Dee Dee Ramone - Portrait of a Punk
Dee Dee was the archetypical fuck-up. He was a male prostitute, a would-be mugger, a heroin user and dealer, an accomplice to armed robbery—and a genius poet who was headed for an early grave, but was sidetracked by rock ‘n’ roll.
Dee Dee Ramone was one of the strangest people I've ever met. Whenever we saw him, we were never sure if we were going to get the good Dee Dee or the bad Dee Dee. In the 90s, when I was asked to write a forward to his book, Lobotomy, I described him as, “the last of the dying breed of authentic rock star, an authentic bad guy who got over it, and in so doing, changed the face of rock ‘n’ roll. Dee Dee was the archetypical fuck-up whose life was a living disaster. He was a male prostitute, a would-be mugger, a heroin user and dealer, an accomplice to armed robbery—and a genius poet who was headed for an early grave, but was sidetracked by rock ‘n’ roll.”
Needless to say, I doubt we’ll see any more Dee Dee Ramones coming along in the near future. Rock ‘n’ roll these days is just too clean. And if I had to put a diagnosis on what Dee Dee suffered from, I wouldn’t know what to say. He was that unique.
The following interview was conducted in 1989, a few months after he left the Ramones. He called me and said he wanted to spill the beans. Since we’d been friends since 1976, I was happy to turn on the tape recorder and let him go—which he did for about ten hours.
DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES
My parents fought a lot. I don't wanna get into that, but I remember it vividly—I mean I remember a lotta other crumby things, and some good things too—but I had a bad childhood.
What I did to compensate for it was to live in a total fantasy world. I grew up in Germany and when I went to school, I failed the first grade and never went back. Actually I tried to go back the next semester, all my friends were going to the second grade—and I had to make a left and go down the hallway—and they said, “Where ya goin'?”
I said, “I'm going home!”
That was in Munich, it was an American army school for the military people stationed there. We didn't live right in the city, we lived on the outskirts, and there was some farmland and a lot of old bombed out houses and stuff. I’d wander around there and do things like swing on the swings—and I'd go into these intense fantasies—and imagine I was a fighter pilot.
I also lived in Pirmasens, which is a small town right on the French border. The German side of the border was called the Siegfried Line and the French side was the Maginot Line. I used to wander round in the old bunkers and look for war relics. I used to pick ‘em up all the time, like old helmets and gas masks and bayonets and machine gun belts. This went on for like a year and I started dealing these war relics—but I used to have fun with them too.
I'd always been fascinated by Nazi symbols—from finding them in the rubble in Germany. They were so glamorous. They were just so pretty. My parents were very upset by that.
One time my father said something fucking ridiculous. I had found a Luftwaffe sword that was beautiful, and I knew I could keep it or sell it for a fortune, like 80 marks. When I brought that home, my father got uptight and said something really sick, he said, “Can you imagine all our guys that died because of that?”
I thought, This guy is a real asshole. As if he really cared. I didn't figure my father for any passions like that, about anything. And from that day on, he just became a total joke to me—and I stopped fearing him.
I don't know how I got turned on to morphine—I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot of my friends were Americans, their fathers were in the State Department or the Army or Air Force, they were very young kids and they were very excited that you could drink at any age in Germany.
So everybody drank, but I really didn't hang out with people that much. I had to have a lot of time alone to wander around in fantasy, ya know? And I didn't want anything to disturb that. Doing drugs was always a very solitary thing with me. I did it alone, usually in some hallway or on some roof.
I started getting high on morphine—they didn't have pot or heroin or anything like that in Germany. I started very young, like 12. I used to trade daggers and stuff for morphine syrettes from some soldiers I knew. I used to go up to the Army Base and cop there. They used to sell it in a big plastic bottle and you would go to the drug store and buy your works and go up there and they'd give you like 2.5cc for 50 cents. You'd go to the department store and get off—everybody got off there and the place was a wreck, ya know? The department store was good because it had a nice bathroom.
It's funny, but I didn't smoke pot till I was like 15 or 16—until I came to America. I didn't like to drink. I tried it a few times—but I didn't really know how to drink.
A lot of times my parents didn't want me around, they really didn't care what I did, as long as I didn't play the guitar in the house. I picked up the guitar when I was around 12. I really wanted to play the guitar. I don't know why. I got exposed to rock real early cause my mother always liked it—she would always tell me what to listen to. She told me about the Beatles, Ricky Nelson, everybody.
I don’t think I really discovered rock until the Rolling Stones started breaking me away from my mother. I knew my mother couldn't listen to them, ya know? Then when I moved to America and I heard Jimi Hendrix, either in 1966 or 67, something like that. Then I knew I had my own music.
I hated it when I came to America—the kids weren't very cool, they didn't dress good. And there didn't seem to be any youth culture here—and the youth culture they had, I didn't like it because it wasn't very glamorous. Everything seemed turned out on an assembly line. There was this thing you were supposed to do and it all started at those damn head shops. I just didn't go for it.
Later on, when I started to find myself, I started going to the discothèques, when the disco thing first started happening in New York. There were these clubs in the late 60s where Spanish and Italian kids would get together and they were like kids clubs—a lot of them were just like juice bars. But they were some of the first discothèques—like the Sanctuary, Superstar, and Tamburlaine. That's where I'd usually go. And I'd get really dressed up—to the hilt.
When I was 15, I hitchhiked to California, but I got arrested on the way. I don't really wanna talk about this too much, but I'll tell you a little bit. I was arrested in Indiana for armed robbery. I asked my father if he could pay a small bail to get me out. That's one of the first times I ever asked him for anything, ya know? I was desperate. I was really scared, it was a rough place. And my father said, “Fuck you, rot there! You deserve it!” And then hung up.
I was stuck there for a pretty long time. It was pretty bad.
You see, I was hitchhiking and I met these kids from Flint, Michigan. I was kinda scared of them. They were very crazy. They were talking all this sick stuff and they kept saying how they wanted to cut someone’s head off. They wanted to strangle somebody. They had a thin wire and two hoops and they wanted to garrote somebody.
Finally they pulled over to a gas station in South Bend, Indiana, and robbed the place. We all got arrested.
The police caught us because the driver tried to step on the gas in the junk car and it stalled. No one got away with nuthin’!
When I finally got out of jail, I went to Chicago. I managed to get a bus ticket, because I was really paranoid to hitchhike. I just didn't wanna see any cops. I forget where I took the bus to—somewhere like Amarillo, Texas. And then I just went to highway and started hitchhiking.
I got a ride from this really nice guy all the way to Newport Beach, and that's where I spent my first night in California. The night before I was in Las Vegas and I remember thinking, “Man I gotta get outta here; this is the worse place on Earth!”
So the next day I took some mescaline and I came into the city tripping my brains out. I hated the Sunset Strip, so I started hitchhiking down Sunset Boulevard to Route One and took that all the way up to Big Sur. I went up to this place called the Gorge. You couldn't get there easy, you had to swim to the entrance and walk along the bank of this creek, where the cliffs came together—and then it just opened up into these beautiful woods. I just lived there like an Indian for months, until I went back to LA.
I’d traveled so much through Europe and the world—and I was always going through culture shock. I had a hard time adjusting—and I just didn't like America. And I didn't like California. It was too weird.
See, I was hitching through Topanga Canyon and this biker picked me up. He said, “Where you goin?”
I said “I'm just hangin out.”
So he drove me up to the hills—and on top of the hill there was this plateau and they had all these gasoline generators up there and amplifiers. They had a whole weird band up there, doin this real psychedelic music and they asked me if I wanted some acid. I said sure, and I took some, but I didn’t like it very much after it started coming on. So I asked to leave, and the biker said, “Sure I'll drive ya!” He drove about 2000 miles an hour down this little twisting path down the mountain—it was very upsetting for me.
Then I ended up taking some STP or something—and I went into this nightmare four-day trip. At the end of it, when I was coming down, I went into this sleazy barbershop and had him cut all my hair off! [laughs]
I had to have different guys to hang out with to do my different drugs. Joey Ramone couldn't do drugs. He tried them, but he couldn't handle it. He would freak out. One time I saw him smoke some pot and start convulsing on the floor in the fetal position, yelling “I'm freaking out! I'm freaking out!”
At the time, Joey was painting—and he would chop-up carrots and lettuce and turnips and strawberries and mix it all together and paint with it! [laughs] His paintings were very good—and then he would try to make tapes of like different sounds. His parents had an apartment on the 20th floor and it was lightning out and he stuck a microphone from the tape recorder out on the balcony to tape the thunder—and the lightning struck the mike and burnt everything! He'd have me come over and bounce the basketball for half hour and he'd tape it. Then he'd listen to it all day in a daze.
Joey and I used to sit on the steps of the bank in Queens Boulevard with a bottle of wine—when John would wanna go in the hallway and sniff glue. So John was up, when Joey was down—or whatever.
Johnny Ramone had stopped doing hard drugs by then. He really was a pot smoker. He was the first person to introduce me to really good pot—no one even knew about good pot, but John did. He'd say, “Dee Dee, I promise you, three tokes of this stuff and you'll by really out of it!”
I said, “Alright,” and I would be.
Yeah, there was a lot of glue and Tuinals and Seconals—what a party! You couldn't get your head outta that bag! We used to call up numbers on the phone, it would go, “Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep,” and we’d listen to that for hours. And sniff some glue a little more, because we knew these numbers to dial where you could get these weird sounds.
John was a construction worker at 1633 Broadway, and I got transferred there. I was a mail clerk in the office building. I'd pack up the mail in the morning and sort it out. I had my cart and I'd have it lined up according to how the desks in the office were organized. And I'd drop off the mail and I'd gossip with the people a little bit—and then do it all over again ten times a day. So John and I would meet every day for lunch and usually we'd go to the Metropole and have a few beers. The Metropole was like a go-go place and after we got a little tipsy we'd go next door to look at the guitars. But we thought it was wrong to be in a band. We thought it was a bad thing. I thought we should work, you know, and try to hold down a job.
But then one day it was a payday, and we both bought guitars and decided to start a band. John bought a Mosrite and I bought a Danelectro.
Tommy Ramone definitely got us off the ground, the Ramones wouldn't have done anything without Tom. We were really green, we didn't know what the hell was going on, but Tommy was really annoying too. Tommy was a control freak, he was like a mother that was always upset with us.
But Tommy cracked real early on. All our drummers cracked, every couple years one would crack—and then the group would be really happy, because we'd get rid of someone. And nobody would say we're gonna add this quality or that quality—they would just say we're gonna get faster! So every drummer we got we'd make them play faster and faster.
One time we were outside some hotel and some fan came up and pulled out a pen and asked Tommy for an autograph. Tommy said, “That's not a knife is it? You aren't going to stab me, are you?”
The Ramones gigs, especially the early ones in England, were very violent. And Tommy was very tiny and it was hard on him, ya know? And John was very nasty to Tommy and then Joey started getting nasty to Tommy. Tommy and I got along cause I was obviously not in competition to be the leader of that group—and Joey and John we're always striving for it.
I remember the first time we went outta town to play and I couldn't cop that morning. We went to some awful place in New England, on the ocean to some awful club, it was called Frolics, a real sleazy beer-stinking ballroom, ya know?
And I was getting sick. It was winter and it was cold—and afterwards we went back to some fleabag motel. I've been in some bad places, but this hotel was disgusting. Plus, I was getting sick, I was in withdrawal. So I took a blanket and I put it over the sink and I started running the water. And I sat underneath the blanket, underneath the sink. I just tried to make myself think I was sitting underneath a waterfall to forget where I was.
We wanted to get outta there so bad, but we only had one van. We had to be there three days and the third day I was a wreck. We hated being outta New York and that night it was like the coldest night I ever been through. And as soon as we stopped playing this cop came in and took out this big pistol, and said “You guys better play more!”
He was real drunk and this went on for an hour. We just wanted to leave and everything was so disorganized. So the next morning we called up Danny Fields, our manager, and said, “Danny we ain’t never doing this again!”
And he said, “Well you’re playing this place and that place tomorrow!”
I wrote that song outta spite for Richard Hell, cause he told me he was gonna write a song better than Lou Reed's “Heroin.” I went home and wrote “Chinese Rocks.” I wrote it by myself, in Debbie Harry's apartment on First Avenue and First Street. I always wrote my songs with all the same verse and chorus, like “53rd & 3rd.” It's always the same thing—so I could just repeat, "My girlfriend's crying in the shower stall."
Then I took it and showed it to Richard Hell—and he put something else in there, he put that line in, "It’s hot as a bitch, I shoulda been rich, I shoulda been digging a Chinese ditch," so I give him some credit. That's how people are—we had this competition going, ya know? He put me in that position. He's very argumentative. He's smart and all—but he had to be the top dog, and he never really was, ya know? For people who used my song—from Lee Childers to Johnny Thunders, to Richard Hell—they never gave me much respect as a writer, ya know?
Johnny Thunders got on my nerves about that song—I don't understand why he was so touchy about it. Johnny Thunders is great at everything he did, so why did he have to take it out on my song? I mean I love his song, "I Love You," I think that's a great song, but I have no idea why he stole “Chinese Rocks” from me.
The more I realize how good a song “Chinese Rocks” is—then I think, “But it ain't the best song in the world,” ya know?
The Ramones said they wouldn't do Chinese Rocks, and I had an apartment on 10th Street with this girl Pam, that I was going out with. So Jerry Nolan came up one day and I showed him the song and Jerry said, “Perfect.”
So I gave the song to Jerry and said, “Why don't you guys do it?”
And then the Heartbreakers L.A.M.F. album came out, they all had their names on it. I think everybody thought that was like a real tough thing to be a junkie—but I don't really know the real reason why he stole it from me.
Sid used to follow me all over the place when we went to London. He wasn't in the Pistols then—and he was very nice. He was like a little kid, ya know? He wasn’t a nut then, he was very nice and very innocent.
Then one night we had a big party—it was the summer, and in London, there's no air conditioning. It was at a place called Country Cousin or Country Club, where everybody has their parties. They were just serving beer and wine and everybody was bombed. The whole bathroom was filled with puke and piss and shit—in the sink, in the toilets, on the floor—the whole place!
It was really disgusting, and Johnny Lydon or somebody asked me, “Dee Dee, do you need anything?”
I said, “Yeah, I want some speed!”
So all of a sudden I had a huge amount of speed in my hand. I started sniffing it like crazy and I was so high, and I saw Sid and he asked me, “Do you have anything to get high?"
I said, “Yeah I got some speed.”
So we went in the bathroom Sid pulled out a set of works. He puts a whole bunch a speed in the syringe—and then stuck the needle and the works in the toilet with all the puke and piss in there and loaded it. He didn’t cook it up—he just shook it and stuck it in his arm and got off.
I just looked at him, ya know? I'd seen it all by then—and he just looked at me kinda dazed and said, “Man where did you get this stuff?”
Working with Phil Spector was a nightmare. First of all, we had no money. We'd been together four or five years and we were flat broke. We were staying in some flea bag motel in Culver City—with just enough money to buy two damn Tuinals and a beer every day. And Phil was like totally out of his mind—I hadn't met anyone crazier than him. We hated his music and we hated each other, but he liked me a lot.
He used to pull guns all the time, and he had two guys with him that were fully armed. Johnny Ramone took care of it—he told Phil to cut it out or we're gonna leave. Then Phil said, “Alright you guys, just try and leave! I’m not letting you leave!” So we just sat there for a couple days. He just held us with these guns, and we had to sit there in the living room and listen to him play “Baby, I Love You” over and over. [laughs]
I don't know what he was drinking. I couldn't figure it out because he had this big gold goblet with all these jewels on it and he looked like Dracula drinking blood, so I said “Phil let me have some of that…”
And he said, “OK, Dee Dee,” and it was ManischewitzWine.
I hated him. I don't like anything about him. I don't like people who are in the music business who are bitter and trying too hard to prove something. He was all that.
The recording was a nightmare, it couldn't have been worse. One time he made John play the guitar chord to the beginning of “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” over and over again for about six or eight hours. Phil just sat there listening to it in a daze, and finally Johnny said, “Look I can't do this anymore, I'm going back to New York!”'
Phil said, “No, just give it a chance, there’s something I'm trying to hear.” And he'd sit there dazed—it sounded the same every time John played it—I don't know what he was listening for.
Phil would always just get real violent around me. I seemed to bring out something bad in him. He always seemed to be competing with me to try and let me know he could be tougher than me, and I wasn't going for it. Finally one night I put him in his place. I got real heavy with him—I had to. I’d had enough.
The album took forever to start because Phil wouldn't even tell us where we were recording. Then finally, he gave us a list of three studios, all within 50 miles of each other and said, “Call this one every day at a certain hour and that way you'll be able to know where we’re going to record.”
That's how paranoid he was. He rented three studios and paid for them all—had them open sessions that he booked weeks before. I mean, when he went outta the house it was all a big strategy of how he was armed, and what his security was.
End of the Century was our biggest selling album, but it almost ruined our careers because the people who bought the record came and saw us, they came to see “Baby, I Love You,” and as soon as we started playing they left. The next tour we did it was half empty seats. I couldn't believe it. I don't think we really recovered till I wrote Too Tough to Die.
I was driving home with the band from the record company in New York and they put on something from the End of the Century album, I think it was, “I'm Affected.” I couldn't believe how awful it sounded! It was horrible! And I didn’t like our version of “Baby, I Love You.” Not at all.
Some of the worst crap I ever wrote went on that album. I don't even want to say the names of the songs, but that was me at my worst. After I heard that album, I said, “Never again!”
LEAVING THE RAMONES
I don’t know when I left the Ramones, I'm not certain. I made a lot changes in my life in the last five to six months. I left my wife, I left the band, and I left my girlfriend—and it was hard, you know? I had to do it because I had to become myself. I’m not a puppet—I didn't want to be a little boy anymore. I wouldn't grow up, and a lot of things were irritating me about the Ramones.
One thing that's always been important to me is to be myself. I don't write music according to a certain style that I'm noted for or familiar with. I write how I feel at the moment. I write current. I don't try to recreate the past, and that was the Ramones' thing. That was hard to deal with.
I was also sick and tired of the little boy look—bowl haircut and the motorcycle jacket. And really, for four middle-aged men trying to be teenage juvenile delinquents is ridiculous.
The thing that you want to strive for is to become a man, whether you want to be an adult or not. I think it's better to be an adult—to be secure enough with yourself not to hang on to what may have worked before.
I was just getting sick of playing in a revival act. See, I was trying to say something about life and something positive. I don't know if what I was doing was right at the time—and I don't think the kids buying the albums wanted to hear what I was trying to say. I would write things about getting down on my knees and praying' for peace and all that, ya know? I was doing that kinda stuff and that's how I felt—and it was really hard to do that in the Ramones because they're very bigoted, very prejudice, and very right wing. And then I'd come out on the total left side of the field, and it was causing trouble.
No one in the group was really growing up besides me, which is pretty weird cause there was no one in that group more self-destructive than I was. I was a big troublemaker in the group. I put them through a lot of pain, but as much as I gave to them, they gave right back to me.
The Ramones stand for nothing but pure hate.
So now that I can write what I want to write and don't have to censor what I'm writing, unbelievable things are coming outta me that I didn't know I had in me. I always knew I could write a good song, but I listen to a Ramones album now and there's very few things on there that I'm really happy with.
Of course, Joey writes all his love songs, crying about his broken heart, which I think is embarrassing. I always thought a rock star should never have his heart broken. He should break hearts and be a real lady-killer, and not be whining. That’s all Joey did in all his songs. It was annoying the hell outta me.
So I started trying to write more serious. I think I was doing it just to flaunt it right back at them. I don't know that it was the right thing for the group now, but I think rock ‘n’ roll should be three words and a chorus.
And the three words should be good enough to say it all.
Back in 1975, Legs McNeil co-founded Punk Magazine, which is part of the reason you know even know what that word means. He also wrote Please Kill Me, which basically makes him the Studs Terkel of punk rock. In addition to his work as a columnist for VICE, he continues to write for his personal blog, pleasekillme.com. You should also follow him on Twitter - @Legs__McNeil
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