I was at a friends place in Jamaica, Queens, twenty four, and recently clean. Not long, but long enough to to recognize a hunger to make up for all the time I’d lost ignoring the call of my heart and the reckoning of my spirit. I was collecting courage to just leave without challenge when I spotted this badass punk dude who looked a lot like Dee Dee Ramone (promptly dismissed because I realized I always think people look like other people). He was climbing the walls, by himself, bopping up and down to some drummer in his head. He walked past me and stopped, said a straight faced “‘Sup” then looked anxiously around the room. I returned a nod and involuntarily looked down. That’s when I noticed a large gaudy ring on his finger….diamonds spelling out “DeeDee”.
I was ferr-eeking out, as the Ramones had been one of my favorite bands since Suzanne Vilchez introduced them to me in seventh grade. Suzanne had a Ramones button on her denim jacket and the “VH” Van Halen symbol painted on her denim loose-leaf notebook. I’d inquired about both, and the combination of her enthusiasm and how adorable she was sold me on what would be a life changing discovery. I’m sure it was a good time for me to find this music, but admit I might have become a fan of any band Suzanne liked (or any cult, for that matter). She had hell-raiser eyes, a contagious laugh, and was very popular. When junior high ended she was at a party and a few guys playfully scooped her up and threw her into a pool where she hit the bottom hard, broke, and floated to the top, never to walk again. I took this very personally and it still hurts to recall getting the news and later visiting her in the hospital where Jay and I learned the word “paraplegic.” She’s never stopped doing incredible things and I adore her…..the girl who gave me Van Halen and the frikin’ Ramones (not to mention some middle school daydreams).
I snuck into a showing of the campy Ramones’ film, Rock and Roll High School at the Queens College student union building and by the end of the screening I had a horny girl named Ilana sitting on my lap (I could work with this) and a plan to pierce my ear and line my life with safety pins. I began playing muted, eighth-note power chords on my nylon string classical acoustic guitar and bought Rocket to Russia and End of the Century. I took to the Ramones’ quick, raucous tunes and listened like I was examining some ancient map. I felt a heart-racing connection to the simple rounds that flowed with an almost tribal sensibility. I put them right along side of my Beatles and my Paul Simon and got a Japanese Strat and a Gorilla amp that produced an adequately satisfying distortion.
I wondered if The Ramones realized how silly some of their songs were to some people…my mother for one….whether they knew that much of the world considered them comic book characters. At the same time, I knew the answer: No. They didn’t know. They didn’t care. They couldn’t give two shits and they couldn’t disagree less. They were playing from a place more deeply sourced than most artists could begin to explain and they were dead fucking serious.
He extended his hand and said, “Dee Dee” and I said, “I know who you are, Dee Dee”. I shook his hand and said my name. He asked if I was a musician. At the time I much more looked than played the part. I said I was and we talked about what I was working on, and about his new rap project, “Dee Dee King”.
He asked if I had a tape and then he asked if I was hungry. We went to the Hilltop Diner and ate French fries with gravy and talked for a couple of hours. We exchanged numbers and met at the Hilltop a bunch more times when he was in town. Each time he asked if I had a tape. I’d just begun to mess around with a Tascam Porta One four-track cassette recorder which I had been intimidated by for years, and while he was sincere and interested (and a potential source of real support), I did not produce a tape.
The Ramones band manifesto included the rule, “no smiling”, so getting to hang out and see him be fairly normal was cool. Not only did he smile, but he laughed goofily. Especially at his own jokes. We talked about why we used drugs, why there can’t be a god, about our parents, our shared admiration for Ally Sheedy, and about music. I slipped back and forth between easy intimacy and a sort of “I’m not worthy” out of body’s experience.
Once when I spoke with his wife Vera on the phone she thanked me for hanging out with him. She said he needed good, clean guys to spend time with. She got me into Ramones shows free and was normal and lovely. They lived in a condo in Whitestone and it couldn’t have been easy to be married to Dee Dee. He was abrupt, opinionated, and pretty burnt out.
Touring took him over and he went back to heroin and we lost touch.
In autumn 1999 my band was rehearsing in a vacant storefront on Avenue B and 10th street in Manhattan and we came outside for a fresh-air break.
I heard someone call my name, turned and saw a platinum blonde Dee-Dee crossing the street. He yelled, “SETH DAVIS!!! Whatcha doin….coppin dope?” I smiled and said no and didn’t bother saying that I was still clean, as he clearly wasn’t. He introduced me to his girlfriend and then swiftly pulled her to his side. The whiplashed beauty cracked gum and smiled kindly. He said he was retired and living in Holland now. I said I was playing later that night and invited him, joking that I’d get him past security. He laughed maniacally and asked if I had a tape. Finally able to say yes, I asked him to hold on.
I headed into the space, rummaged through my bag, secured a copy of a demo tape I’d been shopping and selling at shows, and went back outside. He was gone.
I was sad, but not surprised by his fatal overdose, just months after my own brothers’. He’d been a rock star for most of his life and I hear that that comes with baggage. He exemplified and defined facets of the rock and roll lifestyle. And he was rather pessimistic. I watched him behave like a royal jerk when accepting the Ramones induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; I wanted to hide my face and sneak out the backstage door. I’m sure he more than earned his reputation.
It’s difficult to quantify just how much of an impact a person has on you. Some heavy talks and some laughs are imprinted and I know we served a purpose for one another during a challenging and critical mile on our respective paths, but above our bond, high above the novelty of having had a hero for a friend, I’m glad for the most remarkably poignant thing that I ever heard him say. More than any anecdote or bit of advice, this one thing gives me chills. He said it to everyone, but I swear that he was talking to me. It reminds anyone who’s paying attention….with power and purpose….that there’s work to do and that being alive is just the start. Words with which he calls out my passion, counts in Sue’s pulse, makes your heart race, and wakes us all up over and over again.
Before he said,
I’m Dee Dee
and long after he forgot to say
he put his lips to the mic and said,
Thank you, immortal friend.