Mickey Leigh 2002
Mickey Leigh is a very talented punk/rock singer/guitarist/songwriter who has performed in such nifty recordings outfits as Birdland (with Lester Bangs), The Rattlers and Stop. He currently plays in a band called Heap (with former members of The Rattlers and Stop) and is working to reform his old band Stop (with former members of Stop and Heap). He is also in the process of writing a book about life with his brother, Joey Ramone.
Mickey is an incredibly nice fellow and we spoke on a number of occasions before we finally found time to get on the old telephone for a chitty-chat. Its results can be found below. My questions are bolded his answers most likely are not bolded.
So tell me about the book!
It’s called “I Slept With Joey Ramone”. It’ll be published by Simon & Shuster. I’m working on it with my friend Legs McNeil from Punk Magazine. You know him?
He wrote the book “Please Kill Me,” right?
Exactly. What happened was, although I am a veteran writer for the New York Waste, downtown’s most popular unsophisticated underground newspaper, my agent for the book strongly suggested that I co-author it with an established writer so there would be a better chance of a publisher picking it up. And I knew I could write it myself, but as I spent more and more time writing the sample chapters and thinking about my brother I started getting really fuckin’ depressed and lonely, y’know? So I decided it would be better to collaborate with somebody; and it had to be someone I was good friends with. And that’s how Legs became involved. I’m friends with a lot of great writers like Jim DeRogatis (who wrote a great Lester Bangs bio), Billy Altman, Ira Robbins, but Legs was also one of my brother’s best friends for many years and had some ups and down with him similar to mine, so he was the perfect person to do this with. And S&S did pick it up, so maybe the agent was right.
Have you done writing like this before?
I wrote for Time Out New York, Audio Review, created, published, wrote, and edited a magazine for the rock club Coney Island High called the Coney Island High Times, and for about 8 years I wrote, and still occasionally submit a column for the Waste called “My Guitar is Pregnant” where I’d tell crazy little stories -and though the story of my family and the Ramones might be a little crazy… it won’t be little.
Do you have any idea when the book might come out?
I’m just waiting for Legs to finish the project he’s working on - a book about the history of organized crime in the porno industry called “The Other Hollywood”- and then we’ll get to work on this. It’ll hopefully come out next Christmas. That’s about all I can tell you though.
I understand. I know it’s just in the initial stages and everything. I just wanted to make sure to mention it so people will keep an eye out for it.
Yeah, it’s gonna be the real story -like you never heard it before. Not recycled party-line, band and publicist approved fodder. Like his life it’ll be full of humor, drama, kindness, anger and poignancy. It will be written with love, sensitivity and fairness to all involved. The truth won’t be sacrificed, not for myself either. The truth according to not just one witness, but two. I’m hoping it will be sort of cathartic. We’ll laugh, cry, and kiss Joey gooodbye….again.
So let’s go back to the beginning. What the heck was going on in your house that resulted in both of you deciding to devote your lives to rock and roll?
Uhh… a lot of shouting and a lot of bacon cheeseburgers? Dad was a truck driver and mom was an artist. Put ‘em together and whaddaya got?
I mean were you listening to music all the time or -
Yeah. Our parents got divorced when we were very young, so that was the beginning of our delinquent youth where we…uhh…spent a lot of time unsupervised, lets put it that way. Don’t get me wrong, my Mom and Dad loved us very much and did their best; it coulda been much worse. But I guess we were emotionally injured. Music was medicine.
Yeah (laughs). I probably shouldn’t elaborate on that.
But you’ll elaborate in the book, right? Don’t keep any good secrets from us!
I’m sure you won’t be disappointed…It’s a great story, even if you’re not a Ramones fan!
So how did you get involved with Lester Bangs?
He used to hang out at CBGB’s. I actually first met him when I roadied for the Ramones from 1975-1977. When the Ramones were playing in Detroit, we took a ride out in the woods for two hours to where the staff of Creem magazine lived. That’s when I met Lester Bangs for the first time. I wasn’t that familiar with his writing yet; this was 1976. I knew him from Creem, but I didn’t know well, it was a different Lester than the one that wrote for the Village Voice later on. I didn’t know his history and what a maniac he was. What a mad genius he was. “Gonzo journalist” or whatever. So we all got drunk in this house out in the woods, then when he moved to NYC we hung out at CB’s one night and talked about jazz albums. It turned out that we had been listening to the same album that week! Then he said that he was looking to start a band.
So why did Lester end up leaving the band?
We asked him to leave. It was impossible to keep people in the band with Lester.
Why? Was he an asshole?
He was Lester Bangs! Nothing good or bad, just hard for people to work with. He was a great guy, but he could be difficult at times. It was his temperament.
Did he try to make everybody do what he wanted to do or something?
No, it wasn’t so much him wanting things his way. I mean, everyone knew that Lester and I started the band, so they knew he would write the words and I would write the music. It was just difficult because…..
Because he would be plastered most of the time! Onstage, offstage… except when he was sleeping. That’s the only time he wasn’t plastered. Actually, he probably was then too! So I had this turnstile of musicians coming in and out. Finally the last line-up said, “We’ve had it. It’s either us or Lester,” and I knew that after two years of this, that was it.
So how did he react?
The story’s in “Let It Blurt.” Lester was plastered at rehearsal and singing like really overly animated in these threatening poses and the other guys in the band just got scared. He was singing in my face and he got me into a corner maybe he knew something was up. After that rehearsal, they said get rid of him or tell him we want to get another singer and have him keep writing songs. You know, like Brian Wilson did for the Beach Boys. So we put it to Lester, he flipped out and that was that.
So that band became the Rattlers, right?
Why was there only one Rattlers album?
Well, that album was actually just a demo we recorded that I thought sounded good enough to release.
That’s just a demo? That’s a fantastic album!
Thanks! Yeah, so really there were NO Rattlers albums. There are enough songs to put out another album though.
You mean you wrote enough to record another album?
Well, I mean we recorded enough that I could put out another album right now.
Put it out!
I should do that. That’ll be a new addition to my list of things to do.
And you’re reforming Stop too, right?
With the crazy bass player?
Heh heh. Hell no! With a new bass player. That was actually me playing bass on the “Never” album anyway. Except for a few songs.
Who’s the new bass player?
Andy Hilfiger. He used to be in King Flux with Richie Stotts from the Plasmatics..
Back to the Rattlers why did you only put out one album?
Because I ran out of money!
Is that why you broke up?
None of the original guys were in it anymore. I had to get rid of the drummer because he was drunk all the time. He, bassist Dave Merrill and I weren’t seeing eye to eye. They wanted to go in a much poppier direction than I did. So I wound up having to get a second drummer. And I went through a second and third bass player. Finally I said this is getting ridiculous. That was about ’87 or ’88. It had been almost ten years, so I figured it was time to move on. We’re all still great friends though and do occasional Rattler/Birdland shows.
And then you had a band called Crown The Good, right? What was that all about?
That was a band originally called The Tribe. But there was a band called The Tribe in every city in America, so when we got a deal with Epic Records we had to change our name.
You got a deal with Epic!?
Yeah! Crown The Good was a great band that had the best shot in the music biz that I’d ever had. Joey helped us get that deal, actually. Epic gave us what is called a development deal. It’s kinda between a real record deal and a demo deal. It’s a rare thing. They gave us $30,000 to take three months, write new songs and make another tape. And the whole 8-album contract had to be written up by lawyers and all that. So we made another four-song tape and Epic had a month to decide if they were gonna pick up the option. In the interim, our bass player got picked up by another company - the NYPD- in a crack raid at the Kentucky Fried Chicken on 14th and 3rd.
Oh my God! Where was this? Which KFC?
It’s actually no longer there. This was in 1990. But yeah, it was a haven for crack dealers and it got raided, and he got arrested. Between that and the singer trying to be Bono, Epic didn’t pick up the deal. It basically went downtown with the bass player.
How about the Plug Uglies?
That was my next band. That was 1992; with Handsome Dick Manitoba from the Dictators. He was between bands also at the time, and we’d known each other for almost 20 years. We’d always been friends. I always had a lot of respect for him, and I guess he had respect for me as a songwriter and guitar player. So we gave it a try, but not much later, The Dictators started up again. So we only played one show, at a place called The Space at Chase. We wrote Stop’s “Cake and Eat It” together. Which is basically Stop’s “Whatchu Think!?” inverted, but that’s okay.
So the Plug Uglies turned into Stop?
Well, what happened was we went into Coyote Studio in Brooklyn where I was working; I’ve done a lot of recordings there over the years. So we went in and started recording, just me and Plug Uglies drummer Frank Saitta, in preparation for founding a new band. I was really just getting them on tape so I had something to play for people to try and draft them. Draft them? Enlist… No, not enlist…
Yes! Recruit. Thank you! I knew it was an army word of some sort. So we made this tape to use to recruit new members for the band, and so I could get the songs out of my head and into my ears. We were supposed to have the bass player from Crown The Good - the crack raid guy. He was supposed to come three times and he never showed up. So I found a bass player, the guy who’s on that album, but that was later on.
Then Frank became a roadie for the Ramones and he took off on us. I found Pat Carpenter and we recorded the last couple songs “Outsider,” “Go Please Yourself.” Then we started up a tour. Someone from the BBC heard our tape and asked us to play live on Radio One’s Mark Radcliffe show. We toured England, played on the BBC and found the smallest label in the USA to put the CD out.
Ha! That bad, huh?
I dare anyone to find a smaller label you’d think it’d be easy, but it’s a lot of work (laughs)! It was actually owned by a college kid who ran this label out of Chino, CA. Smut Peddlerz Records. The only other thing in Chino, CA is a jail. Then he got married, his wife said “get out of the music business,” and that was that. And the CD was no longer available so it never got to radio stations or anything. But it did get amazing reviews.
It’s a good album!
It got played a lot on the radio in England and all that stuff. Then after that trip, which wound up actually costing us several hundred dollars each, the bass player got crazy and he left.
And he kept your equipment, right?
He actually threw me and our drummer out of our rehearsal room. It was down on Mott St. We decided to rent it out, and I found all these other bands to rent it to, so we were making a profit. It cost us $600 a month, and we’d rent it out. I was bartending at Coney Island High at the time, and after getting all these bands in the room, we had $600 profit all of a sudden. Then the bass player, who kinda found the room for us - even though it was my PA and equipment, and Pat’s drums all the bands were using -and we’d been splitting all the money, or the expenses if several bands left at the same time - when it got to be $600 profit he said, “It’s my room. I quit the band.” Then he changed the locks, and we couldn’t even get our equipment. He called us and said, “You guys get your stuff out,” but we couldn’t. We couldn’t get into the room! Fuckin’ nut job. So that was around the same time that we started playing in Heap. We couldn’t even get to our equipment except our guitars. This friend of ours, Tim Heap rented space in the room and smuggled my guitar out to me. Tim was a big fan of Stop and The Rattlers, and used to play the Rattlers when he had a radio show in college. He had a great band that we liked a lot; and conveniently at this same time, his drummer and bassist quit -so we decided to go play with him.
And you’re recording stuff with Heap too, right?
That’s one of the other things on my lengthy to-do list. We’re recording some stuff next week.
And you write some of those songs too, right?
They’re summer songs…Some are his, some are mine, some are ours.
The first I ever heard of STOP was when Joey mentioned it on a TV show as a great new band to watch for. Was he always supportive of your music like that?
He always was supportive. We had our ups and downs, but that was more about things like when I helped him with his music. He was always very encouraging when we were getting along well. I know he was always very proud of me and he did convey that to many of his friends, who told me that he used to brag about me all the time.
Yeah, he was always very supportive and very proud. And we did collaborate a lot. There’s a record in between the Plug Uglies and Stop, we made a record together called Sibling Rivalry.
I have that! It’s on Alternative Tentacles, right?
That’s the one!
Did you want to record more music with him, or was he too busy with the Ramones most of the time?
Well, we worked together a lot. On some of the Ramones songs. But eventually it lead to some family feuding.
I ain’t lyin’.
Like which ones?
Oh let’s see you know that song “9 to 5 World”? I helped him write that one.
That’s a great song!! You didn’t get any credit at all for that one. I didn’t know you had anything to do with it!
I wrote that whole guitar part and arranged the song for him!
I guess that explains why it doesn’t sound at all like a Ramones song.
Exactly. That’s not like your standard Ramones song at all. I made that riff like, I was trying to make it sound like a cross between Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” and the Rascals’ “Good Lovin’”
So what happened in this feud?
I better not say too much about it; it’s a dramatic story and it’ll be in the book. Yeah, there were a bunch of songs I helped with.
So, having been there right at the beginning, would you say that the Ramones “invented” the modern punk rock sound?
There’s nobody that’s the first to do any sound. Everything started a million years ago. You know, rocks falling off of mountains. Thunder and lightning, all that. So you know, one thing leads to the next… I mean, Iggy was doing something pretty similar before them, but they certainly popularized it like no one else.
I remember just a few years ago, I heard “I Got A Right” for the first time and I was like “What the hell? This is hardcore! In 1974?!
Yeah! “Raw Power” too. That song “Raw Power” is total punk rock.
And actually David Bowie had a song that sounded just like The Ramones that came out before they did.
That’s right! “Hang On To Yourself.” It’s “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement”! So, I mean, they were the first ones to have that little unique I’m not sure what to call it what they did sounds like nobody else. It’s even separable from those bands it evolved from.
I guess you could say that even if they didn’t INVENT that sound, they were the first band to play in that style EXCLUSIVELY.
Yeah, that’s true. McDonalds didn’t invent the hamburger, but that’s certainly what they’re famous for. Do a free word association: say motorcycles, you’ll hear “Harley-Davidson” - say burgers, you’ll hear “McDonalds” - say punk rock, you’ll hear “Ramones”. But there was stuff even before Iggy and Bowie too.. Like Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody.” John (Johnny Ramone) was seven years older than me, and he was listening to that stuff when I wasn’t even born yet.
I’ve been meaning to ask you this the last few times we’ve talked, but I keep forgetting. Was the Rattlers song “For Johnny’s Entertainment?” about Johnny Ramone? (sample lyrics: “You can look but you better not smile for Johnny’s entertainment.”)
Ah! Okay, I guess that answers it.
You’ll have to read between the lines; though some people read between the lines and see… blank space.
Do you think having such a famous brother has opened more doors for you, or made it harder for your music to stand on its own merits?
(long heavy sigh) That’s the most often asked question I get.
I’m a little tired of answering that one.
Never mind then. We’ll skip it.
No, no, let me try to think of a novel way to answer it. Ummm…. I kinda think it’s shut as many as it’s opened. Or rather, it’s opened some doors, but closed a lot of ears. Because people don’t listen to what I’m doing with open ears. It’s tainted already. People think I picked up a guitar after my brother made his first album. And the Ramones never sold a lot of records. So in that way, it wasn’t helping my appeal to record companies. All they think of is “Oh, it’s a Ramone’s brother.” You know, not a new thing. It’s not a new piece of meat they can package; I already have a name on me. And even though they’re in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame the Ramone name is not exactly a household word, so it didn’t help in that respect.
But the Birdland and Rattlers albums sound nothing at all like the Ramones. They were more like ‘60s garage bands.
Well, later on, critics would compare it to people I grew up listening to. But back THEN, it was all, “Joey’s little brother. It sounds like the fuckin’ Ramones.” That’s a good example of how it didn’t help. I had to go out of my way to not sound like my brother! Songs like “Pure and Simple” definitely had their own sound, but still they got compared. What amazes me is when they would say in the review, “He even SOUNDS like Joey!”
Wow, what an amazing thing -- that brothers have a similar anatomical structure. What a breakthrough. Of course we do! It always amazes me that that would surprise them. We’re both tall and skinny, we’re both Jews from Queens, we both have big broken noses and we sound similar. I just don’t get it. I guess since he came first, it’s a natural thing. But I started playing guitar when I was 11 years old. My brother hadn’t even started yet. He started playing drums a year later. I know in my mind what the hell’s going on. It’s ridiculous to me, but there’s certainly nothing I can do about it. It’s a battle I gave up trying to fight. I gave up after 2 years. I tried joking with it, saying we’re not really brothers, I changed my name, but too many people already knew who I was. Finally, I realized it was a fight not worth fighting. But it was always nice when people listened to what I’ve done just to listen to music, not to hear Joey Ramone’s brother.
Well, I’ll admit that I bought the Rattlers album to hear Joey Ramone’s brother, but I’m glad I did, because it’s a fantastic record! That’s why when I found out you were in Birdland, I had to buy that one too.
I loved the Ramones, especially the first four albums. I was definitely influenced by Joey’s band, but he’s been influenced by my stuff over the years too. He used to listen to it a lot.
Yeah! All the stuff. Songs you’ve never heard, all my demo tapes and albums, which are actually one and the same - all that stuff. So our effect on each other is probably undeniable, believe it or not.
I was pretty surprised when you finally covered a Ramones song and it was a Dee Dee one. I love “Outsider.”
Me too! That’s why I did it.
You played it all slow and crazy though.
Well, what would be the point of doing a straight cover? I wanted to make it reflect what it’s actually like to be an outsider. Not so peppy. Lonely, probably drunk and stumbling. That’s kind of how it sounds.
You know, somebody on junk. A REAL outsider. Not an outsider that’s happy. I mean, I love the song and the way those guys did it, but that’s how I perceived to do it. To do it however I felt. I know in the Stop review, you say you don’t like Ramones songs slowed down.
Well yeah, but maybe that’s just because… I don’t know. I just think of them as such a high-energy band. And this other band slowed down “Beat on the Brat” on that Gabba Gabba Hey tribute and I HATED it. But you’re right - maybe I’ll just have to open my mind a bit more.
Don’t hate a song just for the sake of don’t like or not like a song for a reason that has nothing to do with the music. I just tried to give “Outsider” a despondent, desolate mood.
I don’t know if you noticed, but in my Stop review, I purposely didn’t mention Joey Ramone anywhere in there.
Thanks! (laughs) But things are different now. All I am is proud of the guy, and I’d hate to think that I’d have to thank people for not mentioning that we’re brothers. It’s a double-edged sword. I don’t want to tell people not to mention it, or to mention it. I do know that I’m certainly proud to be his brother, and I’m proud of my brother so I shouldn’t say, “Don’t mention it.”
Well, I think it says something about you that you never exploited your relationship with him at all.
I didn’t have to, it was happening anyway! I did try not to. For a while, I was gonna change my name again. I was asking everybody, “What can I do about this?” And I tried to get people not to mention it. Like Stop’s publicist she got upset when I told her not to put anything in our bio about him being my brother. And her response was, “If you have a problem being associated with your brother, you should discuss it with a therapist.” A few years later I saw a therapist who told me, “If it’s a problem always being associated with your brother you should discuss it with your publicist.” Maybe I should have introduced my publicist to my therapist. She didn’t understand it. But by that point, and even in the 80s with The Rattlers, too many people knew already. It’s an obvious journalistic selling point. It’s a hook, an easy angle.
Maybe I should send you some reviews of the Stop album, so you can see what I mean.
Read them to me!
Okay! Hang on a second. (rustles through papers) Okay, this is one from Stereo Review, 1996 18 years after Birdland, right? Here’s how it starts:
“Fronted by Mickey Leigh, Joey Ramone’s kid brother… the drive and intensity of his sibling’s outfit but with real guitar playing and a far more expressive lead singer and you get the idea.”
Guitar World ’97 starts off: “Joey Ramone’s younger brother…If the Ramones had developed some chops and enlarged their repertoire, they’d sound a lot like STOP”.
Yeah, I can see how that would get annoying after a while!
And although these things pissed off my brother who was more competitive than you’d think, and they are great reviews for me - and what keeps me going, feeding my heart if not my belly - they always resort to and usually begin with the association and continue on to the comparison, which is unnecessary. I know these people mean well, though.
I wonder if that kind of thing would have continued if you’d made more records. Like after six or seven albums, maybe they would start talking about YOU instead of your relatives and past acquaintances?
I don’t know. But it doesn’t feel like it. This is 18 years later. I’ve done two singles and this was the third CD, and it comes up every time. So it sure doesn’t seem that way. Especially now. I can’t even imagine what would happen with the press now that my brother has passed away. These Stop reviews were great, but in the Rattlers days, when a review would come out, the Ramones name would be mentioned 5 to 1 to the Rattlers! But now, I don’t know.
Okay, I’ve taken up an hour of your evening, so let me just finish with one final question.
Okay, go ahead.
Between Joey, Dee Dee and 9/11, I know this has been a very rough last couple of years for you. What has kept you strong through all of this?
What kept me going during that period was nothing but love for my brother and concern for my mother. And support from friends. My father had just passed away a few months before my brother…
Oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.
Yeah, we watched him for a month lying in intensive care. So when it happened to Joey, I wasn’t quite recovered from that yet. Actually, it might have been a little preparation. Maybe it did help? I don’t know. But I kept going, just through love. Then after that experience, nothing seems close to that kind of toughness. It’s definitely harder, and every day is still hard; I don’t feel a lot better today than I did a year ago, to tell you the truth. I’m immersed in his life now, to keep his legacy going. I’m taking care of his business now. He’s never off my mind for more than a few minutes because of business, emotions, etc. But seeing him go through those months I couldn’t eat or sleep while he was suffering from that pain. After that, everything is cake! Maybe I shouldn’t say cake. But you know the aftermath is certainly nothing compared to… the math. And I’m happy to be alive and talking to you and still active.
I’m happy to be speaking to you too. Thanks so much for taking the time! I’m going out of town for a couple of weeks, but when I get back, I’ll write all this up and email it over to you.
Oh, you’re not gonna be around on Halloween?
We’re leaving the next day, so I’ll be home packing and stuff.
Oh, that’s too bad. Me and George Tabb are doing a Gynecologists show.
We go onstage dressed in medical gowns and surgical masks and tell nasty, but informative jokes about the female anatomy; and in between jokes we play 10-second songs. It’s just for kicks.
Oh no! That sounds great! Do you know when you’ll be doing it again?
I don’t know. But we will eventually. We have to we’re doctors, we’ve taken an oath!
That’s true! Okay, thanks again and have a good evening.
You too, Mark.