(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has deep, twisted roots. Rock musicians have been writing memoirs for decades, often without receiving the publicity that new books by the likes of Keith Richards and Neil Young have recently received. These include many worthy or surprising works published by small presses that are out of print or nearly forgotten today. I’ve recently launched a new series on Litkicks, “The Great Lost Rock Memoir”, which will mine the rich archives of neglected rock memoirs. Today, let’s look at the revealing confessions of Mr. Douglas Colvin of Forest Hills, Queens, better known as Dee Dee Ramone.)
Dee Dee Ramone was an unhappy child. He often watched his drunken father beat up his mother, and after she left him to raise Dee Dee alone he quickly adopted patterns of severe substance abuse and found himself wanting to beat his mother up himself. These scenes appear in the early chapters in Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones, which was edited by Veronica Kofman and published by a small outfit called Fire Fly in England in 1997, five years before Dee Dee died.
Raised on a German army base where his American father was stationed, Dee Dee came to the USA as a teenager with his German-born mother, feeling like an alien in every way. He did not go to high school, and instead dove into New York City’s music, fashion, hard drug and male prostitution scenes. He had awesome natural musical instincts (though he remained completely untrained as a bass guitarist, fulfilling the ideals of the punk-rock savage). He saw epochal rock concerts during the golden age of hippiedom — the Who in Central Park, Jimi Hendrix at Cafe Wha — but it all went down hard for this young bohemian:
1969 was the year of the summer of hate. For me, it wasn’t about going to see Jefferson Airplane at the Central Park band shell and taking LSD. It was about sitting on a park bench drinking wine and snorting dime bags of heroin.
Dee Dee Ramone’s life never improved, even when he became the bass guitarist for one of the greatest bands of all time. He always had a chip on his shoulder — a chip the size of CBGBs. Whereas Joey, Johnny, Tommy and Marky adopted professional attitudes towards the band, Dee Dee searched out dysfunction, torturing himself into corners every chance he could get. In the pages of his book, he loses lots of friends (but keeps a few — Stiv Bators, Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell — luckily one of them is still alive), and has a few really bad relationships with women. He eventually hates being in the Ramones so much that he quits the band without a backup plan. (The band was never the same without Dee Dee playing that steady simple bass, though admittedly the complexity of their rhythm technique improved).
But Dee Dee was a writer. That’s everything he was. He and Joey shared the band’s composing duties, but Dee Dee easily held up his half with “Chinese Rocks”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement”, “Listen To My Heart”, “53rd and 3rd”, “Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment”, “Rockaway Beach”, “Questioningly”, “Warthog”. He wrote constantly, naturally and unceasingly during every period of his life.
Most tellingly, even after he has long departed from the Ramones, after he’s burned his bridges with every other member of the band and the management team, he is still cajoled to write songs for them, and resents the financial pressures terribly (he feels like a songwriting slave). Of all the rock memoirs I’ve read, I don’t think I’ve ever read another by a rock star who is so completely unhappy with his choice of a career in music. I love this passage:
[Morning] was my favorite time of day. I would put on a strong cup of coffee, roll up six or seven joints of Buddha Thai and I’d dream myself out of Whitestone. By then I was having a lot of escape fantasies about jobs I could do to support myself, so I could quit the Ramones. Like being a doorman, or a candy-story owner, or having a hot dog stand. I was serious. I’d had enough.
One of the best Ramones escape fantasies I had was around this time. The band was driving home from Boston. It was about six in the morning and we got to one of those toll booths in Connecticut. All the delivery trucks were lined up along the highway. The orange sun was warming up the oil and gasoline on the concrete. It all seemed very glorious to me. There were the trucks that delivered the morning papers to Queens. There were the bread and milk trucks that delivered to little grocery stores. It all seemed so friendly.
We think of writers as highly self-conscious or psychologically deliberative human beings, but Dee Dee Ramone breaks that stereotype. He was a natural-born writer — of lyrics, of memoirs, eventually also of novels and even more memoirs — but rational reflection was beyond the scope of his aesthetic principles. He had style, and an inborn talent for expression. But, in the end, he doesn’t seem to understand himself. Like the characters he created in some of the best Ramones songs, he is destined for self-destruction, and can’t let self-awareness get in the way. He doesn’t like himself very much, though we like him instantly, at a glance.
Poison Heart was eventually republished, with a new introduction by Legs McNeil, as Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones. I don’t like the new title one bit. “Teenage Lobotomy” was a great Ramones song, but it doesn’t particularly capture Dee Dee’s personality, and of course (blessedly) there are no actual lobotomies among the book’s lurid tales (lobotomy, a tragic psychiatric practice now mostly outlawed, does figure into other works of literature, like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, and is too serious a word to be repurposed as a jokey punk-rock memoir title).
Mostly, I don’t like the new version of the book because this is Dee Dee Ramone’s book, and he called it Poison Heart. “Poison Heart” is not as popular a Ramones tune as “Teenage Lobotomy”, but it does capture the author’s style (even though this is only a fake-live video, mixing archival concert footage and attempting to make it appear as if the Ramone brothers are singing and playing this song.)
Here’s a better look at the Ramones in their prime, and really live, in 1978 blasting their masterpiece “Cretin Hop”, Dee Dee is stage left as always.
And here — optional viewing, really, because he really couldn’t rap — is a video from Dee Dee’s later hiphop career, when he called himself Dee Dee King. His heart was in the right place, for sure. Can’t fault the guy for trying it.
It’s worth mentioning that Dee Dee’s wife Vera Ramone King also wrote a rock memoir, which I haven’t read yet but probably eventually will if I live long enough. It’s called Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone. At least she didn’t call it Lobotomized.
And before I read this one, I’ve also got to read Johnny Ramone’s posthumous memoir Commando, which came out just last year, and which I’ll probably write about on this blog soon too. No rest for us weary. More write-ups of Great Lost Rock Memoirs will be coming next week …