Exclusive video premiere!
Mickey Leigh has been a fixture on the New York rock scene since the late 1970s, fronting the Rattlers and Stop, appearing regularly at CBGB, joining Lester Bangs in Birdland and his brother, Joey Ramone, in Sibling Rivalry. The guitarist, keyboard player and singer has become something of an elder statesmen. In addition to being an author (I Slept With Joey Ramone) and an all-around swell guy, he organizes the annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash charity concert.
Trouser Press is proud to present this exclusive premiere of “Little Cristine,” by his current project, Mutated Music.
We checked in with Mickey via E-mail for a quick update.
We’ve all been at this a looooong time now. How has music-making changed for you over the years?
Not to sound like a wiseguy, the better question might be how hasn’t music-making changed(?). Of course, there’s no answer to that question. No one knows what’s unknown.
I started playing guitar at 10 years old in 1965. At 11, I performed “House of the Rising Sun” for my 5th grade class on “Show and Tell Day” with the $15 Kay acoustic my mom bought me. The teacher was so impressed she sent me around the entire school to play it for every class. That was my first “tour.”
At 12, I formed a band with a few classmates called Purple Majesty, and we actually starting writing our own songs. My big brother heard us rehearsing in our basement, came down and told me he wanted to take us into the studio to “produce” a single for us. And he did! He booked us an hour in Sanders Studio on 48th Street and we each walked out with an acetate (lower on the record food chain than a test pressing). You could play an acetate 10 times before it wore down to just white noise.
We all lost track of those acetates until around eight years ago when the guitar player found his copy hiding in the cover of a Bob Dylan album. We were able to scale down the noise just enough to hear the track and [the late] Billy Miller released it as a 7-inch purple vinyl single on Norton Records!
At 14, I found myself in a band with two older guys from my neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens — John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi — and we recorded one of Tommy’s songs in the studio owned by Jerry Samuels (better known to some as Napoleon the XIV of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha” fame).
A few years later, a thing called “Crocodile Rock” caused me to lose interest in it, and I got into jazz and classical stuff and started studying music theory. Then John and Tommy formed a little band called the Ramones with my brother, a former drummer, as the lead singer. Their show was a mess when they started playing in 1974, so I helped them get it together until it became the tightest non-stop show in the business. I quit in 1977 to start playing again.
That summer I met the legendary Lester Bangs in CBGB. He was looking to form a band, and our mutual love of jazz determined our fate. We formed a band called Birdland. I loved Lester and actually enjoyed the challenge of formulating the “lyrics” of a rock journalist into songs. It wasn’t easy. His lyrics had no “meter,” so it was like putting a jig saw puzzle together. But we actually wrote some great songs together. The bass player of Birdland, David Merrill, worked at Electric Lady Studios and snuck us in while they were renovating the studio and we recorded nine songs, no overdubs, and that became an album. Unfortunately that didn’t come out until 1986, four years after Lester died.
I got up the money to press 1,000 albums by selling ad space on the back of the cover. That was how I was “making music” at the time.
The formats continued to change. And like everything else in this world, music continued to mutate. So, I finally formed a band called Mutated Music.
How are you coping during the Corona lockdown? Listening to a lot of music? Reading a lot of books or watching a lot of television?
The first few months of it, March – April, I was listening mostly to the sirens of ambulances speeding down Queens Boulevard to Elmhurst Hospital. But the lull enabled me the time to write more songs. I can’t really get into watching movies, as I get too distracted by what’s going on all around me, and it just feels so strange to see the world pre-Covid. I’m addicted to the news channels, obsessed with surviving, worried about people I love, counting the days until November 3rd and doing everything I possibly can to help things change for the better = the better for everyone.
Did you have to make the video under quarantine conditions? If so, how did you go about that?
I have made two videos for two other songs during this epidemic. One was made with the band members filmed individually. One was for a song called “Trouble Man,” the B-side of the first single of three in 2020, put out by Little Steven Van Zandt on his Wicked Cool label. Director Greg Berg and me went into a desolate Manhattan on May 3rd and did it safely. It was eerie, but we were able to film in places we never would’ve been able to film in without getting permits etc. Then, I wrote a song I thought should come out right away so, in June, after us feeling assured none of us were infected, we made a video in the studio ourselves, filming each other with our iPhones while we recorded the song.
Did the Joey Ramone Birthday Bash have to be virtual this year? How did that work out?
I was accepting there would be no JRBB for the first time since he passed, but as the date came closer… and I was depressed enough already with the world in peril, I didn’t want to pile on to it so decided to do something online to both continue the tradition and raise money for lymphoma research. Fortunately, my drummer, Pat Carpenter, is a professional digital video editor, so I realized I could actually do it with a $0 budget — every penny donated by Joey’s fans could be sent straight to the National Foundation for Lymphoma Research. With Pat’s help, the assistance of two managers, the cooperation of enough bands and other applicable people sending in clips — and close to a week of sleepless nights for me, — I was able to get it together. And it turned out to be a really beautiful hour and change that we aired on Joey’s Facebook page on his birthday. We raised several thousand dollars and his fans all over the world were able to be part of it. Everyone was very happy. It’s still up on his page if anyone wants to see it.
One of your new songs makes a strong political statement. Did you grow up on what we used to call protest music or is it a new element for you as an artist?
The original song written in 1967, recorded by that first band I mentioned, Purple Majesty, was called “In This Day and Age” — “Men die, women cry, I look up and say ‘Why should this happen in this day and age?'” It was pretty much at the peak of the Viet Nam war. Though barely a teenager, my brother, my friends and I had already been going to anti-war protests and civil rights marches. We were very much into trying to bring about change. Yes, we were hippies. Of course, by the time the “punk” thing was flourishing, most of the people who’d been hippies were now going to discotheques, and the general attitude of “punk” was pretty much “anti-hippie.” But I never really cared about what “punk rockers” thought of me, and didn’t really see much difference in the fashion and behavior between “hippies” and “punk rockers” It was basically the same “non-conformist” philosophy. But, the supposed “punk” ideology was more violent. Ya know, “Beat on the brat with a baseball bat.” “You’re a loudmouth baby. Shut it up or I’ll beat you up.” “…..destrooouyyyyyyaa.” I don’t give a fuck. I’m gonna be myself. And I don’t like people getting hurt for no reason. Especially by people stronger than the ones they’re hurting.
In 1979, I wrote a song called “On the Beach,” a B-movie science fiction parody about sea creatures infected by radioactivity after the 3 Mile Island nuclear plant explosion. In 1986, I wrote a song called “I Won’t Be Your Victim,” basically an anti-bully theme. And a song called “Rattled,” which was also the name of the Rattlers album that came out that year on Jem. I realized later on that “Rattled” was the first rock song about the environment going to hell – “it was raining acid in the middle of the night” is one line, “I was riding on the train and I fell into a dream / The whole world was covered in a blanket of steam, with all the big fish belly up in the middle of the ocean.”
After recording a cover of “If I Had a Hammer,” arguably the best protest song ever written, I wanted to take the message to the street and began a video campaign in Queens, where I still live. Queens is the most diverse area in the world. I know which neighborhoods have populations of which ethnicity in them, so we went to them all and just walked the streets singing the song, asking people — total strangers — to join us, and just hoped nobody would have a problem with it. No one did. and it turned out to be the beginning of a beautiful movement that we’d planned to continue — going from one city to another and just adding on the original video. Not with cameos by celebrities. Only real people.
After Queens, we made it to Philly, and then all hell broke loose and we had to put that idea on hold for now. But, I’m trying to find another way to keep it going, by pressing up a 7-inch single with “Two Kinds of Law” (“one for the rich and one for the poor”) on the other side. That will come out shortly before the election in November.
I determined at a pretty early age that all politicians are liars by profession. Not that they’re all bad people. It’s just the nature of the beast. They have to tell people what they want to hear to get enough votes to win an election. I don’t have any party affiliation. But, this guy is a beast of another color. I’ve known he was crazy for decades. He’s 11 years older than me but we grew up only a few miles from each other, and have actually crossed paths. I was 17, working for my friend’s cousin who owned a nightclub called Le Drugstore on the Upper East Side, and I kinda got pushed aside by one of his entourage as he brushed by me like a king. That’s nothing to do with my gripes with him as a “leader” of the free world. Him calling his supporters who drove a car into a crowd and killed a woman holding a peace sign does though. He was just another rich asshole who wanted to get laid. Now, this guy wants blood to flow. Doesn’t care how many people have died in the past five months or…bla bla bla, and etc. I’ll do whatever I can, legally and peacefully, to remove the murderer in the Oval Office from power. Yes, I said murderer. I’ll add “racist” to that, and leave it there. .
I just have a hard time believing that anyone is really safe unless everyone is really safe. And, if nothing else, I’d love to see everyone, at least, safe.
A lot of people have complained about the lack of strong vocal opposition to Trump by big stars like Springsteen and Pearl Jam etc…But not everyone thinks artists should push their political views. Do you think musical artists have an obligation to use (or to not use) their stature to share their political views?
Everyone has a right to speak their mind. Except for the mindless.
The early days of CBGB are nearly a half-century away now — do you think your memories of that era have stayed constant or do you think about that time differently now?
No. Nothing’s changed about the way I view those times. They were explosively creative. I’m fortunate to have experienced two eras like that — the “revolutionary” ’60s and the anti-authoritative ’70s. I’d love to live long enough to see another period like those.
What else are you working on these days?
For all the blabbering about politics and messages, I haven’t lost sight of what attracted me to rock ‘n’ roll and why it was love at first sight = the fun. I miss fun rock ‘n’ roll songs. So, I was inspired enough to write one about a guy and his girlfriend having fun. Can you imagine that? It’s called “Little Cristine,” and we did have fun. It’s Mutated Music. I’m working on rescuing rock n roll = one song at a time.