[23 April 2003]
“Then I took out my razor blade
Then I did what God forbade
Now the cops are after me
But I’ll prove that I’m no sissy”
Dee Dee Ramone, from “53rd and 3rd”
It’s a song from the Ramones’ first record, one of the most important first albums (or albums, period) in rock history. It’s a song about male hustlers in New York, and while Joey sings the verses and chorus, Dee Dee busts in for this bridge that I’ve always loved, maybe more than any four lines of Ramones lyrics. This little glimpse of violent desperation, the speaker’s psyche and his concern with masculinity, and especially the dexterity of vocabulary (letting “razor blade” and “God forbade” follow each other in rhyme and meter, then onto “sissy”-weaponry, religious sin, and street slang) seem a rarity in rock, and especially punk, lyrics. And that jagged, brilliant flash lasts all of 13 seconds.
That strange mix of high thematics, crude craft, awesome compression, and eclectically-street style is this guy’s artistic identity. A press release from Thunder’s Mouth Press touts this third volume of Dee Dee Ramone’s rock ‘n’ roll trilogy as the “rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. Some might snort at putting the author of four major-league works of classic literature beside a guy who made a name for himself by starting the first punk band, publishing his journals, and making paintings that are nearly indistinguishable from his comic strips.
Me, I’m all for connections between classic and cult literature, especially when the figure is Dee Dee Ramone, a guy who lived the wild, self- and other-destructive life, starting and pretty much staying with the streets while he turned to music, writing, and painting for solace, and somehow, surviving and thriving longer than just about anyone from the punk era. Now, I look around at the vast majority of majority of the last 10 years of rock music, and even those closest to punk’s spirit have little of its substance (and I defy anyone to tell me the best of punk had zero substance). Charles Bukowski once wrote “there are no daring lives anymore, none at all”, and now that Dee Dee’s gone—a drug overdose after years of fighting to stay clean—that might be the truth.
That said, he’s not Dostoevsky. All this book is, is a journal Dee Dee kept on his last European tour, playing all Ramones songs that he wrote, plus a couple of oldies covers, and there doesn’t seem to have been an inch of craft, artifice, or revision in the writing—yet that’s what journals are about, the lack of calculation, the abundance of imaginative play, and devotion to the moment’s eternity.
One thing this book does is show why he was known for his sick sense of humor, reportedly laughing his tail off in the back of the van while dutifully making an entry for every day of the grueling tour (33 entries for 33 days on tour: 27 shows, 4 travel days, and 2 days off). Another friend mentions how Dee Dee had some trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. This mix of delusion and dark comedy appears most startlingly and casually in a scene with Norwegian border patrol; after the group has been ambushed, questioned, and are about to be strip-searched, Dee Dee writes:
Instead of pulling down my pants and bending over I dropped her with a spinning back fist that just about took off her jaw and when she fell from the blow I was on top of her. I grabbed her pistol and emptied it into the other two cops as Minna [their tour manager] and the boys stomped the lady cop to death where she lay. It looked like a long day at a slaughterhouse after we got through with them. There was blood and guts all over the snow. We hid the bodies but we couldn’t really clean up the scene of our crime and left evidence lying around everywhere that we had done it.
There are other scenes which I’ll only mention—mischievous orgies, underage groupies, groupies with fetishes (most of which are wearily ignored), the torturous murder of a cat in a hotel room, arguments over marijuana and beer, bad club food, the obligatory trashing of various seedy hotels, constant bickering within the band and management, relentless travel troubles. There are “sweeter” moments too—cravings for and joyful trips to foreign McDonald’s and Burger Kings, yearning for the Denny’s in L.A., reading British horoscopes, missing his wife Barbara while in the midst of lustful, escapist, and narcotic temptations of his rock lifestyle. Yet, as he reminds himself, “It’s better to put it on paper than in your veins.”
The coolest fact for me is that despite all the headache he goes through, and as many times as he laments being chained to his image and habits, as many times as he talks about quitting music for good to become a Hollywood recluse painter-writer, Dee Dee still enjoys the hell out of playing live every night. Even when the crowd is abusive and the club’s specialty is exploitation, Dee Dee can turn to live music for something genuine to do, and once or twice a week it seems, he is absolutely thrilled by the communal performance.
After the tour journal is a section of Dee Dee homage—Johnny Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Daniel Rey, fans, newspapers, among others, pay tribute. It wraps up with Dee Dee’s “Horror Hospital”, a violently wacky, defiant, and weirdly poignant “true story” comic strip about Sid Vicious sneaking out of the Chelsea to score dope, only to be abducted by the evil Doctor Fickelstein’s, whose mission is to give Sid, yes, a lobotomy.
All I can say is it’s weird, and kind of cool, on some level asserting the rights of an individual to be the sole ruler of his own mind and body. Despite the fact that his sturdiest and most spectacular work still seems to be those first couple of Ramones albums, this book shows us the guy wouldn’t quit living and working by and with his own rules. And he just flat wouldn’t quit.