The Ramones, with their torn jeans, black leather jackets and walloping, supercharged riffs, were not only the definitive punk band (they created the classic form); they were also a great American band. And Dee Dee Ramone who died at his home in Hollywood on Wednesday night at the age of 50 was a crucial creative motor within the group (see "Dee Dee Ramone Found Dead In Los Angeles").
"He was the main songwriter," guitarist Johnny Ramone told MTV News. "And he was one of the great star bassists of all time the model for all the punk bassists after him.
"It's shocking," he continued. "I thought he didn't do drugs anymore. He always walked a tightrope, but he was a survivor."
Dee Dee and Johnny had talked about forming a band as far back as 1972, when they both had piddling jobs with the same company in their native Forest Hills in Queens, New York. "Then we decided we wanted to be normal and you can't be normal if you're in a band," Johnny said. "But then I lost my job in 1974, and I said to him, 'Well, let's start a band.' "
The group ultimately wound up including minimalist drummer Tommy Erdelyi ("Tommy Ramone") and singer Jeffrey Hyman ("Joey Ramone" who died of lymphatic cancer just 14 months ago). Johnny (born John Cummings) provided the group's thunderous riffs (played so fast that their early sets at New York's CBGB sometimes lasted just 20 minutes). Joey brought a loveable, melodic bubblegum consciousness to the group. Tommy contributed a basic, propulsive thwack. And Dee Dee, who wrote such early Ramones gems as "Havana Affair" and "Long Way Back to Germany," (and hollered out the "One! Two! Three! Four!" kickoffs so familiar to fans at live shows), added a sometimes startling personal candor. (One of his songs, "53rd and 3rd," on the Ramones' 1976 debut album, reflected his experiences as a sometime male hustler scrounging for drug money at that notorious Manhattan pickup intersection.)
Dee Dee's longtime heroin addiction often made him difficult to deal with. "He was a complete liar," says former Ramones manager Danny Fields, who's now writing a book about Joey Ramone. "Nothing he said was true. He once told me, 'I think with my heart, man.' I said, 'What a good thing you don't think with your head.' "
On the other hand, Ed Stasium, who worked with the Ramones early on as a producer and engineer, says that Dee Dee "seemed to me at all times to be the same, whether he was f---ed up or not. But then I never saw him down and dirty."
Stasium recalls talking to Dee Dee after the Ramones recorded their (relatively) biggest commercial hit, the 1980 album End of the Century, produced by legendary '60s pop-master Phil Spector (whom Dee Dee claimed held him captive in his mansion). "He told me, 'Man, I don't know who played bass on that record. I know I wasn't there.' But, you know, he definitely was."
After years of unjustly minimal record sales and brutal, nonstop touring, Dee Dee quit the Ramones in 1989. He briefly became a rapper, of all things (very unsuccessfully), and later, after moving to L.A., an extremely marginal novelist. He was also a painter in later years; and although the popular perception was that he had fallen out with the Ramones because of their incessant internecine squabbling, Dee Dee in fact kept writing songs for the group right up through their studio swan song, the 1995 album Adios Amigos.
"They were guys who had arguments between themselves," says Arturo Vega, the Ramones' art director and conceptual consultant. "But by the next morning, they'd be talking to each other again."
Dee Dee reunited with the Ramones for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in March; and just a few weeks ago, at a solo-with-band appearance at a booksellers' convention in New York, he offered up a tribute to his departed friend Joey, performing the signature Ramones tunes "Pinhead" and "Blitzkrieg Bop."
Johnny Ramone said it "took about 12 hours" before Joey's death sank in last year, and he figured there'll be a similar lag in processing Dee Dee's departure.
"It's hard, you know? It's hard to hear about these things and finally realize ... you know: 'They're gone.' "