Over-intellectualizing about a subject as pure and simple in its perfection as the Ramones sort of defeats their entire purpose, now doesn’t it? The proverbial “dancing about architecture,” as Steve Martin (by way of Frank Zappa) might well say.
Consequently, I’ve shied away from most books and studies concerning Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Co. that have appeared over the years. After all, I have all their records, and spent a goodly part of the late Seventies joyously confined within small spaces as the brudders themselves performed the music which ultimately flattened, as opposed to merely changed, the whole g-damned world. ‘Nuff said!
So when a copy of Vera Ramone King’s Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone (The Ramones Years), A Punk Love Story came my way, I cracked it open with a wee bit of trepidation, I do admit.
Then I noticed the pictures reproduced therein: Gloriously home-spun, fun-filled images from a louder, faster and yes, simpler time when a band could get up in the afternoon, rocket out of Queens in a rental van, and spend the next couple of decades seeing and then conquering all the world in all of its magic, Kodachrome’d glory.
But it was ultimately Vera’s words, in their own giddy and, yep, Gabba way, that slowly drew me. Like only Monte A. Melnick in his excellent On The Road With The Ramones tome before, Vera WAS there for it all, right by Dee Dee’s side, in that van with the rest of The Little Band That Could squashed ‘cross the very next seat. And throughout Poisoned Heart, she tells it all. In a candid, but totally non-catty way which happily and most Ramone-appropriately, need I say reads more like a vintage 16 Magazine Tell-All than some fancy-pant-pressed, stuck-uppity University account.
It certainly takes a special kind of woman to carry the Ramone surname, and Vera was, and remains, one of the few and the proud. I was most happy to have spoken with her recently, and I know you’re going to enjoy this exchange as much as I really did…..
Could you tell us a bit about your childhood? Would you consider yourself a true “rock ‘n’ roll kid”?
For sure, I was a true rock 'n' roll kid!
I think probably sometime around the 4th and 5th grade I discovered there was a whole new world out there, and was addicted to the radio and early Sixties music. The Four Seasons, Lesley Gore, The Ronettes, The Supremes and Motown… I can go on and on. Then came The Beatles, and I was completely crazed with the Fab Four! I was in love with the London scene and the British Invasion from the get-go, and would have moved to England at the age of thirteen if my parents would have let me.
So in retrospect, I think I was destined to marry a “rockstar." It was in my blood.
So you considered yourself “prepared” for a life and marriage with someone like Dee Dee Ramone?
I don't think there was ANYTHING that could have prepared me for my life with him, nor would I have listened to anyone if they even tried to tell me any different!
During our marriage, I went through more than most people do in a whole lifetime. My dad, in a very nice way, did tell me that my life with Dee Dee would be hard and challenging, and I assured him that Dee Dee and I could handle and get through the rough times. The love we had was strong and we were prepared or so we thought that we would "make it," despite the hard times ahead of us. Especially in the world of Punk Rock.
Do you see any parallels between your up-bringing and that of your husband-to-be’s?
Yes. Dee Dee was part German (his mom) and his dad was Scottish. My own parents were from Slovakia and came to this country as teenagers when they met. So we both had European backgrounds. We discovered early on that we both liked the same foods because our moms cooked very similar.
We were brought up with strict parents. He was an Army brat raised in Germany, and my parents were also very strict Catholics. Somewhere along the line we just both sort of rebelled against all the conservativeness, and there was NO going back for either one of us.
We both had this tremendous passion for rock ‘n’ roll and we both hung out in the same places. Max's Kansas City and CBGB's were our regular haunts, and we both had mutual friends.
And then we met. The rest is history.
Describe, from your perspective, the underground music scene of mid-Seventies New York.
It was a time that can never be duplicated. It was like in the Sixties when the Beatles changed everything.
The New York Dolls were super hot, as well as Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Alice Cooper and so many others. Then came the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, B-52's, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, Jayne County, and so many more! It was an explosion in the music scene and New York was NEVER the same again.
What seemed particularly special about the Ramones, even then?
The Ramones had a raw sound like no other band at the time, so you either loved 'em or you didn't.
Soon it was apparent that they were the new "IT" band that everyone had to go see, and the lines would be around the block.
They were already making history, I guess you could say.
The Ramones were actually the first punk band that went to London and changed the music scene, and influenced the many popular bands that followed after they left there. It was like in the Sixties, when The Beatles came to America and changed everything here.
The same can be said for Elvis in the Fifties. History repeats itself with a bit of a twist every ten to fifteen years or so.
How did you first encounter Dee Dee?
I met him upstairs at Max's Kansas City. At the bar hanging out, just checking out new bands.
He wasn't playing that night and walked in and stood next to me. I knew immediately who he was but didn't want to seem overly impressed, and I think that's what got him interested: I wasn't falling over him and was probably a bit more of a challenge for him.
What was your immediate impression?
He was extremely good looking, and finding a different girl every night for himself wouldn't be much of an effort for him if he wanted. He was the "heartthrob" of the Ramones, and everyone knew that.
He started talking to me, and soon he had me laughing and liking him. He had that sexy, raspy voice and was very charming and almost a little shy. He wasn't loud or obnoxious or full of himself, and I was immediately swept off my feet.
He was very sweet, and we hung out for quite a while. He asked for my number and called me the next day and said he was leaving to go to London, and asked if he could see me when he got back. Of course I said YES!!
He called me from London a few days later and told me when he would be returning to the States, and would call me as soon as he got back. And he did. After that we were very rarely apart, and basically became attached to one another. And soon I was living with him at Danny Fields’ loft in lower Manhattan.
Did you feel you were immediately accepted into the Ramones’ inner circle?
At the time it was cool, and his bandmates accepted me because I wasn't crazy and violent like his old girlfriend Connie. They knew I was more "normal" for Dee Dee, and was generally a good influence on him and kept him out of trouble as much as possible.
Tell me a bit about each of the band, as you first got to know them, and since.
Joey and I always had a great relationship, and he often would say he also wanted to find someone like Dee Dee did and have a more stable relationship.
Tommy and Johnny were the ones who more or less made the decisions for the band in the earlier years. Tommy was always smart and had good business sense, as did Johnny. Johnny made sure the band looked upon itself as a business partnership and were ALL committed. The band always came first, and he kept everyone in line as much as possible.
Then Tommy left in ‘78 and along came Marky! Marky was fun, and added a lot of humor to offset the monotony driving from place to place. Him and Dee Dee became instant buddies. Their friendship was both genuine on and off the stage, and lasted for many years to come.
Marky still is keeping the Ramones’ music alive, and is a legend in his own time.
Someone I consider extremely important in the initial development of the band was their first manager, Danny Fields.
Danny was a sweetheart, and the nicest guy you could ever know. He was smart, good-looking, knowledgeable, and was very cool with Dee Dee and me. He let us live with him when we were in New York, and save some money so we could get our own place eventually. He always had answers for us, and advice about how we should do things.
And then there’s Monte!
What can I say about Monte A. Melnick? This man saved my life on many occasions, and lived down the block from us in Whitestone when we got our apartment. If I ever needed anyone on a moment’s notice, he was there in a New York minute. There were many times indeed that I called Monte for HELP!
He was, and still is, very kind and sweet, and has big heart. He endured a lot during his twenty-something years with the Ramones, and being their road manager was no easy task! It was 24/7, and he did an extraordinary job of keeping everyone on time …and did all the driving around the whole country in the van for many years. Not many people could have endured what he had to deal with and never complained. Unbelievable!
Following Danny, Gary Kurfirst stepped in to the managerial role.
Gary already had several bands he was managing at the time, and he stayed with them till the end in 1995, when the Ramones broke up.
Gary was SHARP. He had excellent business skills and was also from Forest Hills. The boys knew him from the neighborhood before they were the Ramones; he was already managing bands like Leslie West and Mountain. The boys were in awe of him from the early 70's, and respected Gary. He knew just how to handle each individual Ramone. This was no easy task for anyone.
He had the charisma and musical capabilities to make them more marketable, and always looked out for their best interests. We finally began to see some money, and he knew their audiences and where to book them. And if he took you into his own close circle, you were in good hands. NO ONE would fuck with his bands. He was The Man!
I was very saddened to hear of his passing earlier this year and had spoken with him not too long ago. He was a great friend and manager, and leaves his own legacy behind. I'm sure he is missed by all the people he befriended over the years, and rightly so.
And then there is the “fifth Ramone”…
Arturo Vega was with them from the very beginning, and is responsible for the artistic backdrop that is identified to this very day on all the t-shirts with the famous eagle insignia. He was also very important to the Ramones, professionally and personally. He knew each one of them very well, and their distinct individual personalities, and could deal with them as only a very few could. Arturo was always, and still is, cool and enjoys what he does. I found him also to be very levelheaded, good-looking, smart and a very good friend throughout the years.
His love for the Ramones is forever tattooed across his back. No matter what, he always stayed loyal to the band to the very end.
After so many years in such close quarters then, under such remarkable circumstances, a deep bond must have been made between so many of you.
In a way we all still are family, and will remain that way even though Joey, Dee Dee and Johnny are no longer with us.
We still see each other when possible and keep in touch. I just recently did Marky Ramone’s Sirius radio program while in New York doing book promos. I also saw Monte, Arturo, Mickey Leigh and his wife Lene, who are Joey's brother and sister-in-law.
It doesn't matter how much time goes by, or where our lives have taken us. We will FOREVER have that special bond between us.
As you married Dee Dee in September of 1978, the Ramones were just entering what can now be seen as the peak of their initial success. They were recording their classic work, touring North America and Europe on a regular basis, and were about to star in the film Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. In fact, you joined the band on the road whenever possible during those years, correct?
I basically quit my day job, and we traveled everywhere together.
It's hard to be on the road without your loved ones, and the rest of the Ramones also brought along their girlfriends, and later wives. They functioned better with their significant others, and could stay out on the road for longer periods of time. It just became a way of life for us.
Then we would return after sometimes two or three months, and it felt strange to be at home. There was no routine. We saw our families, friends and did this and that, and after a couple of weeks it was like “OK!” and we'd go back out again!
We were young and could do it. We didn't really know any different.
Were you and Dee Dee able to spend any non-Ramone, “down time” whatsoever back in those days?
While we were home we would go shopping to our favorite stores on St. Mark’s Place. Go to our favorite Indian restaurants. Lots of AA meetings. We went to openings of new clubs or private parties at the Ritz, owned by our good friend Neil Cohen. We had fun as much as we could.
To use a cliché, did the devil often make use of idle hands?
Every day was different. There was no set routine or sense of normalcy. Sometimes when we had too much time on our hands, it turned out to be destructive out of shear boredom, and overdoing something that should have been fun to begin with.
Life with Dee Dee was NEVER predictable. It was a rock ‘n’ roll soap opera …before reality shows were popular!
In 1980, the Ramones’ landmark End Of The Century album was released. Produced by Phil Spector, it was supposed to help establish the band as part of the rock mainstream. This, sadly, never happened.
I think it was a big disappointment for the whole band. It wasn't bitterness; just depressing for all of us.
They tried to break out of the underground scene, and they just could never break it to the big time like the others. So, sadly, they just sort of accepted the fact and did what they did best: Play and record new albums.
Now, tell us how Dee Dee Ramone became Dee Dee King, the original Funky Man, and the reactions from both within and outside of the Ramones to this alternative career.
Well, the band didn't like the idea of a Ramone straying from the band, and there were some things said that Dee Dee didn't like.
But his passion for all different kinds of music, from the blues to hip hop, was not unusual. He needed a challenge. Playing the same set night after night became boring for him at times. So he needed to try something different, new, and exciting.
It was "Funky Man" that he wrote first, and when Chris Williamson from Profile Records wanted him to record it, the band didn't want him to use the last name "Ramone" and didn't want to be associated with rap. It was simply put: "RAMONES DON'T RAP"! So he needed to come up with another last name.
One of the choices was Dee Dee T, and the other was Dee Dee King. We were such huge fans of Stephen King and his work that this was the ultimately the name that was chosen. Dee Dee had just written the song "Pet Sematary" for Stephen's latest movie, and we both agreed that he was gonna be Dee Dee King and that was that!
Richie Ramone helped mix that song and gave him alot of support during his Dee Dee King days. He liked going to Manhattan and working on new material with Richie. We had a lot a good times together with Richie and his wife Annette Stark.
The song itself wasn't received very well but this did not deter a determined Dee Dee to put a whole album out.
Soon afterwards, Dee Dee officially left the Ramones. However, for many years they continued recording his songs. This is a subject the Ramones’ songwriting that I feel is never given proper respect and attention. Would you consider Dee Dee the primary writer in the Ramones? Conventional wisdom is that Joey wrote the band’s more pop-like songs, and Dee Dee the more hard-edged, “candid” material. True?
Absolutely! Joey wrote more heartfelt songs and ballads. Dee Dee could do the hard-edged songs like "Warthog," and then do something like "Baby Doll." His range was wide, and depending on his mood resulted in what kind of song he wrote at any particular time.
I still have many demos in possession that have never been recorded. I've had them for at least twenty years in a shoe box. All original, on cassettes, which they don't make anymore.
As the Eighties ended, so did your marriage. Would you consider your parting of ways at all inevitable? A relief, even?
Our parting was not because we fell out of love with each other, but rather due to other issues which we never resolved between us. He made some decisions, and then I had to make mine. Unfortunately for both of us they were in two completely different directions.
We stayed in touch on almost a daily basis for years after the separation, and neither one of us actually filed for divorce till five years later. It just wasn't going to work for us no matter how hard we tried, and we had to face the reality.
In retrospect, do you feel this parting was a “good” thing for either of you?
I don't think of it being a "good" thing for either one of us, but sometimes people grow in different directions and you have to do what's best and move on, even if it's not how you want it or planned it.
It was time for both of us to let go and start a new chapter in both our lives.
We both eventually remarried. I married my Ken, and a year later he married his Barbie! (Barbara).
Was there any animosity at all following the split?
There was no animosity, but he did become bitter towards me after I filed for divorce. I don't know why. He just couldn't have his cake and eat it, and I eventually moved to Florida which REALLY ticked him off. That's when he became bitter, and once on the phone while I was in Florida and he was living at the Chelsea Hotel, he told me bitterly that I abandoned him! This was not true, but to him I guess that was how he felt at the time, and we didn't speak to one another after that.
You never saw Dee Dee again?
I remember seeing him on TV receiving his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame award, and I was so proud of him. After so many years, they finally received the respect and recognition they worked so hard for.
A couple of months after that I heard the news that he had passed, and I felt that at least he lived long enough to get the award and now his time here was over. It was a very sad time for me.
It was he who wrote "Too Tough To Die," and now he was gone.
Try to describe your life and outlook-in-general now, post-Dee Dee.
My life now is a lot different. Gone is the crazy, wild life style, and I have someone who truly loves me and never even knew who the Ramones were until he met me!
I have a lovely new house and a dog I rescued from the pound years ago when she was a puppy. She is fifteen-and-a-half years old now, and I see her declining and know she will not be here much longer. But I guess like they say, "all good things come to an end."
Generally speaking, I have a great life now. But I also feel I had a great life then. So, no regrets at all. Ever! I wouldn't change a thing.
Is there anything any records you’d like to set straight, as it were that drove you to write this book?
Poisoned Heart was written to keep the legacy of Dee Dee Ramone alive. To let his fans know who the REAL Dee Dee was; the person behind the name “Dee Dee Ramone.”
He was a genius and an often troubled soul, but always tried to be the Good Man that he knew he was inside.
Have you any particular points you’d like to make clear in our remembrances of Dee Dee and your life with him?
His fans should remember him and never forget all the wonderful songs he wrote, and keep his memory alive because he wasn't properly portrayed, and his legacy was missing a big piece.
There will be only ONE Dee Dee Ramone, and even though he may be gone I want him to know that he's not forgotten, and still loved by so many fans, and will be remembered for generations to come.
Poisoned Heart by Vera Ramone King, from Phoenix Books, is available now in all the proper places,
and Vera herself can be found right there at www.VeraRamoneKing.com
Plus, if you haven’t already, make sure each and every Ramones song and Dee Dee King’s Standing In The Spotlight album while you’re at it is in your collection. Coz you’re no Pig Pal ‘o’ mine if they aren’t.