Dee Dee Ramone is lucky as all hell to be alive. The rickety timbre of his voice over the telephone bespeaks a man who has repeatedly cheated death. His is a sort of Bronx junkie mumble crossed with the confounded drawl of Tennessee Tuxedo's Chumley, a disquieting mix of stubborn subsistence and resignation born of years of dope damage and rock 'n' roll abuse.
It's morning in the Hollywood home that Ramone shares with his second wife, Barbara, and the day -- like most of his days lately -- starts out well. After breakfast, he plays guitar for a while, then does a bit of painting. He works out details for an upcoming Brazilian tour for his band, now called Dee Dee Ramone. Later he starts to fantasize about the Ramones getting back together. He hasn't played bass for the band since he made the widely unpopular decision to quit in 1989; the Ramones retired permanently just over four years ago after a much-ballyhooed farewell tour.
The 48-year-old Ramone (born Douglas Colvin) laughs at himself for even contemplating such a reunion. "I'm booked up 'til February 23 next year," he says. "After that, I don't know what I'm going to do. I was thinking this morning that the Ramones would get back together. That's insane to even think about. That must mean that I am really crazy, because I was the one who was bitterly opposed to it."
Crazy or not, Ramone will tell you anything about anyone who's got anything to do with the Ramones or punk rock. And he can talk. His new book Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones (Thunder's Mouth Press) chugs along in the same manner as his effusive banter.
A real-life fusion of the raw and the cooked seemingly untouched by heavy-handed rewrites (though the first edition was written "with" Veronica Kaufmann), Lobotomy should serve to humor and satisfy more than just those with a morbid curiosity about punk history.
The book betrays decades of self-abuse and self-pity from a man who helped kick start the Ramones back in 1974. Without the Ramones, there would have been no punk rock. And without punk rock, life would have been perhaps very different for you and me. But that's a whole other can of worms.
The book's blunt prose carries little beauty. Think a junk-riffed, rock 'n' roll Bukowski with Richard Price's language of the Bronx in the early 1960s. It's spare, at times childishly delinquent, but rife with gutter charm and a real one-two-three-four verve.
Ramone has been a rock 'n' roll star since the Ramones' debut, Ramones, offended multitudes and changed the course of rock 'n' roll upon its release in 1976. And, as he reveals in the book, he had a remarkable capacity for squalor.
"It's all accurate," he says. "I fought back. I had to start over. I got a divorce and my wife got everything. I was in debt. I had law bills. I was in and out of jail. I had a couple of felony assaults. Drug busts. I was broke and had nowhere to go. I was a very unpopular person. I did a really unpopular thing. I left the Ramones. It knocked some sense into me.
"The Ramones have been an incredibly lucky band," he continues. "I mean, the Ramones are still really successful, and that's a lucky thing to have going on if you were in a rock band all your life and then you get old. It usually ends very pathetic." He sighs. "I lived in like a rock 'n' roll retirement community in London, so to speak. Everybody from bands like Hawkwind and Transvision Vamp were there. Bands from punk rock times were just like walking corpses. Some of my friends like Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators and [Jerry] Nolan were dead. We were really, really lucky."
There are contradictions at play within Lobotomy's pages. At times, Dee Dee blames the other Ramones for his own horrible discomfort and down-spiraling lot in life, specifically Joey and Johnny. Elsewhere, he's fully accountable for his actions -- without the subterfuge of 12-step religious dogma, as might be expected.
Some things are glossed over, such as the late-1980s bid for rap cred during which he recorded and performed, much to the horror of the Ramones and their fans, as Dee Dee King, the "B.B. King of rappers."
Yet for the Ramones faithful, Lobotomy will be a myth-shatterer of epic proportions. That's because Ramone is blunt about how miserable it was to be a member of pop's most notorious Happy Family.
He depicts guitarist Johnny Ramone as the self-appointed leader of the band and a tyrannical right-wing nut. Johnny insisted the song "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" be retitled "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down" on 1986's Animal Boy to keep from insulting then-president Ronald Reagan. He claims to have no idea still who played the bass parts on 1980's End of the Century. He writes that its producer, Phil Spector, kept the band in his house at gunpoint as he played "Baby I Love You" repeatedly on his grand piano. He dismisses Rock 'n' Roll High School and its "tennis playing" actors. While in L.A. shooting the film, Ramone fought with a roadie and wound up in the hospital after overdosing in jail.
He describes the Ramones as lazy songwriters. Before he quit the band, it was agreed that the publishing be divided equally, regardless of who wrote the actual songs. Ramone was roped back in after quitting, specifically to pen songs. He did, and stood back and watched as the members helped themselves to his publishing.
"And now that I think about it, especially with that producer [and co-songwriter] Daniel Ray, I feel robbed," explains Ramone. "The Ramones were constantly in my face because they needed material. I just wanted to mind my own business and be left alone, but after awhile I started agreeing with them. I was happy when CJ [Dee Dee's replacement] was in the band. Every time they'd want me to give them a song, nothing was ever out in the open. It was always a wearing-me-out situation. It didn't make my life much easier."
In Lobotomy, Ramone characterizes his kinship with singer Joey no differently than would any member of any rock 'n' roll band after decades of degradation together. When Joey's name comes up today, Ramone suddenly switches to personal pronouns when referring to the band. He explains how glad he was that Joey "was on all my records and sang those songs. I'm glad he was the singer. I brought him into the band, I discovered him and forced him on the other guys, and everybody liked him.
"Now I don't like Joey at all," he continues. "I never will again. I used to be his best friend. I fought all his battles. But he's too difficult. To never say 'thank you,' ya know. And to get so much from me, my publishing, all that.
"Right now, do I wish I could play with him? I wish I could be playing with, like, John and CJ and Marc [three fourths of the last Ramones lineup] and that could be the Ramones. I saw Johnny Ramone a couple of weeks ago by accident, so that was okay. I had a nice talk with him."
Lobotomy's imagery sparkles at times like lines of coke laid out on a mirror ripped from the back of a hotel room door. The story flows smooth and strong as a shot of dope, just as Dee Dee Ramone would have it. Yet it's hard to imagine how he can remember certain details of his early days.
Ramone's life was an endless succession of street corner copping, junkie squabbles, hustling, exhaustive tours and recordings that led ultimately to a prolonged spell in a nut house and his departure from the Ramones. Personal detachment and survival are themes that thread throughout Lobotomy.
From his fucked-up adolescence in Germany to his lonely, just-up-from-the-street methadone-guzzling existence in a cheap London hotel and on to reclamation with contentment and marriage in a drug-free lifestyle, Ramone doesn't justify anything. He just is.
One pitiful passage in Lobotomy finds a destitute and homeless Ramone sitting in a Manhattan restaurant in 1992, watching his girlfriend stroll by on the sidewalk with three tricks. That day seems a world away now.
His road to recovery is littered with regretful tales of treating others like hell and nearly killing himself off in the process. Nevertheless, there is a real heart beating through Lobotomy.
"I don't want to die for anything anymore," he says. "I'm tired of that. I don't want to get into all the stories. I could go on forever. But I don't wanna sound like a bitter creep."
Aside from a handful of spotty records released around the world under various Dee Dee Ramone incarnations since 1989, the man continues to be a worthy club draw. Lately, he's been playing handfuls of Ramones classics at shows.
He's also dabbling in the arts, he says, painting with old friends from the Lower East Side like Arturo Vega, who for years was the Ramones' lighting and merch manager. "I just stopped [painting] this morning," says Ramone. "I did 12 of 'em in the last two weeks. We sell just about all of them and it goes very well. I can't believe it's going this good. I always had a lot of artists as friends. When I lived at the Chelsea hotel when I was younger and I had guys like Larry Rivers as neighbors."
Having lived all over the world, the sober Ramone now happily calls Hollywood home. "Yuppies and gym types" have taken over his lower Manhattan, all the Latino neighborhoods, the dealers, his way of life.
"New York was always about being funky," he says. "The dope, the Day-Glo orange stuff, ya know. But that, that's not conducive to punk rock music. But I'm like a New York-type person. I like to walk around and look at the stores. I'm like a loner. I love Hollywood Boulevard. It's great!"
His opinion of groups like Blink 182, Green Day and the Offspring -- bands that basically nicked the Ramones shtick and sold zillions of records -- is fairly generous. He likens what these bands have done to what the Rolling Stones did for the old blues cats. The Dee Dee Ramone of old may not have been so kind.
"The Green Days or whatever kept popularizing the Ramones, and somehow it kind of paid off for the Ramones. We got in that Howard Stern movie. Joey went on Howard Stern's radio show for seven years. He would get up at six in the morning, drudge over there, let Howard ridicule him, and then Howard gave us our song in the movie and the soundtrack went platinum, so we made a fortune. 'Sedated' got in about 20 movies. . . ."
The Ramones' worldwide catalogue continues to generate plenty of cash, and Ramone has no financial worries. "So why would I wanna try so hard now for them except for the love of it?
"I don't like it that they put out that Rhino Records anthology without ever telling me anything at all until it came out," he continues. "Then they had the biography where every member of the Ramones made their speech sort of suggesting their own personal inputs and genius in the band and what they did. And it was everything as usual, with the negative leaning toward me. I know they'll never change. But I've changed. And that's the beginning."
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Ramone interrupts his own dialogue to mention that he has to make it to a dentist appointment in an hour. He's gotta get going. "I hate that," he says like a recalcitrant child. "I hate the dentist."
Did he visit a dentist all those years he was in the Ramones?
"No. I never had a chance. Nobody in a band can do that. Every experience with them was a nightmare. After the Ramones, I started going [to the dentist] like once a week, like a maniac."
There's a pause. Then, before he hangs up, Ramone says, "I wish we [the Ramones] could play, but that's probably just a fantasy. I really don't have the strength for it. I don't know what's going to happen. I'm not a fortune teller. I know my book is going to do really well. People are really liking it."