Round the Dial
Wednesday 12 June @ 12:26:01
by Tom Hallett
(RTD will continue our overview of quality local and national indie record labels next week with a peek inside Susstones Records (I promise!), but this week’s column goes out to Dee Dee Ramone, who passed away last week of an apparent overdose at age 49.)
RIP: DEE DEE RAMONE, 1952-2002. Barber, post office worker, construction laborer, gigelo, junkie, friend, husband, artist, writer, ROCKER. You’ll be missed, brother.
1-2-3-4! The last thing I wanted to be writing about this week was another dead junkie rock ‘n’ roller. Especially one who meant as much to me as Dee Dee Ramone, co-founder/original bassist for New York City punk heroes The Ramones, did/does. Lead singer Joey’s passing just a short year ago was a heavy blow, but with Dee Dee’s death we’ve now truly lost the Lennon & McCartney of punk rock. Thing is, Joey couldn’t help dying—he fought a wicked battle with lymphoma and lost—but Dee Dee’s overdose last week not only could’ve been avoided, but reflected the nearly 50-year-old artist’s deep dissatisfaction with himself and the world around him.
Not two hours after Dee Dee’s death was announced, a fan had posted the following message on Rollingstone.com’s Website: “We’ll miss you, Dee Dee! Say ‘Hi!’ to Kurt!” Well, I’m sorry, but I’m still pissed at Cobain for pulling this stunt, so the romanticism of those sentiments escapes me. I mean, it’s great that Lester Bangs, Joey, Dee Dee, and Kurt can sit around some cosmic card table and laugh at the ridiculousness of this earthly life, but I’m still here and I’m gettin’ kinda scared. There’s just nobody replacing the fallen heroes anymore. And I’m startin’ to wonder if anybody ever can or will. The Ramones rose up and took the places of a legion of fallen heroes before them; I can’t think of one current band who could even lick the spilled beer offa Dee Dee’s tennis shoes. Hey—I’m sorry Dee Dee is gone, it hurts like hell, but the bottom line is, he did this to himself. Very, very, stupid. I just hope starry-eyed young rockers hearing about this tragedy will think twice before stickin’ that first rig in. It’s not cool. It’s not hip. It’s not fun. It’s death. Everybody loses. Nobody’s too tough to die.
Let’s face it—Dee Dee was shooting heroin before many of his current fans were even born—he was no stranger to dosing himself and, despite the cretinous image he liked to promote to the public, was a real smart guy. He’d attempted to clean up many times over the years, once (according to his ex-wife) going nearly five years without so much as a drink or a hit off a joint. He knew he was pushing the envelope by continuing to mainline. Maybe Dee Dee didn’t intentionally overdose, but (after just a little research) I’m convinced that, despite some really cool projects he’d been involved in recently, he simply didn’t have the will to go on. I’m not going to launch into some self-righteous rant about the evils of drug abuse and the sadness of neglected mental disorders, (like, who am I to talk?) but I will say that I’m really %@!#$&ing sick of losing my heroes to such a stupid habit.
OK, enough with the sloppy %@!#$&, I think my point is made. I’d like to dedicate the rest of this column to celebrating some of the really cool things that Dee Dee did during his lifetime, and pointing out a few signs he gave over the past year that something like this was possible, maybe even inevitable. Maybe it’ll help somebody else recognize the danger their loved one/friend/hero is in, and prevent another senseless death. Maybe. Dee Dee never kept his predilection for drug abuse a secret—the first songs he wrote were raunchy odes to the lifestyle: “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “Chinese Rock,” “53rd & 3rd,” (which was about selling your ass in NYC to support a dope habit) and “Warthog” (with the tell-all lines: “Take some dope, I feel so sick/It’s a sick world, sick, sick, sick/Doomsday vision of junkies and fags/Artificial phonies I hate it, hate it/Death is the price I’ll pay...”) all covered the %@!#$& Dee Dee was really into.
Most of Dee Dee’s Ramones-era work (as well as his early history as a U.S.-born army brat growing up in Germany and collecting Nazi war memorabilia) is well-documented, both online and in his book, “Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones,” so we’ll take up where he left the band, after 1989’s Brain Drain album. Around this time, he took on the personality of Dee Dee King, (AKA Doug E. Fresh) and released an album of “rock n’ rap” music called Standing In The Spotlight that (despite critical raves calling it the “party album of the century”) failed miserably commercially. Listening to the record now, it’s easy to see where modern rap/rockers found some of their inspiration—once again, Dee Dee was at the forefront of a new musical movement.
It took him awhile to get back in the studio proper after that comeuppance and his split with “Da Brudders,” but he kept busy, working with other artists and playing bass for several outfits, including a star-crossed “super-group” of sorts with fellow addicts Johnny Thunders and Stiv Bators (both dead now too, from—you guessed it—drug abuse!) in the ‘80s, a stint with GG Allin & The Murder Devils, jams with The Dead Boys, Joan Jett, Nina Hagen, and his own post-Ramones outfit with C.J. and Marky, The Remains.
By 1994 he was ready to start recording full-time again. He released the barely-noticed I Hate Freaks Like You that year, and continued to tour and rock out with friends and fans through the ‘90s. He played with Joey a few times over the years, and appeared live with The Ramones at their 1996 farewell concert. Though several of the members never really made their peace with each other, Dee Dee had special relationships with Joey, C.J., and Marky that kept him in contact with them separately. He stood proudly onstage with the literal remains of the band he’d co-founded in 1974 a few months back as they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame—though tellingly, he was the only one not wearing the traditional black leather.
In 1997 he released Zonked, also to little acclaim. He wrote two books, the aforementioned autobiography and “Chelsea Horror Hotel,” a novel about living in the infamous NYC digs. Late in his life, Dee Dee began to explore some of his other artistic talents, including painting, drawing, writing, and producing a punk ‘zine called—what else—Takin’ Dope. It’s in the pages of those six issues that the clues to Dee Dee’s impending demise are to be found. In retrospect, I’m amazed that nobody close to him saw it coming.
At http://www.deedeeramone.net, fans and the curious can check out e-copies of TD, hear a recent mp3, “Horror Hospital” (an aural companion to his novel) ,watch videos of Dee Dee showing his art, read interviews he did with everyone from Psychotica to Marky Ramone, find links to his online gallery, and peruse tour and personal photos. He seemed pretty happy in the early stages of the ‘zine, (which was launched in 1996) when he was still living in New York and hanging out with his old pals, but a quick glance at his diary-like entries once he moved to L.A. shows the toll it took on him. Even an early trip to check out The Cramps, one of the many bands he was fanatical about, found him running into psychic opposition from La-La Land. On the plane out of NY, he was hassled and nearly arrested for “disturbing the peace.” He visited a House Of Blues, and wrote that it was a “Hottie (sic) And The Blowfish kinda place.” Though he loved the Cramps show, he ends this segment by saying, “L.A. got to me quick...flew back to New York, and it was better, fun to be home again.”
So why did the consummate New Yorker pick up and move to Plasticville? According to his notes, he actually believed that he was destined to become a famous movie star, and thought that living in Hollywood would up his chances for kicking off that portion of his entertainment career. Typically, he ended up “walking around Hollywood and sitting at bus stops.” He eventually did score a role (playing the Pope and fighting the devil with a huge cross on a stick, something he found absolutely hilarious) in a movie called “Bikini Bandits.” He also helped write music for the flick. Despite those triumphs, and success in both his art and music careers, Dee Dee never quite grooved in to Hollyweird. Joey’s death and the attack on September 11th that destroyed the World Trade Towers in NYC took a heavy toll on him, and he began to sound more and more hopeless in his notes and zine comics.
One telling clue comes in his fictional, comic book recounting of late Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious being kidnapped from The Chelsea Hotel by a mad doctor who wants to cure him of his heroin addiction. The doctor takes Sid to a “horror hospital” somewhere outside the city and proceeds to drug him, perform a lobotomy with an ice pick, and saw off his arm s and legs because those were “the bad parts of Sid’s body where his track marks are and he’s been shooting up dope.” Sid, however, has the last laugh, as he’s actually been shooting up “in the veins under that padlock he’s always wearing around his neck.” So sure, Dee Dee was ashamed that he was still a junkie when most of his contemporaries were preparing for retirement and welcoming grandchildren into the world. At the same time, he took great guilty pleasure in “getting away with” bangin’ dope while his loved ones thought/hoped he was clean. It doesn’t take Freud to see why he wrote and drew these opiated fantasies.
Dee Dee’s last serious entry comes in the Dec. 2001 issue of Takin’ Dope. He talks about losing some people who’d meant a lot to him, and about 9/11, and about how the New York City he’d grown up in was gone forever, and how he felt alienated from the insane world around him. Here’s an excerpt: “If you do your crying in private, then it’s OK. When I found out my dad died, I did the same thing I did when I found out Joey Ramone had died. I took a lot of walks alone in the woods and let myself cry. I was upset because I would never get to see those guys again. But I can’t seem to get over it, that it’s over. It’s painful. I didn’t know that I would care...I can’t predict my future, but I really can’t see myself touring around, playing Ramones songs, my heart just won’t be ready for that for awhile...maybe never again.”
One thing’s for sure—there’ll never again be any “touring around playing Ramones songs.” With Dee Dee’s passing, that chapter in rock ‘n’ roll history is irrevocably closed. So yeah, I’m pissed, I’m hurt, I’m sad, and I’m sorry it’s over. But I’ll keep playing those Ramones albums at top volume, sharing their wit, humor, and rockin’ good vibes with everyone I meet. And I’ll wish the best for Dee Dee- though I won’t be ready myself to tell him to “Say ‘Hi’ to Kurt!” for awhile...maybe never. I’ll leave you with an anonymous sorta-poem some fan left up on Dee Dee’s website after his death: “Why did you have to die?/You were so much stronger than the rest/When you were at your weakest/We loved you even more/Rest in Heaven....too cool for Hell/You were my strength when I was weak/You were my favorite loser/Now you are clean forever.” Amen. Gabba Gabba Hey, and Hey, Ho, Let’s Go, one last time. Until next week—make yer own damn news.