Marky Ramone: The Last Ramone Standing
Marky has a new book and a whole hell of a lot of crazy stories to tell.
Ramones fans everywhere know that vocalist Joey Ramone suffered from debilitating OCD. They know that guitarist Johnny Ramone was a hardcore Republican, and a walking oxymoron: A punk who loved Nixon and Reagan. They know that bassist and main songwriter Dee Dee Ramone would take any drug you handed to him. What they might not know is that Johnny was a card-carrying racist who slapped his girlfriend around, teased Joey relentlessly, and got into political arguments at Phil Spector’s pad with Al Lewis, who played Grandpa on The Munsters. Or that Dee Dee, despite what he claimed, never fought in Vietnam. Or that Joey’s personal hygiene was so bad that he had to be hospitalized on more than one occasion. Marky Ramone (a.k.a. Marc Bell) reveals all this and more in his highly entertaining new autobiography, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, which details his rise from Brooklyn obscurity to the drum throne with early hard rock heroes Dust before diving tits-first into New York’s punk miasma with Wayne County & The Backstreet Boys, Richard Hell & The Voidoids and ultimately the Ramones: Bell took over for original drummer Tommy Ramone in 1978—at Tommy’s suggestion—just before the band recorded Road To Ruin, featuring the classic “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Not that Marky comes out smelling like a rose in this story. He cops to driving his car through a furniture store while blackout drunk, stuffing a friend’s Chihuahua into a freezer, and the fact that his lengthy battle with alcoholism cost him his job as a Ramone.
Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy are all dead now, but their punk rock legend—and Marky’s—lives on. He just wants to make sure everyone has the facts straight. “It’s all true,” Marky insists. “I had to write this book because I wanted to quell all the rumors and exaggerations.”
Noisey: What were the biggest misconceptions about the Ramones that you wanted to dispel in Punk Rock Blitzkrieg?
MARKY RAMONE: That Phil Spector pointed a gun at us in the studio, which he didn’t. He had guns on him, but he never pointed them at us. And we weren’t real brothers. [Laughs] But I also wanted people to know the personalities of myself and the other band members—what they were really like. I also wanted to document what really went down during the filming of Rock N’ Roll High School and later at the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t want to criticize the other [Ramones] books, but they weren’t as comprehensive as mine.
You go into detail about the other Ramones’ personalities and the relationships they had with each other and you. A lot of it isn’t flattering. Did you specifically wait to publish the book after they had passed?
No. That wasn’t a reason at all. I just wanted to tell my story. Again, I read a lot of the other books and I thought there was a lot of exaggeration. That’s what inspired me to do it—I wanted to set the record straight.
Later Ramones members like Richie and C.J. are still with us, but as far as the classic 70s/early 80s era, you’re the last Ramone standing. That must feel strange.
Well, I’m the last link to the original four Ramones because of my involvement with them in the ’70s. I don’t feel I have a responsibility to it, but I enjoy keeping the music alive. I feel the songs are too good not to be played. So I put together a very tight band [Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg] and that’s what we do. I use Andrew W.K. on vocals—he’s a great performer. But I didn’t want any clones. I want the music to sound like the Ramones, but visually I didn’t want people looking like the Ramones.
Do you have any theories about why you were drawn to the drums as a kid, as opposed to guitar or bass?
I wasn’t really electronically inclined, let’s put it that way. But when the Beatles were on TV, my mother told me to come into the living room and watch. That was it—I wanted to be Ringo. That’s what started me off playing the drums.
And you had success early on. Dust signed a record deal just shy of your 18th birthday.
We were one of the first heavy metal bands in America at that time. We played very hard and fast, which I think came from living and growing up in Brooklyn. But we all knew each other and we all liked the same kind of music, and Dust was the result. My father wanted the high school diploma on the wall, so I got that and then started hanging out in New York in the punk scene.
Your former Dust bandmate Richie Wise went on to produce the first two KISS albums with Dust lyricist Kenny Kerner. You and Joey were both KISS fans, too, which seems antithetical to the Ramones’ no-frills attitude and presentation.
Yeah, I saw KISS a few times in the early days. They weren’t developed yet, but eventually they got their visual look down and got a lot tighter. But I always thought their songs were really good. They had good hooks; they weren’t too long, and their lyrical content appealed to youth—quite like the Ramones. KISS actually covered “Do You Remember Rock N’ Roll Radio?” and I thought they did a great job. They were there in the beginning, same as the Ramones and the [New York] Dolls.
You tried out for the Dolls at one point. Does any part of you wonder what would’ve happened if you got the gig? Do you think you might not have ended up as a Ramone?
Well, both. The Dolls broke up three years later due to drug indulgence and other things, and I maybe would’ve ended up being in that same position. But Jerry [Nolan] got the job, and he deserved it. I went on to play with other New York bands.
Like Estus, who did an album with Rolling Stones manager/producer Andrew Loog Oldham. He tried to start a threesome with you and another woman…
Andrew lives in Columbia now, and when I went there we met up. But we never spoke about that night. I’m not into threesomes. I was only like 19 or 20, and it was an unusual situation for me, and it seemed a little strange. But we let it go and kept making that album.
Marky with the Voidoids
You later became a member of Richard Hell’s band, the Voidoids, and played on the famous Blank Generation album. In your book, you say that the title track was the first song you’d ever played on that had lyrics that really made you think. Does the song mean anything different to you today than it did back then?
At the time, New York was very downtrodden. There were garbage strikes, police were getting shot everywhere; there were homeless people all over the streets. Washington told us to go fuck ourselves, so yeah, we belonged to the blank generation. Do I feel that now? I think it would relate more to younger people who might be in that position. But we picked ourselves up and got out of that. We persevered by playing and rehearsing, and luckily got out of that way of thinking.
Do you think Richard Hell was surprised when you quit the Voidoids?
I think he was, but [guitarist] Bob Quine was more surprised, because he really liked my drumming. When I left the group, he said it wasn’t the same anymore. But the thing is, Richard wasn’t really into touring. When we got back from the tour with The Clash, he just wanted to chill out. I wanted to continue touring. But he had a drug problem, and when you’re on tour it’s very hard to get connections to supply your habits. So I think that was his reason. But that’s when Tommy told Dee Dee to ask me if I wanted to join the Ramones.
Then you had a meeting with Johnny in which he laid down the rules of the band before you even tried out. That seems like it kind of set the tone for what it was like being in the Ramones—Johnny had a lot of rules.
Well, his bark was bigger than his bite. Did we adhere to his rules? No. We were friends, but we had opposing political views. Johnny was who he was, and I clearly describe that in the book. I describe what I’m like, what Dee Dee and Joey are like. So it’s not like I’m pouncing on anybody because I truthfully describe myself as well.
Joey and Johnny were constantly at odds, to the point where they stopped speaking to each other. I get the impression that you were a little more sympathetic to Joey because most of his problems were things that he couldn’t really control, like his obsessive-compulsive disorder, whereas most of Johnny’s issues were personality-based.
Yeah. Joey was an introvert and very shy. He needed somebody to talk to in the band because he couldn’t talk to John, and Dee Dee was always in outer space. But we had a good camaraderie. Joey always had health issues, too, so I sympathized with him. But when he got on that stage, he owned it.
When you first joined the Ramones, were you surprised to discover that Johnny was a racist who beat on his girlfriend?
Well, I don’t like bigots and I don’t like men who hit women. So him being an anti-Semite and saying the n-word every second, I didn’t like that. My parents took me to the first March on Washington, the first big march for civil rights, in ’63. So I was raised in a family where it doesn’t matter what color you are or what religion you are as long as you’re a good person. So hearing Johnny spew this stuff irritated me.
Joey was Jewish, so he wasn’t a big fan, either.
Joey hated it. Johnny would always goof on Joey and our tour manager and call them “rabbis” because they were Jewish. If Joey was approaching the van and John was in the front seat, he’d say, “Here comes the rabbi.” I’d say to John, “C’mon—enough already.” When you make fun of people just to get a laugh, it can become very dangerous. It could lead to something else—a different kind of hatred.
Was there ever a moment where one of you felt like you needed to step in when there was an argument between John and his girlfriend, Roxy, and he started slapping her around?
Well, Dee Dee had a fight with his wife Vera that I saw, and I told him not to do it again. But Johnny and Roxy, they would do that alone, when nobody was watching them.
When the Ramones were recording End Of The Century at Phil Spector’s house, Johnny would get into political arguments with Spector’s friend, Grandpa Al Lewis from The Munsters. What a surreal scene that must’ve been.
Always. Johnny was a Republican and he didn’t like immigrants, he didn’t like this, he didn’t like that, and Grandpa set him straight.
Many people were under the impression that Dee Dee had fought in Vietnam, even though he didn’t. Did he start that rumor himself?
Yeah. He had his appendix taken out, so he had a scar. He would always show it and say, “I got that in ’Nam.” [Laughs] Sometimes he’d change the story and say he got into a knife fight. Dee Dee had a very childlike, vivid imagination. But that’s what made him such a great songwriter.
The book doesn’t shy away from your struggles with alcoholism. Was that difficult to write about?
I had to, because it happened. I didn’t wanna come off like the only angel in the band, and if it could help somebody who has the same problem, I’m glad to be of assistance. I’m not ashamed of it.
At one point during your drinking days, you put a Chihuahua in a refrigerator for ten minutes. Do you feel bad about that?
That thing was a pain in the ass. It was barking all the time and kept biting my ankles every time I went into the guy’s house. I’d had enough. I wanted to cool it off, so I put him in the refrigerator, and not just the refrigerator—the freezer. When it came out, it was shaking a little and it didn’t bark anymore. So, instead of hitting it, I gave it a change of climate. It worked.
I don’t think you’re gonna make any friends over at PETA with stories like that.
Well, that was before things were PC.
J. Bennett interviewed Johnny Ramone in 2003, about a year before he died. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt.