The essential Ramones documentary End Of The Century makes it clear how much angst, friction and despair went into creating the band’s joyful noise. Imagine Leonard Cohen pushing himself to the brink of madness writing “Walking On Sunshine” and you have a fair approximation of the eviscerating darkness that lurked behind the band’s exuberant oeuvre. Vera Ramone King’s Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone (The Ramones Years), today’s entry in Silly Show-Biz Book Club, provides a distaff take on the Ramones’ well-worn mythology through the story of her tumultuous relationship with ex-husband Dee Dee Ramone, the troubled genius behind "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue" and “Go Mental.”
I’ve always thought of the Ramones as asexual. But they inhabited a world of eternal adolescence. Does anyone obsess about sex more than teenagers? Dee Dee emerged as the band’s sex symbol by default: The Ramones all looked like shaggy teenaged cavemen but Dee Dee was arguably the handsomest of the hairy adolescent punk rock Neanderthals. Dating Dee Dee Ramone meant facing fevered competition from groupies, star-fuckers and random hangers-on. In the following passage the author provides a colorful glimpse at the sordid characters that populated early punk rock while disparaging Connie, a rival for Dee Dee’s affections at once threatening and comically unthreatening:
Dee Dee told me about how, one time, [Connie] walked into their apartment and found him in bed with Nancy Spungen. Connie was such a violent person that she physically attacked Dee Dee with a broken beer bottle and jammed it into his buttocks. He had a huge scar on his ass for the rest of his life from that horrific relationship, just because she had caught him cheating on her. Connie was a pathetic person, and a stalker to boot. The only way she could hold on to any man was to supply him with heroin. Another time her former boyfriend, Arthur Kane from the New York Dolls [pre-Dee Dee] went all the way to Florida to try to get away from her. She followed him there, where they got into such a horrible fight that Arthur grabbed her breast and ripped out her breast implant. After that she only had one boob to hustle with and make money.
Thankfully the sordid saga of Connie, one-boobed prostitute/stalker has a happy ending. For Vera and Dee Dee. In the next paragraph Vera relates, “Not long after our encounters with Connie, she was found dead of an overdose in a tenement downtown somewhere in the Bowery.” Ha! Take that, long-dead, heroin-addicted disfigured gutter whore!
Heart covers a lot of ground familiar to Ramones fans: Johnny’s need to control everyone around him, Phil Spector’s bizarre, heavily armed reign of terror as the producer of The Ramones End Of The Century, and Johnny stealing, then marrying Joey’s girlfriend Linda, a formative trauma that may or may not have inspired “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” Can you imagine the torment of having your greatest enemy be your business partner, close collaborator, constant touring companion, and the husband of an ex-girlfriend you loved dearly? Poor Joey.
It’s been said that every junkie is the same. Addiction simplifies life. A non-addict might worry about bills, jobs, politics, the stock market and family but a heroin addict is monomaniacally focused on chasing that next fix. But Dee Dee was anything but a typical junkie. Even his eccentricities had eccentricities. In this passage, Vera describes her soulmate’s unfortunate obsession with Hitler:
It was after the New Year and the band had a little time off. Dee Dee got bored easily and was always trying to reinvent himself. I was his hairdresser and would dye his hair jet-black with Nice ‘N Easy then cut it spiky and stick it up with “Dippety Doo.” When he wore his hair un-spiked, it was flat and quite short. It was during his time off that I noticed that he shaved his whole face as usual, except for a small patch that started under his nose and went to the top of his upper lip. In a week he had a Hitler mustache, resembling the very picture of the crazy, despicable German dictator. Dee Dee also started wearing a swastika-d Nazi armband on his upper-left arm. I thought, You can’t possibly walk around looking like this. Someone will kill you!
His new style was an insult to many people and a disgrace. But he purposefully adopted the whole look and enjoyed the expressions of the shocked people he came in contact with. This time, Dee Dee had finally crossed the line: Both of his psychiatrists were Jewish and even they couldn’t figure out why anyone would adopt such a distinct look. And Dee Dee spoke fluent German to boot!
To be fair, who hasn’t thought of shaking up their image with a Hitler mustache?
Somehow Dee Dee’s obsession with Fascist iconography didn’t prevent him from pursuing a career as a rapper. Heart offers a revisionist take on Dee Dee’s ill-fated rap career. The author thinks his “Dee Dee King” persona was terrific and had all the potential in the world. In Vera’s telling, The Ramones organization sabotaged Dee Dee’s hip-hop side project because it didn’t want the Ramones name to be associated with rap. Was Dee Dee’s rap career a bad joke or merely misunderstood? You be the judge.
Poisoned Heart is fundamentally a celebration of Dee Dee. So the author ends up minimizing the physical abuse she suffered at his hands, writing it off as one of the hassles of loving a tormented man at war with his demons. At one point Vera and Dee Dee’s doctors were able to get Dee Dee off heroin by having him smoke a shit-ton of weed. You know your life has either spiraled hopelessly out of control or gotten really awesome when your loved ones are begging you to smoke weed, when they’re imploring, “Please; smoke 24 hours a day! Smoke in your sleep! Smoke all the weed in the world; just stay away from the hard stuff!”
But a happy ending was not in the cards for Vera or Dee Dee. There is a wrenching passage late in the memoir where Vera brings Christmas presents to her now ex-husband and finds him shooting up with homeless junkies. Vera wanted desperately to believe she could save Dee Dee from himself but he was ultimately beyond redemption.
Heart functions better as a literary souvenir for Ramones die-hards than as a book. I suspect that the pages and pages of nifty vintage photos of the Ramones will mean more to fans than the enthusiastically amateurish prose that accompanies them. Then again, given the book’s subject, maybe it’s appropriate that it’s characterized by energy, passion, enthusiasm, and personality rather than technique or polish. Or competence.