For the Ramones bassist’s 69th birthday in Heaven, former Boston Globe music critic Jim Sullivan revisits his 1989 story chronicling Dee Dee’s short-lived hip-hop career
It’s not that there weren’t white rappers in 1989. I mean, the Beastie Boys – who entered our world in the early-‘80s as snotty little punks – broke the bank in 1987, with Licensed to Ill – Eminem’s Slim Shady LP was 10 years in the future.
But Dee Dee Ramone – who would have turned 69 on Sept. 18 – had a vision of sorts, a rapping alter ego he called Dee Dee King who made a declaration of sorts with his first single “Funky Man.” Dee Dee Ramone and “funk” had never been linked together previously.
Now, vocally, the Ramones bassist would pop up in concert or on record every so often to sing a hardcore punk song like “Warthog.” But mostly, what Dee Dee had to say is “1-2-3-4!” — the kickoff to many a Ramones song. (He was, though, the main songwriter on lots of Ramones pop tunes.)
Still, welcoming Dee Dee King was a brace yourself moment. “No one can beat me/At my game/I’m badder than def/Dee Dee King is my name,” he rapped.
In April of ‘89 Dee Dee and his wife Vera met me at a hip diner in Boston’s South End. He still looked Ramone-y – all those tattoos and that bowl haircut – but was bedecked in several pounds of dangling jewelry, sending that rap bling signal. From “Funky Man”: “Thank the good man above/That he gave me a sexy blonde to love/Now she wants a Mercedes Benz/Would make more sense/These are the problems I’m gonna have.”
“Funky Man” came out first as a 12-inch and was followed up with a longplayer, “Standing in the Spotlight.” And while no one would state that the big rappers of the day – Tone-Loc or LL Cool J – have to start worrying about the competition, it really was a nifty disc, chockablock with Ramones-esque humor and sharp hooks. Ramone, who co-wrote it with producer-guitarist Daniel Rey, calls it rap ‘n’ roll.
VIDEO: Dee Dee King “Funky Man”
“It’s a musical cartoon,” he told me over dinner. “The Ramones used to be called a cartoon and get really offended, but I always kind of liked the cartoon image. I’m a big comic-book fan, and I kind of look at life-art-music as comic pop art.”
Ramone was a latecomer to the rap scene — even as a fan. During the mid-‘ 70s explosion, Ramone was strictly into punk rock. The first rap record that touched him was Rodney Dangerfield’s Rappin’ Rodney.
“I thought it was hysterical for white people to act like that and start rapping,” he said. “I thought I had a lot of humor in me, and I always wanted to do something humorous, so I made up Dee Dee King. . . . I didn’t take rap too seriously until I bought the second LL Cool J album. Then I saw a real writer, not just someone riding the fad.”
Ramone’s plunge into rap and his comic-book take on things came as the Ramones, on record anyway, were getting more serious. Their upcoming Brain Drain, Ramone said, was “autobiographical, and it has a lot about hope and faith on it.” He said he had no problem juggling careers, but noted his bandmates “don’t like it at all.” (Cue Ramones song “I’m Against It.”) In the summer of ’89, Ramone would be playing concerts with the band and during off days, he said he’d play shows as King. He won’t leave the Ramones: “Even if Standing in the Spotlight went platinum I wouldn’t leave the band. It’s fun for me; it’s my identity.”
He did leave later that year, though he continued to write for the band.
While most of the songs on Standing in the Spotlight had a certain goofball charm, there was some serious business, too, especially in “2 Much 2 Drink.” The song concerned Ramone’s own battle with the bottle. It’s a war he was then winning — three years sober — but it was a long haul.
Along with alcohol, Ramone abused drugs, including heroin, for 14 years. “I’d clean up off one drug and end up on another,” he says. “I have an addictive personality. I was kicking dope and praying and praying, getting down on my knees. I got so angry. Why me? Why do I have to be cursed like this? In the long run, I figure it had to happen slow.” (Dee Dee died in 2002; heroin came back to kick his ass to the grave.)
Back then, Ramone went through treatment programs and psychiatrists. He spent a year reading the Bible, kicking heroin. He was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings nightly and said that the Ramones have “our own private AA group.” (Drummer Marky Ramone was also a recovering alcoholic.)
“I feel like an atheist trying to find religion,” Ramone said. “I really believe in it. Sobriety is a gift of God.” Once, he shot up with Sid Vicious. Now, he credited his pal, ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones, for helping him along the way. “He used to be very messed up,” said Ramone. “I decided if he can do it I can do it. I’m much happier. I’m free now.”
AUDIO: Dee Dee Ramone and the Chinese Dragons Live
In September 1992, I caught up with Dee Dee again. He and a band he’d put together called the Chinese Dragons were playing at a gritty, small Boston club called Bunratty’s. The show was fun. Dee Dee had switched from bass to guitar and lead vocals, and was clearly happy fronting the band, which is a good, though not great, band. Dee Dee and company rocked through Ramones standards like “I Don’t Wanna Walk Around With You,” “Chinese Rocks,” “Waterbug” and “I Wanna Be Sedated,” played a batch of new tunes and sped-up the Foghat-identified blues song “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” and Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.”
There was a shot of the hard-rocking blues in Dee Dee’s new mix, as well as classic simple/comic punk rants like “What About Me?” — chorus: “You always get your way!/What about me?” Also, a telling tune called “Don’t Be a Dope Fiend.” That, in effect, is Dee Dee’s core message, though he won’t hit you over the head with it. What he’s saying is that there’s a lot of fun to be had in life, drugs seem to aid and abet that fun, and then they let you down hard. But you can still come out rocking.
I talked to him post-set. Where was he in his recovery?
“Drugs make everything worse,” he said. “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.” Dee Dee said he’s lost five close friends to complications stemming from drug abuse — including ex-New York Dolls Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan — and he told me, at present, he’d been straight since August 28, 1991.
Between my last encounter with him and this one, there was a lot of tough stuff. He split with his wife, Vera, and, he said, was busted for assault and drug possession a couple of times. Dee Dee said he left the Ramones voluntarily as far as he can tell — and even contributed three strong songs to their current Mondo Bizarro album — but added, “I ran for my life, for myself, from my life. It was like leaving the Mafia. That was a rough band to get out of. It’ll always be following me around. . .. I have no friends, I have no family, the only hope I can have been to forget it. . .. But the Ramones really didn’t leave me stranded. I’m not miserable. Something happened.”
AUDIO: Dee Dee King Standing In The Spotlight (full album)