THE INTERVIEW: Vera Ramone King
Since America’s first punk rock group debuted over 30 years ago, countless books have been written on the four non-brothers from Queens, whose unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll fueled with lyrics of beating on brats and sniffing glue would forever inspire bored teenagers to pick up a guitar. Despite their uniformed look of shaggy bowl haircuts, motorcycle jackets, and high-top Converse sneakers, The Ramones’ three founding members were anything but. Joey was the band’s towering front man who often hid behind oval shaped glasses, only to shed his shy demeanor on stage in front of thousands. Johnny was the no-nonsense guitarist whose stern, disciplined attitude made him the band’s “big brother.” Then there was Dee Dee, a gifted songwriter and bassist who inhabited The Ramones’ rock star spirit. While Joey and Johnny would later pass away from cancer, Dee Dee was found dead at age 50 from a heroin overdose. He would be remembered not solely for his music, but for his out-of-control behavior. Seven years later, his ex-wife would finally come clean and set the record straight.
Recently, Vera Ramone King released her controversial tell-all, Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone (The Ramone Years) depicting what the legendary musician was really like. Although she does reveal how his addictions and struggles with bipolar disorder made him a crazed wife beater who constantly yearned for a fix, she also explores Dee Dee’s generous side. Her story also discusses the rise and fall of one of music’s greatest bands. I had the pleasure of speaking with Vera about the two sides of Dee Dee, the infamous Ramones “curse,” what could have happened between Sid and Nancy, and how this Queens-based band would forever make an impact throughout the world.
Why was it important to tell your story of what it was like being married to Dee Dee Ramone?
It’s probably been 20 years since we broke up. After he passed, I felt that there was nobody doing anything to keep his legacy alive. Joey’s brother is coming out with his book in December. People have been keeping Johnny’s legacy alive with the help of his widow. Nobody was doing anything for Dee Dee. A lot of people just remember the negative things about him, such as being a drug-crazed person. Yeah, he was a lot of that, but there was also so much more to him and I wanted it to be told. He was extremely funny and loved to buy presents for everybody. It was Christmas all the time with Dee Dee. There were just certain things that I wanted to be known and for him to be remembered as more than a rock ‘n’ roll addict.
When did you begin writing?
It was July 2007 and it took me about two to three weeks. I would get up at about 7AM and sit in my pajamas until 10-11 PM and just write longhand. After I wrote the book, I had a friend come after work and she would put the chapters on the computer. We incorporated pictures into each chapter, which all of it got changed down the line. It’s difficult sometimes to pick the right person for your project because everyone wants to change it and I was pretty adamant on how I wanted it to be written. It took a while to get the right people on board, especially when attorneys are involved. That’s why the book took longer to come out. It wasn’t so much writing it, but everything else that comes after that.
The book has a very personal feel to it.
It starts at the beginning when Dee Dee was very young. He was really cute and as you go through the book you can tell what the drugs did to him. It’s really sad when you get to the last page. I remember one of my friend’s 13-year-old son saw the book and she told him, ‘This was Dee Dee when he was young and this was Dee Dee when he died. This is what drugs do to you, so don’t do drugs.’
It must have been very difficult in thinking about a lot of specific memories with Dee Dee because not all of them were pleasant. Which memory was the hardest for you to write about?
There were several obviously. I stopped two to three times writing the book. I would look at my husband and say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ It was just too difficult. I had buried so much in the back of my head that I didn’t want to remember a lot of the bad stuff. Just at that very moment, (psychic) Linda Drake would call me. I haven’t heard from her in months and she would say, “Vera, you still writing the book? Dee Dee is standing here and he made me call you and it’s so important. He wants you to finish this book.” I would give it another shot and I would do the same thing again and she would then call. It just couldn’t be a coincidence. I wrote about the good, bad, ugly, and everything in between. I don’t hold back and I’m very honest. The hardest thing to write about was his passing. It was very difficult to remember hearing those words. It was what I had dreaded hearing my whole life.
Did you feel a sense of peace after you let out all of these emotions that have been built up for so long?
When I finished writing that last paragraph, I probably cried for an hour. It was just so final. It makes me tear up now.
I loved this man unconditionally. He made some decisions at the end and one of them was going off his medication, the other was leaving the band. I wasn’t on the same page with him. We split, but we kept in touch everyday for years after that. We were best friends. It wasn’t just losing a husband. It was losing my friend, my soul mate. We practically grew up together. I had to start all over again. What do you do when you don’t work for 13 years and you’re no longer a rock wife? I had to go through different challenges, but I did what I had to do. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you hoped it would and life isn’t a fairy tale.
I noticed that you mention Sid and Nancy several times in the book. You would mention them when Dee Dee became abusive with you. Was it a big fear for your relationship to end up like theirs?
Life is a parallel. Sid was just a big fan of Dee Dee’s that I could see where something like that could happen. Yes, I did fear for my life. Dee Dee was bipolar and off his medication. People do things that they’re sorry for later when they’re not in the right frame of mind, but it’s too late to take back.
Speaking of Sid, people continue to contemplate whether he really killed Nancy.
I don’t believe that Sid killed Nancy. The guy didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I think it was an accident and from what I understand, it was a drug deal gone bad. Sid was probably passed out when that happened and when he woke up she was dead and they thought he did it. But, if you knew Nancy then you would know that she was the aggressor in that relationship. Sid was meek compared to her, so I never believed that he killed her. The night that Nancy was killed he had bought a knife that was a duplicate of the one that Dee Dee had. We were supposed to go to the Chelsea Hotel and see them before we went out on tour, but something just told me that it wasn’t a good idea. Less than 48 hours later, we were somewhere in Ohio and we heard it on the news. We just sat there and looked at each other. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling and I’m glad that I did.
You could have easily focused on just the negative aspects of what it was like being married to Dee Dee, but you also revealed his loving, generous side. Was this a conscience choice?
Absolutely. It was part of the reason why I wrote this book. People mostly remember his crazy behavior and love of drugs. That wasn’t the entire person, but nobody talked about it. He had a great sense of humor. He could easily make fun of himself and you could see that in his songwriting.
What inspired Dee Dee the rock star to pursue rap?
When we watched MTV he just fell in love with all of these different rappers, like Jazzy Jeff, Fresh Prince, Salt N Peppa, Run DMC, The Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J. Dee Dee loved to reinvent himself all the time and he got bored easily. This was just another way for him to poke fun at himself instead of doing drugs. He wanted to call himself Dee Dee Ramone, but the guys wouldn’t let him. Johnny was like, ‘Ramones don’t rap and you can’t use the name.’ Dee Dee had just written ‘Pet Cemetery’ for Stephen King and we were big fans of him. That’s how Dee Dee King was born.
One of the things that stuck with me from Poisoned Heart is the infamous curse and how the number 50 seems to be involved.
I don’t even know if I believe in curses, but it’s ironic how they all passed within a year from each other and all around the same age. Dee Dee was two months shy of his 50th birthday, Joey was two weeks shy of his 50th birthday, and Johnny had just turned 50. Then Linda Stein was murdered savagely in her own home. When I turned 50, I was diagnosed with brain cancer. That’s when it hit me. That’s why I mentioned that crazy preacher guy in Tulsa after one of our shows. It was raining out and these people were behind this preacher chanting and repeating every word he was saying. None of us spoke after we got back in the van. Dee Dee finally said, ‘That guy gave me the creeps!’ We were all freaked out.
Were they just preaching?
It was just that one guy and you know how those Columbine kids had long black coats that reached down to the floor? The preacher was wearing one of those with a huge hat. He had a bible in one hand and a crucifix in the other. There were these people standing behind him, like followers. He went up to each Ramone and asked them to repent for their sins. We didn’t respond to him and he got angry. He started chanting this thing. I didn’t know what it was. It felt like we were getting cursed while getting into the van.
I do remember you describing your ordeal with brain cancer in Poisoned Heart. How are you doing now?
I take each day as it comes. They did remove the one tumor that I had. I still have several more and they’re growing. However, I don’t live each day thinking and worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Right now I’m OK, but not everyday is a good day. But, I’m happy, I’m living in Florida now, and I have a great husband. He was so supportive of me writing the book. I don’t think a lot of men would feel that way. That’s why I dedicated the book to him. I never would have done it had he not been on board. Actually, when I met Ken he didn’t know who The Ramones were. I kinda liked that about him. It was refreshing. My husband has listened to Dee Dee’s music, read his lyrics, and he admires him. It takes a certain kind of man to be able to do that.
It’s amazing that even after all of this time, The Ramones have a huge following. Why, in your opinion, do they have such lasting power as a band?
I don’t really know why. In the beginning they couldn’t get any airplay. If anyone dared played The Ramones they would get fired. Today, when I go to the mall I see babies in onesies with The Ramones on it. I’ll even see a 60-year-old wearing a Ramones t-shirt. They’re more respected now than ever before. People are still listening to them and it’s become a rite of passage to grow up and listen to The Ramones before you move on to other things.
The Ramones were the little band that could.
I know, right! They couldn’t then, but they can now. I still have about 27 demos that Dee Dee made that no one has ever heard before. They’ve been sitting in a shoebox for the last 20 years. I’m still hoping that one day I’ll be able to put them out for his fans. There are a lot of complicated legal issues with copywriting a dead person’s work. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t done it. I’m looking for the right person to help me with this. I want it to be done right.
Now that you have a more stable life, do you have any regrets in being the wife of Dee Dee Ramone?
I have no regrets. Not one. I wouldn’t change a thing. I had a great life and spent it with someone that I absolutely adored. I am who I am today because of everything I’ve lived.
Absolutely. I know he knows. That’s all I’m going to say.
What is the one thing that you hope readers will get from Poisoned Heart?
I’d like them to remember Dee Dee for everything that he was. He loved his fans and was so appreciative of the life he got to live when he was here. I also hope my book will raise awareness on Bipolar Disorder. It’s looked down upon and there are so many people facing this problem that it’s about time we open our eyes. In the end, I want readers to remember Dee Dee’s legacy. That’s very important to me.
Poisoned Heart is currently in bookstores.