Funky Man Case File #19: Ramones bassist Dee Dee King goes hip-hop
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It seems like every punk-rocker in the world wanted to be a Ramone except for Dee Dee Ramone, the group’s bassist and the songwriter behind many of the band’s most beloved songs. If Joey Ramone was the voice of the Ramones and Johnny Ramone the sound, then Dee Dee Ramone was the band’s tragic, self-loathing soul. For Dee Dee, to live was to suffer.
Dee Dee had a genius for transforming the sadness, self-loathing, and degradation of his life into entertainment. He wrote songs about heroin addiction (“Chinese Rock,” co-written with Richard Hell), male prostitution (“53rd & 3rd”), and self-loathing that were so peppy, catchy, and energetic, it was easy to overlook their overwhelming sadness. In his tormented personal life, Dee Dee alchemized the love and adoration the Ramones generated into pure, unbearable misery. On any given night, Dee Dee might have been the single most miserable person at a Ramones show.
For Dee Dee, the Ramones legend was an albatross he couldn’t shake rather than a source of profound pride. The group may have represented fun and escape to its army of acolytes and admirers, but for Dee Dee, the Ramones represented control and conformity. In his memoirs Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones and Legend Of A Rock Star, Dee Dee depicts the Ramones as an almost fascist organization, albeit one that favored ripped jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, and leather jackets. The key difference is that Dee Dee actually seemed to have a certain warped appreciation for the Nazis. In Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone, Vera Ramone King writes that at one point Dee Dee took to sporting a Hitler mustache and wearing a swastika armband, an eccentricity his two Jewish psychiatrists found perplexing and, I would imagine, even a bit troubling.
For Dee Dee, the Ramones’ look wasn’t just a uniform; it was a straightjacket keeping him from being who he truly wanted to be. He hated it, so he did what he always did when confronted with something that pissed him off: He rebelled. Dee Dee started coming to rehearsals for the Ramones wearing a Kangol hat, thick gold chains, and track suits in what can only be described as a ridiculous burlesque of old-school hip-hop wear. The Ramones, especially glowering control-freak Johnny, were not amused, to put it mildly.
In a fit of questionable judgment, the man born Douglas Colvin traded in the Ramones uniform for a makeshift hip-hop look and his sneering, swaggering punk-rock Dee Dee Ramone persona for a preposterous new image as light-hearted rapper Dee Dee King, hoping Dee Dee King would be the vessel to help him escape the prison that had become his life with the Ramones. Instead, Dee Dee’s ill-fated side project became the weirdest, most surreal footnote to the Ramones’ story.
In Lobotomy, Dee Dee devotes exactly 138 words to his reinvention as Dee Dee King:
When I got into rap I didn’t exactly win any popularity contests. I called myself Dee Dee King, after B.B. King, to the total dismay of my fellow Ramones. Billboard called my solo album, Standing In The Spotlight, a great party album and even said that my raps put the Beastie Boys to shame. Standing In The Spotlight included some great experiments in rap and rock ’n’ roll and featured cameos by Chris Stein and Debbie Harry. I loved rap, especially in the early days. But I wasn’t trying to shove it down anybody’s throats. I didn’t have the confidence to leave the band because of a solo career, or anything like that. I just wanted to grow.
Still, the Ramones didn’t want change. They thought punk rock fans would hate me for my solo rap record. Which was bullshit.
The passage is surprising in part because it marks the first time in the book Dee Dee even mentions rap. In the terrific documentary about the Ramones, End Of The Century, an older, wiser and humbled Dee says of his flirtation with hip-hop:
When Schoolly D came out with that album, and he’d say, “What time is it? It’s Gucci time,” you know, I understood that. It’s rising above oppression, a Negro being able to buy a Gucci watch. I get it. Great. I’m a Negro too. I felt the same excitement when I could buy a Gucci watch and spend a lot of money, like an outlaw. I don’t think it was worth fighting over. It wasn’t so good anyway, the album. I couldn’t do rap. I was trying. I don’t know how. I’m not good enough to know. I’m not a Negro.
As that passage suggests, Dee Dee clearly identified with the underdog spirit of rap and the African-American struggle to rise above oppression, but not, alas, to the point where he’d actually stop using quaint, anachronistic language like “Negro” to describes his brothers from other mothers in the rap game.
Dee Dee may have loved rap, but his 1989 solo hip-hop debut Standing In The Spotlight, which was released by seemingly sane people on the major label Sire, nevertheless feels like the work of someone whose exposure to the genre began and ended with overhearing half of a Kurtis Blow song while flipping through channels on a transistor radio. Dee Dee loved hip-hop without understanding it on any level.
Standing In The Spotlight consequently feels like an album from some strange alternate universe where rappers rhyme about surfing, wrestling, and their German-American heritage in a manner that owes more to half-forgotten novelty singers than the giants of the genre. The album begins on a bizarre note with “Mashed Potato Time,” an homage to the 1962 dance song/craze of the same name that finds Dee Dee delivering lyrics like “I’m as cool as they come / You other rappers better run / I’m as strong as Sly Stallone / I take the beat home” in a campy, theatrical sing-song voice that sounds unmistakably like the delivery of Bobby “Boris” Pickett of “Monster Mash” fame. It’s a staggeringly odd, thoroughly amateurish monster mash-up of cheesy early-’60s doo-wop and a style of old-school hip-hop that existed only inside Dee Dee’s drug-damaged mind.
Listening to “Mashed Potato Time,” I foolishly assumed that Dee Dee was experimenting with a Bobby “Boris” Pickett-derived flow because the song was essentially an homage to a campy “Monster Mash”-like song, complete with an amusingly unnecessary “Yakety Sax”-like saxophone solo. Oh, but I was wrong! Dee Dee “raps” like Bobby “Boris” Pickett pretty much the entire album. That’s how Dee Dee actually rapped, though it’s being overly generous to describe what Dee Dee did as rap and not, say, having a 10-track nervous breakdown.
On “Baby Doll,” Dee Dee temporarily abandons his new rapping persona for a tremblingly earnest ballad that’s borderline embarrassing in its sincerity. It’s like reading a 14-year-old couple’s love letters to each other, though even love-struck adolescents might be embarrassed to commit to paper a couplet like “You smiled at me and I sat down and cried / And on that day all the evil in me died.”
“Poor Little Rich Girl” is the only track on the album that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ramones album, a nasty little punk-rock number that finds Dee Dee singing about a miserable child of privilege in a growling rasp far more authoritative than his wobbly flow and off-key balladeering.
The air of professionalism and competency quickly dissipates on “German Kid,” the most bewildering oddity on an album full of them. Over a slinky new-wave groove, the one-time swastika armband and Hitler mustache enthusiast raps about the deep pride he takes in his half-Teutonic heritage with lyrics like, “You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve been / It’s pretty cool / To be half-German / Slap me five, give me some skin / I used to live in Berlin,” delivered half in German and half in English. Dee Dee tragically took no pride in being a core member of one of the greatest rock groups of all time, but couldn’t wait to tell the world about his boring ethnic heritage. Debbie Harry’s sultry back-up vocals somehow manage to make “Half American/Half German” sound sexy, but nothing can possibly save the song or the album from being a morbidly fascinating, tone-deaf trainwreck.
While researching Dee Dee King I stumbled on a vintage clip of Dee Dee being interviewed by Joe Franklin that manages to make an inexplicable project seem even more surreal. It’s a bizarre meeting of the minds between a man patently incapable of understanding rap and a man singularly unqualified to explain it. Franklin comes off like a hilarious parody of a clueless old codger as he fumbles to understand the power of MTV (“Music videos are in!” he barks, as if expecting a gold star for his observation), pronounces “Ramones” as “Ramóns” as if Dee Dee were part of a Mexican boy band, misidentifies Dee Dee as the Ramones’ (or Ramóns’) drummer, and compares Dee Dee abandoning the Ramone surname to a Kennedy running for office as John Smith. “I think this is a hot news item!” Franklin says hopefully of Dee Dee’s radical shift in name and image. Dee Dee giggles nervously as he responds to questions and statements that run the gamut from basic (Franklin actually asks Dee Dee to define what this crazy new “rap” thing is for the benefit of the home audience) to nonsensical. When Franklin asks if his new rap video is being played on MTV and getting a good reaction, Dee Dee awkwardly concedes, “Sometimes they call it the worst video they’ve ever seen, but they love it anyway!” (The first part of that statement I believe.)
Dee Dee unwittingly hints at the strangely poignant innocence of Standing In The Spotlight when Franklin asks if his new rap album has the same social consciousness as the Ramones’ work; Dee Dee says that, in sharp contrast to the autobiographical nature of his work with the Ramones (he presumably co-wrote “Pet Sematary,” for example, out of a strong personal conviction not to be buried in a haunted cemetery for animals), his rap work is “fantasy” about a character named Dee Dee King who has “various adventures.”
Within the context of Dee Dee’s life and career, Standing In The Spotlight is less comic than tragicomic. The eccentric idiot savant behind it created a feral caricature of a badass punk-rocker and called him Dee Dee Ramone to kill the pain of being a terminally unhappy, half-German outcast named Doug Colvin. Then the pain and pressure of being Dee Dee Ramone became too much for him to bear, so he created Dee Dee King to free him from the unbearable burden of being a Ramone, only to discover that he could never truly escape himself or his demons, no matter what he wore, what he called himself, or what style of music he performed.
By the time Standing In The Spotlight was released to a culture-wide cry of “What the fuck?” Dee Dee had become a debauched and desperate character, a self-professed “creep” with decades of drug addiction, mental illness, self-abuse, and suicidal depression in his past. But within the comic-book adventures of Dee Dee King, he found a weird innocence. For a brief idyll at least, music stopped being a day job that was killing him and became fun and fresh and new again. Dee Dee could stop writing about the scuzzy lives of drug-addicted lowlifes and write about mermaids and surfing (“Commotion In The Ocean”), how awesome it is to be half-German, and being a professional wrestler (“The Crusher,” which the Ramones later covered).
Late in Lobotomy, Dee Dee writes that there are no real happy endings in the Ramones’ story, though sometimes it was fun. That’s true of Standing In The Spotlight as well. Like the rest of the failed attempts at reinvention I’ve chronicled here, from Kiss’ pretentious concept album The Elder to Lil Wayne’s Rebirth, Standing In The Spotlight was supposed to mark a new beginning for its creator. Instead it was a desperately misguided dead end, albeit one unlike any other rap album before or since. In trying and failing to reinvent himself as a rapper, Dee Dee accidentally created a doo-wop/punk-rock/comic-book/hip-hop hybrid too weird and unpalatable to support even a single album, let alone endure as anything other than a horrifically botched experiment, a terrible idea wedded to an even worse execution.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco