Honoring the 70th birthday of the legendary bassist for the Ramones with his beloved first wife Vera
All four original Ramones are long dead, but Ramones music will never die. As it happens, bassist-songwriter Dee Dee Ramone would have celebrated his 70th birthday Sept. 18 if not for, well, you know…
I saw the Ramones probably 25 times. The first time might have been the best; Halloween, 1977, right up front at CBGB (thank you, Hilly Krystal!) my ears blasted out for a week, waves of manic punk rock joy coursing through my brain long after the decibels subsided and Dee Dee’s 1-2-3-4 countdowns abated.
Over the years, I spent a fair amount of post-gig time with Dee Dee. Some of it was pure fun, as was when he, Johnny and I were bantering about cartoons, disco, the Grateful Dead and more. Other times, more serious stuff. In 1992, he’d put together a band called the Chinese Dragons. They were playing a small Boston club called Bunratty’s. Dee Dee had switched from bass to guitar and lead vocals, and was clearly happy fronting the band, which was a good, though not great, band. Of course, there were a slew of Ramones songs.
AUDIO: Dee Dee Ramone and the Chinese Dragons “What About Me?”
Dee Dee had always been candid about his drug use. He was clean then and I talked to him post-set and asked where he was in his recovery.
He said he’d lost five close friends to complications stemming from drug abuse and he told me, at present, he’d been straight since August 28, 1991.
“Drugs make everything worse,” Dee Dee added. “And it’s humiliating. I was under the rule of them and they were the boss. They’re not an alternative to depression; they make it worse. We all find that out. . .. Most of all, I feel like I’ve been given a break by God or something.”
He overdosed and died at 50, June 5, 2002.
Recently, I talked (via email) with Vera Ramone King, Dee Dee’s first wife, about him, the band, the good times and the bad.
Rock and Roll Globe: How did you meet Dee Dee and when? What do you recall about the relationship taking off?
Vera Ramone King: We met in the fall of 1977 upstairs of Max’s Kansas City. It was a Sunday night I believe and I was there with my sister and a girlfriend. It was a cold night and I was standing at the bar facing the wall length mirror directly opposite me. As my drink was brought to me I noticed in the mirror that Dee Dee was entering the door and he walked right over and stood next to me. I knew who he was, but did not act star-struck and continued to sip my drink. I remember thinking he was so hot but was familiar with his reputation and knew he was a ladies’ man. I was somewhat apprehensive as he started making small talk, but I was charmed by his boyish good looks and there was a certain sweetness and charisma that was appealing and very charming about him. We spoke for a while and I hadn’t let on that I knew who he was, so he kept saying, “I’m Dee Dee, I’m Dee Dee!” I played the game and said, “Oh, it’s nice to meet you, Dee Dee. Do you come here often?” Well, the fact that I didn’t act impressed and fawned all over him is what I think made him even more interested. He could he could get any girl he wanted on that scene, and he usually did! We chatted a couple hours and he told me he was leaving for London in a couple days to play a show for New Year’s Eve there. He asked for my number and said he would call me as soon as he returned to the States. I was disappointed he was leaving town, but hoped he would call like he said he would. Time would tell.
AUDIO: The Ramones at CBGB October 1977
We sometimes romanticize the past – it’s human nature – but when I look back on those early days at CBGB – my first Ramones gig was Halloween 1977 there – I really do find it to be a magical time. Not all sweetness and light and fairy dust of course. But gritty and loud and fun with a lot of group bonding – band to crowd, amongst the crowd. Would you concur or how do you view those early days?
Yes, I totally agree. Those early days of Max’s Kansas City, CBGBs, the Mudd Club, amongst other clubs, it was just a magical time for the music scene. You could go out on any night of the week and see the best bands ever! There was no shortage of bands. Besides the Ramones – Blondie, Talking Heads, New York Dolls, Heartbreakers, Patti Smith, Dead Boys, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Television, Mink DeVille and the list goes on and on.
The people were colorful, interesting and not your average Joe, for sure. The styles were unique and far out. The clothing and makeup for both men and women were memorable and nothing like you’d ever see in the suburbs! It was beyond exciting! The minute you walked in, you could feel the electricity in the air. The sheer energy and the music in these clubs was like another world where you could escape and forget the 9-to-5 daily grind. Week nights were my favorite. That’s when Warhol, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy and others would pop in and hang out. Weekends were when more kids form the suburbs would come to the city and the place would be packed.
One thing I really wasn’t aware of when I first started seeing and writing about Ramones is how the songwriting broke down. I kind of chalked it all up to a “group effort” sort of thing, but I realize – correct me if I’m wrong – that Dee Dee really was the main songwriter, and a key contributor even after he left the band proper. How do you look that situation now through the passage of time?
Dee Dee and Joey were the principal songwriters but when Tommy was still in the band, he would write quite a bit. Johnny, not so much lyrically but he did musically. They each had something different to contribute and they had a quirky sense of humor. Most bands wrote standard songs but the Ramones; songs were nothing like you ever heard! They wrote songs about Nazis, cretins, freaks, sniffing glue, and things they found unusual and amusing. Their songs were short, intense and over before you knew it. People, myself included, had never heard anything quite like this before. You either loved them or hated them. It was their original sound and style that made them appealing and the crowds just got bigger and bigger at every show they played. The energy was intense, fun and exciting. At the time, none of us knew we were living rock and roll history; it never occurred to us.
Dee Dee was, as you well know, very candid about his shortcomings – the drugs, especially – and he beat up on himself for past usage when he was clean. And then, sadly, he’d get back in the junkie business. How did you cope with that rough ride? And was there an inevitability to his cause of death or do you look back and think what more could have been done?
Dee Dee was honest about his shortcomings and drug usage. He tried really hard to beat his addiction and succeeded a number of times, but it didn’t last. What few people know about him is that he secretly loathed himself because of this and it just added to his depression. He was bipolar and, in those times, they hadn’t quite mastered the correct treatment for that diagnosis. There were also limited medications available during those years and it just was a vicious circle of highs and lows. At his lowest, he contemplated suicide and that was very scary. I tried my best but I was at a loss of how to help him and what I could do. It was my worst nightmare and it was always in the back of my mind, that he would die of an overdose or death by self-infliction.
The doctors ran out of treatments for his disorder and it was a day-to-day struggle, both for him and myself. I was determined to “save” him from his inner demons, but it became impossible for me to continue to live like this after he decided to go off all his meds. Shortly thereafter, he decided to quit the Ramones. There was no talking any sense into him at that point. He was hell bent on a destructive path and there were red flags everywhere but he didn’t listen. His mind was made up. Everyone tried to talk to him, to no avail. To be totally honest here, I was scared for my life to live with him off his meds. He had developed violent tendencies at this point and for me the handwriting was on the wall. Staying with him was no longer an option for me. He hated everyone in the band and just turned into someone i didn’t recognize anymore. It just proceeded to escalate from there. After we separated, he left the Ramones less than six weeks later. I think he became too much for them as well to deal with. The feelings were mutual and it was his choice to leave. So, they let him go and continued with a new bass player. There was no one left to babysit him and pick up the pieces anymore. That’s when he wrote “Poison Heart.” It was a very difficult time for me.
Because the Ramones often dealt in cartoon imagery, off-center humor – the comical Nazi/Germany references – and songs that explored one topic, quickly and then done, there was I think – and I know they thought – this misperception that they were, as the song says, “D-U-M-B.” I’m guessing you may be able to counter that perception.
Despite the Ramones unusual sense of humor and lyrics to their songs they were not “d-u-m-b”! That was an image that was conceived by the public and a perception that they happily went along with. They were regular guys from Queens who could have been your neighbors who accepted their fans as one of them. They loved baseball, horror movies and cars, amongst other things. Johnny was very structured because of his military upbringing and was good at managing money. Joey was more into music and art. Dee Dee was an Army brat who had a love of music, fashion, collecting knives, and records, magazines and books. He loved to read and writing became his passion, whether it was lyrics or books. He could write a song in less than an hour. He always had a very creative side to him. Tommy loved music and also was very smart. He also had a good business sense like John.
Do you have any thoughts about I Slept with Joey Ramone, the bio-pic based on Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh’s book that’s due to start shooting in January?
I know as much as everyone else about the Joey Ramone film starring Pete Davidson. I do know it is his film production company’s first project. Since I don’t speak to Mickey anymore, I don’t know much else except what I read online or what is released to the public.
If Wikipedia is right – and you never know – you and Dee Dee married in 1978, separated in 1990 and divorced in 1995. I am guessing from some of the posts you’ve made that he remains close to you in spirit. Did the love you had for him remain during the difficult times and endure after your split? How is your relationship with his second wife Barbara Zampini, if any?
Dee Dee and I didn’t break up because we stopped loving each other. As I stated before, there were many other things that came into play during that time and we both were on a different path at that point. From beginning to end we were legally married for 17 years. We remained close after our separation and spoke on a daily basis for years. He would often me call from other countries and play me new songs he’d written and ask my opinion. He would also ask for advice because he trusted me more than any most anyone and knew that I’d be honest in my opinion. When he got sick, he would come all the way to Queens, so that I could take him to the doctor. We had a deep bond and understanding of one another. We knew what the other was thinking without saying a word. He was the love of my life and I feel blessed to have been a part of his. In time, we both had others partners and I eventually filed for divorce. But Dee Dee had to be served the divorce papers and he didn’t stay in one place long enough to be served personally. Eventually, he was served with papers at the Chelsea Hotel by a friend of mine named Big Mike. He knocked on Dee Dee’s door and he was handed the papers to sign. He signed the papers thinking he was signing an autograph for a fan. Photographer Keith Green was in his hotel room at this time taking the now-famous photos of Dee Dee on the balcony during this encounter. I was told by Keith some years later that Dee Dee went ballistic after he saw what he signed. Time had passed and we both needed to move forward with our lives. Our divorce was finalized in the late spring of 1995. I remarried shortly thereafter. Dee Dee met Barbara a couple of years later and also remarried.
I first met Barbara after Dee Dee had passed and his mother, Toni, and I flew to L.A. for the funeral. I called her and asked if it would be OK for us to attend our beloved Dee Dee’s funeral to pay our final respects and say our goodbyes. She graciously agreed and his mom and I flew out together. Barbara and I spoke a few times after that, as I called to see how she doing. i was genuinely concerned for her well-being as she was so young and in a new country [she was from Argentina]. We have lost touch throughout the years but I hear she is doing well. I am grateful for that. There are no hard feelings between her and I and there never were. She was not responsible for our breakup and as far as I’m concerned, we’re good.
When you look back at the Ramones’ legacy, what do you think? What do you think Dee Dee would make of all the posthumous fame and acclaim? The movie being made, all the Ramones T-shirts still out there …
Looking back these last 20 years or so, I think he would have been amazed at the popularity, recognition and posthumous legacy that the Ramones have achieved during their short time with us. They have left their mark in musical history and have influenced numerous bands around the planet. It’s so surreal to think that these four neighborhood friends would become icons and aspirations to a new generation of musicians so many years after their passing. The Ramones t-shirt is the most famous logo in the world! I see persons of all ages wearing them wherever i go, not just here in the USA, but all over the world. How crazy is that?
What were the best and worst of times with Dee Dee?
The best times were when we first met. We were inseparable and holding hands everywhere we went. We were young and in love and felt we could conquer the world. We grew up together. There were many great times and memories throughout all the years. However, there were certainly rough times as well as in any long-term relationship. We had a lot of fun and experienced some of the most magical once-in-a-lifetime adventures that most people can only dream of. We also had struggles that were dark and often overwhelming. That’s life no matter who you are. We were just like everyone else. I will continue to keep and preserve the Ramones legacy to the best of my ability for future Ramones fans and generations to come for as long as I can. I married my prince charming. I loved and lived a real punk love story. I have no regrets whatsoever and I feel privileged and blessed.