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We Were 'Freaks' — Brother of Joey Ramone On Growing Up in Forest Hills

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | October 27, 2016 5:38pm
 Joey Ramone and Mickey Leigh
Joey Ramone and Mickey Leigh
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Danny Fields/ Courtesy of Mickey Leigh

QUEENS — “Hey Ho, Let’s Go!”

This weekend, the legendary punk rock band​ The Ramones is getting a street renamed after them in Forest Hills — the neighborhood where they got their start.  

Four decades after releasing their first album, the musicians are now recognized as the pioneers of the punk rock movement. But when the band members were growing up in the neighborhood in the late '60s and early '70s, they often felt like outsiders.

Forest Hills was lacking today’s diversity, said Mitchel Hyman, 62, better known by his stage name Mickey Leigh, the younger brother of the late Jeffrey Hyman, or Joey Ramone.

“Me and my brother were kind of freaks, outcasts, we just didn’t fit in with the typical Forest Hills kids who were just biding their time to get a job, working for their parents,” said Leigh, who was three years younger than Joey, in a recent interview.

“We were a little more rambunctious."

Mickey Leigh (Courtesy of Mickey Leigh)

The brothers first lived in a house on 64th Road and 110th Street, Leigh said. But when he was 5, their parents got divorced, which “back in those days was not accepted the way it is now.”

When their mother, who was an artist, remarried, the family moved to Howard Beach.

“It was confusing, it was unsettling for us, but we got over it,” Leigh said. “The upside was that we weren’t exposed to our parents fighting and screaming.”

Two years later the family returned to Forest Hills and moved to the Birchwood Towers complex at 102-10 66th Road, where they lived in on the 22nd floor.

Both Leigh and his brother went to Forest Hills High School, where they met the future members of the Ramones: Thomas Erdelyi (Tommy), Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee), and John Cummings (Johnny).

“It was still kind of a hippie era,” Leigh said.

When he was 14, Leigh formed a band with Cummings. “We were hanging out all the time,” he said.

Once, while they were rehearsing in a garage of Leigh’s building, they got kicked out for making too much noise. So they went to the laundry room and tie-dyed a lot of their T-shirts and pants “making a huge mess all over the place.”

Another time, they threw a bunch of Leigh’s 45 records from the Birchwood Towers terrace, trying to make them land on the rooftop of the building across the street.

They stopped when one of them landed just inches from an elderly couple walking down the street.

“Then we switched to water balloons and grapes,” Leigh joked.

The Ramones formed in 1974 with Leigh working as the band's stage manager and occasionally singing backup vocals on early tracks. (He would later form his own band, Birdland.)

Wearing ripped up pants and jackets, the musicians tried to sneak into shows at the Singer Bowl in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and at the Fillmore East in Manhattan, Leigh said.

They also hung out at neighborhood diners and school yards, near J.H.S. 190 Russell Sage and J.H.S 157 Stephen A. Halsey, Leigh said.

But their favorite spot was the Thorneycroft Ramp, a path leading to the rooftop of a garage at the Thorneycroft Apartment complex on 66th Avenue, near 99th Street, where they would drink and experiment with drugs, he said.

“We were mischievous, but not dangerous,” Leigh said. “Just punk.”

But the neighborhood wasn’t always pleased with their eccentricities.

Joey Ramone got beaten up once on Queens Boulevard when he was hitchhiking to the Coventry Club in Sunnyside. He was in his “glitter” period, wearing platform shoes and clothes and jewelry stolen from their mother, Leigh said.

“I kind of knew that something was going to happen to him someday,” Leigh said. “But he was unstoppable and kept hitching after that.”

The band's career took off after their trip to London where their performance at the Roundhouse on July 4, 1976, was an enormous success.

The Ramones during their first trip to London in July 1976. Leigh was their stage manager at the time. (Photo: Danny Fields/Courtesy of Mickey Leigh)

Leigh, who still lives in Forest Hills, told DNAinfo New York that the neighborhood where the Ramones spent their transformative years has changed since the '70s.

“There is a lot more different cultures so it’s kind of cooler,” he said. 

The soon-to-be-named "The Ramones Way" will commemorate the band and the legacy of the neighborhood that's forever tied to punk's legacy. This year, fans also celebrated the band with an exhibit at the nearby Queens Museum and two new murals in Forest Hills.

Leigh, who has been pushing for the street renaming for about a decade said the city would not place another sign honoring the band in Manhattan, after the Joey Ramone Place mark was unveiled in 2003 on the Bowery at Second Street near CBGB, where the band often played. 

“So I thought Forest Hills, where it all started, would be a great place for it,” he said.

The intersection of 67th Avenue and 110th Street, will be officially co-named “The Ramones Way” on Oct. 30 at 11 a.m.