by Vera Ramone King (Phoenix Books)
by Scott Deckman
For rock’n’roll standards, even nihilistic punk rock standards, Dee Dee Ramone lived a life few others could have imagined. As a huge fan of not only their music, but their story as it relates to both rock’n’roll history and the culture of the United States in the last quarter-plus century, I tend to gobble up whatever Ramones paraphernalia I can find (albums post-End of the Century excluded).
This story is from the perspective of Dee Dee’s first wife Vera Ramone King and probable second love (crazed junkie/prostitute Connie Gripp was first), and it tells of an enduring love that would’ve sent most people to the brink – and over it – several times. And reading the memoir, you have to ask yourself: Is this the patience of a saint or the cognitive dissonance of a fool? It’s likely somewhere in between.
First off, it must be pointed out that there are some errors in the book, both typographical and in point of fact, like her repeated insistence early on that none of the Ramones could play an instrument when they formed (both Johnny and Tommy were in the band Tangerine Puppets in high school, though Johnny once noted he wasn’t a wizard on guitar when the Ramones originally got together; Tommy was also lead singer and guitar player in glitter band Butch; Joey was a singer in glam band Sniper; Dee Dee apparently knew enough guitar to try out for the Neon Boys, precursor to the heralded Television. Of course he wasn’t proficient enough to score the gig, but I digress…). When you get past the fact that some of the facts are wrong and that there are a few misspellings here and there, you dig into a compelling book about what love will put up with.
Throughout the tome, King (né Vera Boldis) chronicles both her marriage to Dee Dee (né Douglas Colvin) and the latter’s drug use and maniacal behavior. At certain points, particularly after a horrifically brutal beating on the Ramones’ tour bus that, according to her, had absolutely no provocation, you begin to question her sanity. And she was beaten savagely, like stay-in-bed-for-a-week savage. You could blame his bipolar disorder and the damage of repeated drug use for that single act of barbarism, which is understandable, though not condonable, but there were several beatdowns, or times when he would hold a gun or knife to her in his mania for drugs where you just felt like reaching into the pages and grabbing her out of there for the sake of her health, if not propriety. (The gun incident turned out to be an unloaded BB gun, but she didn’t know it at the time.)
King did get away from him for days after such episodes, but the charmer in Dee Dee always got her back to their Whitestone, Queens, apartment, or back on tour with him and the band (though the knife incident did finally trigger the end of their relationship). And this is to say nothing of the times he OD’d, or even threatened suicide. The man, at times, was either a walking time bomb or black cloud extraordinaire, take your pick. But before you get the wrong idea, this isn’t a bash-Dee Dee fest, at least not completely, because without him, there really isn’t a Ramones. He was, at the least, Joey’s equal as creative force in the band, and it’s said he wrote or co-wrote many, if not most, of the band’s songs, and certainly some of the better ones. (Of course, it can be argued that supposed ham-and-egger Johnny’s furious downstrokes were the real revolutionary genius here.) And he even contributed songs to them after his departure from the group. More importantly, she also chronicles his good side as much as his crazy one. Dee Dee was a prodigious gift giver, both to her (jewelry) and his friends (knives). He would also give money to homeless people, and once even gave a $900-dollar coat to a homeless man she bought for him at Bloomingdale’s (though since Vera wasn’t there to witness that act of kindness, she has her doubts about that particular episode). And we do get to see how he loved his fans, how he appreciated their devotion and was always there for them with an autograph or photo. All good points, but still… By the end of the book, you’re still shocked at a) her reverential devotion to him still, and b) that he never killed her.
The book, and indeed, Dee Dee’s life, also serves as a cautionary tale of both the importance of treating a mental illness properly, and the hellish reality of drug addiction. In Poisoned Heart, she relays that his psychiatrists claimed Dee Dee suffered from Peter Pan syndrome, and she readily agrees. Some people just don’t want to grow up, and he was one of them. And this refusal to grow up and act responsibly ultimately led to his death, a 2002 heroin overdose after a period of (supposed) relatively clean living.
Poisoned Heart is peppered with interesting anecdotes, including Vera getting hit on by Mick Jagger in full view of Dee Dee at a party of socialite Dana Magnum in her Hollywood Hills mansion. But probably the oddest occurrence is when, on tour in Christchurch, New Zealand, while lying in bed with Vera, Dee Dee starts speaking in tongues, literally. Dee Dee claimed to have little recollection of the episode – though he knew something had overtaken him – and King remains convinced that he was possessed by some otherworldly force. We also find out Dee Dee had a predilection for buying multiple watches and switchblades, and that he would go on tattoo binges. King claims this addictive behavior was more prevalent when he was sober, which makes sense: He replaced one addiction for another. Dee Dee was an addict’s addict at heart.
A real selling point of the book is the plethora of pictures of Dee Dee you’ve probably never seen before. There are shots of him solo and with the band, ones with friends and family, and a few with other rockers, including some you might not readily associate him with, guys like Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, and Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor from Motörhead (though any Ramones fan knows the two bands were simpatico in many ways, as well as friends).
Fans of Johnny Ramone will either be disappointed or secretly buttressed by her descriptions of him as a sadistic control-freak bully. It’s hard to get a read on how he really was, because varied sources say different things. But the consensus that he was less-than-pleasant gets some major affirmation here, and then some. Though, by the end of the book, it seems his own mortality (he battled prostate cancer for a number of years before dying in 2004) had mellowed him out a great deal and she relayed that in her writing. The same can’t be said for Dee Dee himself, however. She presents his mental state as deteriorating in his later years, which she says was helped along by drugs and a lack of stability a volatile, self-destructive sort like him needed (and his refusal to take his medication, a huge factor in her not taking him back, played a big role in his downward spiral as well). On separate occasions, she even had to talk him out of killing both Johnny and Joey years after quitting the band. King doesn’t get into Dee Dee’s relationships with the other Ramones as much, but any reading of Joey will reveal that his idiosyncrasies (mainly his obsessive compulsive disorder and one-time drinking problem) could make it difficult being around him, too.
The end of the book chronicles her bumpy ride post-Dee Dee, and her own battle with brain cancer. King had been experiencing terrible headaches for years, and finally found out she had brain tumors. Remarkably, her surgeon was able to save her. Though she still has several tumors left, they are benign, so, for now, her cancer is in remission. She also remarried in the mid-’90s, and things look to be copacetic there. Good for her. She also sheds light on the “Ramones Curse.” After a gig in stormy Tulsa, Oklahoma, one night in 1978, the troupe was accosted by a young preacher in a long black leather coat and his creepy followers espousing doom and gloom if they did not right their ways. She says the bus ride after the encounter was silent, and ruminates on the fact that maybe, just maybe, that crazed Christian put a curse on the band, given all the untimely deaths in recent years of both da brudders and their associates (Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny; former managers Linda Stein and Gary Kurfirst).
But things get downright weird when, through Lena Leigh (Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh’s wife), she meets spiritual medium and author Linda Drake, who proceeds to give her several messages from beyond from you know who, saying that all the problems in their relationship were his fault, that it was the drugs and that he ended the relationship to free her. To top that (and how can you, really?), Drake also claims that when King flat-lined on the operating table, Dee Dee met her in the ether and told her it wasn’t her time yet, and sent her back to the realm of the living. (Later, he also relayed to her through Drake the need to write this book, even giving her timely encouragement through the medium right when she was about to quit the venture.) Skeptics like me kinda cringe there, and the fact that she herself doesn’t remember that near-death experience but needed Drake to let her in on it makes me question it even more. Though, in support of Drake, King also claims that no one but her and her husband knew she flat-lined on the operating table. But hey, whatever. If she’s comforted by a panjandrum, fine, let her have all the comfort she needs. After a decade-plus living with and supporting rock’s ultimate enfant terrible, she deserves it.