Poison Heart – Surviving The Ramones

Y’know, rock biographies/autobiographies are a funny affair.  You have the benchmarks, the real classics written by articulate, often unhinged genii such as Julian Cope with his fantastic two parter, ‘Head On / Repossessed’.  When the writer is so gifted at storytelling, the concept of reading about a rock n roll life becomes compelling and you find it hard to put it down.  Then, you move down the scale and encounter the milquetoast-ish puff-pieces, an example of which, [quite a strange one you might think] is the biography of Paul Heaton, formerly of the Beautiful South.  Singularly failing to dig deep or challenge the egotistical, contradictory Heaton, the toadying writer just piles on the content, with no attempt made to dig beneath the obvious and let us know what makes the subject tick.  Finally, we arrive on the literary skid row, where you find the memoirs of those who, ironically, are probably the truest rock n rollers of the lot – the drug-soaked, addled lifers who didn’t pose, they just went out and did it.  And this basement level is where we find Poison Heart – an unembellished, full speed romp through the short and unhappy life of one Douglas Colvin, better known to you and me as the late great Dee Dee Ramone.

Now DeHud lent me this recently when I called in on our trip to watch NoMeansNo.  He has also just digested the other new-ish book from a late Ramone, Johnny’s ‘Commando’ – which I haven’t yet read and so won’t mention here.  So, what do we learn about Dee Dee?

Let’s let that question hang in the air for a moment.  Two years ago, I called in to the Ramones Museum in Berlin during a nice week long visit to the city.  My partner gamely accompanied me, even though she has rather different musical tastes.  But what became clear very quickly from the cuttings, articles and general Ramones detritus on display was that, contrary to my youthful image of the band as a bunch of pretty dumb, fun filled guys making speedy punk rock that was always the same yet always different, they were in fact a collection of misfits who shared almost no common ground, whose increasingly hostile relationships with one another hardly qualified them to be known as the ‘Brudders’, and who descended into drug and alcohol dependence, mental illness and ultimately untimely deaths.  A happy bunch they were not.  This came as something of a shock to me, and Dee Dee’s short book confirms this view uncompromisingly.

So, back to the book.  Dee Dee was perhaps the most wayward member of the band, a qualification which is all the more remarkable when you consider what damaged personalities the other two [Johnny and Joey] were.  His early childhood in the vicinity of various US Airforce bases in Germany was defined by alcoholic, absentee parents, the classic bunking off school, no discernible interests or talents, and a drift into drug abuse that was initiated the day he found two phials of methadone in a park [as you do….].  I shan’t repeat the story here, but suffice to say we get a reasonable view of his childhood and youth, but then, once the Ramones come along and begin to attempt to play, things get very confusing.

Dee Dee, who had the help of Veronica Kofman [I am not sure of she was the ghostwriter or just tried to arrange Dee Dee’s random, rambling thoughts into a digestible whole], is disarmingly frank about his state of decline.  Outwardly a punk rock hero who hob-nobbed with Johnny Thunders, Stiv Bators, Jerry Nolan and other greats of the era, Dee Dee in fact portrays himself as a pathetic drifter who was unable to form any kind of lasting relationship and who attracted abuse, violence and the exploitative attentions of those more manipulative and intelligent than him wherever he went. To try and deal with this, he adopted an increasingly paranoid and self defensive attitude to everybody he dealt with. Sadly for him, no industry contains more of those manipulators and exploiters than the music industry.

Dee Dee describes in blunt, unadorned terms the effect of his constant struggles with opiates, relationships and alcohol, but the most difficult thing for the reader to deal with is the way in which he darts from subject to subject, peppering his story with random conversations and thoughts which just make no sense at all.  Here is a passage from the chapter dealing with his later life in London:

“Once, near the Canal Street brige, I noticed a group of skinheads.  They looked great, dressed in their Doc Marten boots and lightweight army trenches.  They were all amped up and ready to swarm in on a possible victim.  I am seeing all this and notice how gleeful they become when they spot a ‘vic’……….[there follows a description of the skinheads roughing up a drunk that they encounter]….As I am watching this, I thought that maybe I should shave my head too.  This is England, right? And this is a grim society which I live in.  I am going to have to live by a few rules here, just as I did when I was in the Ramones.”

These grandiose, yet totally illogical pronouncements occur regularly throughout the story.  You are left with the impression that maybe Dee Dee was operating on a slightly different level to most people; I mean, if I saw a group of skinheads beating up a drunk, I’m not sure my first reaction would be to think that perhaps I should shave my head….

I took two evenings to get through this book.  I’ve read a few drug books, and a lot of New York books.  ‘Junky’ by William Burroughs is perhaps the most articulate and stark, whereas some of Nick Kent’s writings about characters like Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders are similarly bleak.  The same old themes shine through in Dee Dee’s story – the hopeless drug addict’s basic lack of morality and any semblance of concern for others caused by the constant need for dope, the paranoid, ‘me against the world’ philosophy, the total absence of self esteem, the sense of humiliation he feels on a daily basis as things go wrong for him time and time again.  Yet at the same time he also experiences awful self awareness which he shows during his moments of lucidity: he realises the inevitability of his fate at the hands of the dreaded heroin, yet like all addicts is unable to take the decisive action necessary to change his destiny.

You get the feeling that this guy was a none too bright, but basically nice person, but his dysfunctional upbringing and the constant sense of failure that it brought him meant that he never really stood a chance, especially after he was brought together with three other equally disturbed and inept people in the Ramones.  But then, compared to the absolute nihilism and self-absorption that took down lesser contemporaries like Sid Vicious, Thunders, Stiv Bators, Nolan and the likes, Dee Dee displays remarkable integrity.

‘Poison Heart’ is a sad story, and it confirms my sad discovery that, despite their legendary status and major league popularity, the Ramones were a collection of sad, empty, unhappy people – victims in every sense in an industry of wolves, which is all the more sad given that they created music that was so influential and ground breaking.  Dee Dee’s death from an overdose just over a decade ago in Los Angeles was predictable given the story.  In fact, sadly, you wonder how he lasted as long as he did. RIP.

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