His Brother’s Keeper: A Ramones Tour of Queens
MICKEY LEIGH walked up to a small house on an unremarkable street in Forest Hills, Queens. The teenager who answered the door was unsure what to make of the tall man with salt-and-pepper hair standing before him wearing black jeans, a long black coat and dirty yellow Converse sneakers.
“Have you heard of the Ramones?” Mr. Leigh asked.
The boy nodded.
“Did you know one of the Ramones grew up here? I’m Joey Ramone’s brother. We lived here a long time ago.”
A suspicious father with thinning hair appeared.
“We’re not interested,” he said in a foreign accent.
Mr. Leigh, 61, persisted. “You know, the Ramones,” he said. “‘Gabba Gabba Hey’? My brother was Joey Ramone. We lived here as kids. Did you know that?”
The father didn’t care to know how his two-story suburban home fit into punk-rock history.
“Not interested,” he said, and closed the door.
All four members of the original Ramones grew up in Forest Hills circa 1970, and that middle-class residential neighborhood would be the backdrop for their evolutions from Jeff, John, Thomas and Douglas into Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Dee Dee.
They are all dead, but Mr. Leigh remains a direct portal to this formative era in the band’s history. He recently led me on an informal tour of the stoops, apartments and parks that were their haunts — all of them a stone’s throw from an exhibition that opened on Sunday at the Queens Museum called “Hey! Ho! Let’s Go: Ramones and the Birth of Punk.”
The exhibition is an exclamation point (the Ramones loved exclamation points!) on the Queens that shaped the band. Its memorabilia includes the military academy belt of the guitarist, Johnny (John Cummings); report cards with lackluster grades belonging to the bassist, Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin), and the lead singer, Joey (Jeffrey Hyman); and a yearbook photo spotlighting the drummer, Tommy (Thomas Erdelyi), as a member of the Audio-Visual Squad. The four-room exhibition follows the band from its misfit beginnings to its later acceptance into pop culture, including in animated form on “The Simpsons.”
A faded 1975 news release on a wall reads: “The Ramones all originated from Forest Hills and kids who grew up there either became musicians, degenerates or dentists. The Ramones are a little of each. Their sound is not unlike a fast drill on a rear molar.”
If the Ramones were the house band of CBGB and synonymous with the East Village of the 1970s and ’80s, it was the walkable section of Forest Hills, a mile from the museum, that was the setting for the band’s youth and the inspiration for some of its earliest songs.
Mr. Leigh, who sang uncredited backup vocals on early Ramones tracks, drove around reminiscing in his 2003 red Ford Taurus last week. He is the author of a Ramones memoir, “I Slept With Joey Ramone,” and formed a band in the ’70s with the rock journalist Lester Bangs.
“It was tough for us,” he said of himself and Joey, who was three years older than Mickey (born Mitchel Lee Hyman). “Our parents got divorced when I was like 4. That was not acceptable here at the time. We were instantly branded.”
“My father wanted her in the kitchen,” Mr. Leigh said of his mother. “She didn’t want to be in the kitchen. Not that there’s anything wrong with making chicken, but she didn’t want to make chicken.”
He pulled up to a small park off the Grand Central Parkway. “Oh, they made it into a dog run,” he said.
The park was a hub for early mischief among local children — Joey among them. Mr. Leigh walked along a nearby highway overpass and recalled how they would toss stones at rushing cars below, and how a “tough kid” once threw a rock at a Secret Service car in a convoy transporting President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He looked at the park before getting back into his Ford. “There was a well in the middle there,” he said. “We used to believe it led to the center of the earth.”
The next stop was a vacant lot overgrown with shrubs. It had been Joey’s second Forest Hills childhood home. An older woman walking by complained that it was a neighborhood eyesore.
“The next owner will probably turn it into that,” Mr. Leigh said, pointing across the street to an elaborate home he called a McMansion.
Forest Hills High School is down the street. All the original Ramones attended, and they bonded over their outsider status. (Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are also alumni.)
“I think three people liked the Stooges in the whole area, and everybody else was violently against them,” Dee Dee had recalled in the documentary “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones,” referring to their punk-rock contemporaries. “So if you liked the Stooges, you had to be friends with each other.”
Mr. Leigh approached a teenager who was speaking with a friend outside the school.
“You know the Ramones?” he asked.
“I actually do,” the boy, Krystian Paultre, 14, replied. “My father likes them. Are you a Ramone?”
The most consequential location from the band’s Forest Hills days might be a few blocks away, however, in and around the Birchwood Towers complex, where Joey lived; Tommy, Dee Dee and Johnny resided within a block radius.
The band members experienced the neighborhood as young men, slipping into the sort of truancy that inspired their group’s attitude and image. Although they would develop dislike for one another in their fame, they couldn’t wander far without running into one another here in their early 20s.
Mr. Leigh was hesitant to visit the Bel Air building, one of the three Birchwood towers, where he and Joey spent their late teenage years. “I can’t go in there,” he said. “It’s fancy-looking now. That’s not Ramones.” But curiosity overwhelmed him. We left a written message for the tenant of Apartment 22F.
The tenant, Steven Krieger, revealed later by phone that he was a 42-year-old math teacher at Forest Hills High School. He was elated to learn of his apartment’s past. He said that the apartment offered a grand view of Manhattan and that he could imagine a young Joey entranced by the pull of the emerald city.
The band’s primitive rehearsal space was not far away, in the basement of Art Garden, the gallery and frame shop run by Charlotte Lesher, Joey and Mr. Leigh’s mother. She would become known as Mama Ramone.
The shop is now a cramped law firm that specializes in bankruptcy. Eleanor Pelcyger, 59, sat alone at a desk, surrounded by towers of paperwork and files. She scanned Mr. Leigh’s appearance.
“Let me guess,” she said, fatigued. “You want to know if the band rehearsed here?”
“I was here,” Mr. Leigh replied.
“Oh, my God,” she said.
Ms. Pelcyger said the office received punk-rock pilgrims often. “They don’t care what it looks like,” she said. “They just want to reminisce.”
Mr. Leigh was disappointed to find that the doors leading to the basement had been covered with shag rug. But he closed his eyes and stood over them. “I remember opening this door and getting hit by the smell and sound of the Ramones.”
He suggested that there was something ironically punk, perhaps, in the current business name, simply the Law Office. “The minimalism continues,” he said. “Three words. Three chords.”
Mr. Leigh had visited another part of early Ramones lore a little while before: the Ramp, a plain walkway leading to the roof of a garage in the Thorneycroft apartment complex, just up the way from Birchwood.
It was a hot spot for misbehavior. Boys in ripped jeans and jackets would sit along the ramp’s banister, smoking, sniffing and drinking.
“It was a line of kids doing all kinds of pills of whatever new drug was around,” Mr. Leigh said. “We also played stickball.”
He remembered a violent incident one afternoon in the early ’70s.
“I was hanging with Johnny at the ramp, and Tommy Gordon had been learning karate,” he said, referring to a local boy. “Johnny said, ‘That’s not going to help you in a real fight.’ Tommy said he was crazy. ‘What do you mean I’m crazy?’” Johnny said.
Johnny, Mr. Leigh continued, slapped the boy. “What now?” He slapped him again. The boy’s father saw the incident.
“Tommy’s dad starts walking up the ramp,” Mr. Leigh said. “‘What are you doing to my son?’ Then Johnny slapped Tommy’s dad, too.”
While Mr. Leigh described the youthful indiscretions of the Ramp, an elderly woman pushing a folding shopping cart called out from below.
“I’m Ricky’s mother!” she said.
“Ms. Salem?” he called back.
Mary Salem, 85, wore a fur coat and was heading to the supermarket to buy chicken cutlets for dinner. Mother to one of the neighborhood crowd, she’s lived in the area for years and remembered the four Ramones well. She was surprised to hear that some in the neighborhood had forgotten them.
“That’s strange,” she said. “I’m 85, and I still think of them very fondly.”
“They started the whole rock ’n’ roll era, and I think they were great,” she said. “They didn’t intimidate me. They were good boys. They were sweethearts.”