You know what sounds awesome when you’re an eight-year old aspiring drummer all hopped up on Cocoa Pebbles and Black Cherry Kool-Aid? The Ramones!
I had Loco Live and Rush’s Exit Stage Left on loan from my buddy’s uncle when he heard I was taking up drums. Neil Peart? Man, that was astrophysics. I could admire it, but there was no way I could comprehend those licks. But “Teenage Lobotomy” nearly double time? Oh yes….
Look, I’m not saying I was good. But for a hyperactive kid with a pair of Zildjian sticks and some pots, boxes and lids? It was full out rock and roll cartoon blitzkrieg.
And what am I doing today? Talking to that same Ramones drummer who inspired me years ago? Awesome.
As a teenager, Marc Bell played in the trendsetting proto-metal band Dust, followed by stints with transsexual superstar Wayne County and punk pioneer Richard Hell before original Rocket to Russia drummer (and Ramones producer and mastermind) Tommy Ramone passed the baton, and Bell was reborn Marky Ramone.
We sat down recently with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member to discuss his new memoir, Punk Rock Blitzkrieg: My Life as a Ramone (Touchstone).
So I watched Rock & Roll High School last night.
Oh, boy. What’d ya think?
Oh, definitely! Yeah, yeah. Mary (Woronov) was great. She was in the old Warhol films.
That was four very New York guys hanging out in sunny California with their leather jackets on.
Man, tell me about it…
Did the movie ever attain cult classic status?
Not like Rocky Horror but they showed it in lots of midnight movies and art-houses and such. They still play it on TV. It’ll come out in new editions now and then, with bonus concert footage and such.
You were there from the beginning. How did punk begin?
At CBGB’s. You had Ramones, Richard Hell, Patti Smith, Blondie, Talking Heads and we were all together there. CGBG’s was our home and that’s where we played. And then of course England picked up on it.
There’s a great quote in your book that talks about punk’s roots being The Stooges, MC5, Kerouac, Dylan, Dali & Warhol.
Well, the Stooges and MC5 had elements of punk but I think of them more as garage rock. The Ramones played faster, there were no spaces between the songs, no time to talk. We played it that way for an hour and fifteen minutes straight.
At Ramones tempo, you must have been in incredible shape to get through the show.
It was a sprint, man. A really long sprint. But like running, the longer you played it, the easier it got. I was able to do it because I always liked jazz drummers, the way they used their fingers and wrists.
Dust was much more intricate, a lot of time changes. Ramones was more of that steady 4/4 or 2/4. There was no need for drum fills. And we would keep that up for twenty-seven songs straight.
The Dust radio ads would say: Come see the biggest bass drum in the world!!! How big was your bass?
28 inches. John Bonham had one that was 26 and I wanted to beat him. So I got a 28.
The Ramones are legendary now, but what was it like in 78? Was there any realization that something special was happening?
We didn’t have any idea how influential we would become but yeah, we started to see it on other bands. Not just the sound but the look and that was all over the world. That’s when we knew that people were catching on to what we were doing. Especially the musicians, which was very flattering.
Well, the booking agents would sometimes try to experiment. That was the wrong bill to be on because it was a heavy metal crowd and we were a punk band. But y’know, those same kids that were cursing and throwing stuff at us, we saw them later down the road and they were fans. They would say, “I was at that show!”
Later when you opened for Ted Nugent and Aerosmith the same thing happened and Steven Tyler found you guys and predicted those same kids who were booing would be buying your records someday.
Steven sort of apologized for the crowd, which I thought was a very nice thing to do. But yeah, we walked off after about five or six songs. We weren’t going to be treated like that.
Even after success you guys kept touring in a van. Why?
I did fifteen years and seventeen hundred shows with The Ramones and we stuck with the van. We believed that spending $6,000 a week for a driver and a tour bus was a waste of money. Better to keep that in our pockets. We tried a bus for about a week but didn’t like it because we couldn’t get in and out of the cities quick enough.
I would not have guessed that the Ramones were big fans of Cracker Barrel. I’m trying to picture you and Joey sitting in those rocking chairs, playing checkers. But then again it’s so road dog and so American it makes perfect sense.
Oh yeah, it got to the point where they would recognize us. They’d give us free lunches. The Ramones loved Cracker Barrel.
The Ramones were not a very happy family, were they?
No man, we weren’t.
Relationships were so tense – and yet you’re touring in a van. I would think close quarters would just make matters worse.
Yeah, we had assigned rows, a driver and tour manager. We weren’t driving. The only time things got really hairy is when politics would come up or some rant about a sports team. Or Johnny eating sardines and stinking up the van. Petty things.
Dee Dee and Johnny thought he was just doing crazy things to get on their nerves, but we didn’t know what it really was back then. Now we do. It was just another part of the band. Joey would tap something and then go back and tap it again. And again and again. In and out of doors. He would walk off stage and then back on. It took forever to get him out of his apartment. These days they have new ways to treat that condition. But it was just another part of what made The Ramones.
Did he ever get any kind of treatment?
He tried Prozac but he didn’t take it for that long. It got to where it was invading other areas of his life.
Sometimes if you get an artist leveled out, it kills the art.
Maybe so. Maybe that had a lot to do with it. But I think it was mainly those great songs that Dee Dee and Joey wrote that kept the band going. Especially Dee Dee. For me, Joey and Dee Dee were the leaders of the group. The Ramones would have been nothing without all those classic songs.
You were not only the bedrock as the Ramones’ drummer, you had to be the stable foundation from a personality perspective too.
Yeah, they were uh, unique individuals. (laughs) And I was the regular guy from Brooklyn. Sometimes it got very strange. I just tried to hold the ground and keep things running.
John and Joey were always sticking you in the middle.
I guess I was the buffer. Somebody had to be. I had always hoped they would get together again and maybe even become friends. But that never happened.
The end of your book was pretty heartbreaking. Joey dies. John dies. Dee Dee dies.
Yeah, man. It was a hard time.
Dee Dee was my best friend in the world, my brother. During my early times with the group Dee Dee became very involved with drugs and it was really affecting his personality. I was a drinker. I had to stop and then Dee Dee stopped but he ended up taking a lot of psych drugs for his bipolar problems. But after a while it just wasn’t a good combination.
You said it was ironic how, in the end, sobriety was what killed Dee Dee.
Definitely. That’s exactly what happened. He had been clean for seven years and decided to try it again and he overdosed.
You mention being confused about the Hall of Fame’s decision to have Eddie Vedder induct the band. Who should have inducted the Ramones into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
I dunno – maybe someone who influenced us? Or someone who we really liked musically, who we learned from when we were kids. Someone from the British invasion or one of the early rockers maybe.
Yeah, Iggy would have been okay. That would have been a good choice.
Why don’t the classic Ramones logo shirts say Marky?
There are some old ones that do. The current run have Tommy’s name but when that’s done there’ll be some new ones with Marky on the logo.
What are you doing these days?
I’ve got a radio show on Siruis/XM and I run my own food company.
I make my own pasta sauce, my own beer and hot sauce. And we’re able to give most of those proceeds to charity. Nice to be able to do that. Music wise, I tour my group with Andrew W.K. on vocals and we do thirty-six classic Ramones songs for a whole new generation. I tell ya, it’s a just a joy to play to the young kids.