for many years.
Oh, well. There go all those groupie stories I was hoping to hear.
In fact, according to the book, Joey Ramone (the tall, awkward lead singer of the group The Ramones) was lucky to be alive and walking the streets, let alone have groupies.
Born Jeff Hyman in 1951 in Queens, New York, he was an early victim of the divorce plague that hit America in the ‘50s. His family moved around, Mom remarried (his brother Mickey’s last name is Leigh) and, as Mickey tells it, was lucky not to be institutionalized—actually, he was, for several weeks for observation of what we now call OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). As Leigh writes: “By 19, he hardly left the house anymore. He just stayed in going through his repetitive rituals … It could take him 10 minutes to put a container of milk in the refrigerator” in just the perfect place.
He was saved only by meeting another Queens kid, a guitar-playing friend of Mickey’s named Johnny Cummings (later Johnny Ramone). Turns out Cummings vision of a rock band involved songs of often less than two minutes with endless repeating guitar and vocal lines. Who can forget “Judy is a Punk Rocker” which repeats that line on an endless loop or “I Want to Be Sedated.” In short, Joey was finally, really, home.
How do I fit into this story? Well, as a young undergrad at Columbia University in those days, I’d been working my way through college as a roadie for famed producer Marty Thau, then managing the New York Dolls. (Being a roadie simply meant that I was one of the only kids he new who had a car in New York, so he could count on me or one of my other car-owning buddies to pick up drunk punk stars and get them to the studio or gig on time, maybe move some speakers and otherwise be at his beck and call.)
Now, Marty is something of a legend, and not just in his own mind. Legitimately, he helped found the seminal ‘60s record label Buddhah, which featured acts like Melanie and when he left in the early ‘70s with something like (we heard) a million dollars—whew, everyone was rich!
Following Buddhah, Marty decided to get into management, since there seemed to be real opportunity there. In fact, he and the legendary producer, Neal Bogart, another ex-Buddah exec, decided in essence to divide up the New York scene at the time, then dominated by two unsigned bands, The New York Dolls and Kiss.
It was decided that Marty would take the Dolls and Neal would take Kiss. Oh, well, we know how that turned out—at least financially. On the other hand, creatively, the Dolls are still one of the great forces of ‘70s music while Kiss’ music is, well, forgettable (except in TV ads—which may tell you something!)
When the Dolls broke up, Marty decided to exploit (in the best sense of the word) the “punk” scene they helped create. I remember one midnight in Manhattan when he called me at my dorm room and asked me to meet him at the fourth-floor recording studios above Radio City to see his newest “discovery.” I protested that I was studying for a history exam the next day but he insisted (since I also wrote for the influential school paper, he was looking for some ink.) When I got there in an hour or so, I remember getting off the elevator and seeing a cute brunette playing in the hallway with a little brown-haired girl. A little late to be out with a kid, I thought to myself but, hey, it isn’t my kid! As I entered the control room I saw Marty and the engineer working on a mix of what they’d just recorded. “Did you see her?” Marty asked, looking up at me. “Who?” I asked back. “My new star,” he replied, “her name is ‘Blondie.’” Henceforth, I’ve always been able to tell people I knew Blondie when she was just a brunette.
But it was later the same year that I really got an eyeful—Marty called late one night (by now I was used to it) and asked me to get my car and come up to the 914 Recording Studios in Rockland County, not far from where I’d grown up. He had another new band he was producing and he thought I’d love them. And, oh, by the way, could I pick up two cases of Budweiser on the way—they were starving? (In those days you could buy booze at 18.) When I walked in with two cases of Bud, he had me take it into the studio where there were four guys with thick NYC accents wearing black leather jackets. Marty started to introduce me: “This is Joey Ramone, this is Johnny Ramone, this is Deedee … .” Finally, naively, I asked him, “Are they all brothers?” because they looked nothing alike. “No,” he said proudly, “they’re ‘The Ramones.’”
And that’s how it all started, their first night in a studio, with me supplying the beer. And the rest is history—at least as recounted in “I Slept with Joey Ramone.” Even if you’ve never listened to their music, you should read it. Then you will want to hear their songs—as OCD as they may be.
P.S. Joey passed on in 2001, but there’s a good documentary about the Ramones playing on cable some nights called “End of the Century.” You can see him there, still alive.