This past weekend an exhibition of the art of Punk Rock legend Dee Dee Ramone was hosted at La Luz de Jesus Gallery. The art is naive, unlike the world-weary man that created it. Dee was not a trained painter, and his aesthetic comes from the same streets that informed his songwriting. 53rd & 3rd would have been a great title for an art show if Dee Dee had ever themed an exhibition prior to his death in 2002. There’s a lot of playfulness and no angst whatsoever in the childlike portraits of himself and his friends. This recent exhibition is the most complete to date, and also featured photographs from the Dee Dee Ramone estate and a special, screen print to commemorate the event which would have been his 59th birthday.
It’s perhaps fortuitous that I was approached to curate this exhibition. Following last year’s Gidget Gein retrospective and the recent Fiddle Tim exhibition, it might have seemed like a no-brainer for the estate of a dead rockstar to choose La Luz for a Posthumous Punk Rock Pop Art Party (say that five times fast!), but the truth is that I was witness to a pivotal moment in Ramones history, and I can’t imagine this exhibition taking place in any other gallery.
In the late 90s and early 00s, I worked at Hollywood Book & Poster Company on Hollywood Boulevard. One of our frequent visitors was Johnny Ramone. I knew Johnny as a fellow video collector going back into the early 90s, and he was really knowledgeable about cult movies -especially Jess Franco films and Eurosleaze exploitation films. I used to trade pre-recorded VHS tapes with him, and we’d often give each other copies of then-rare titles that we had come across from dodgy, pirate sources. He was a nice guy, and his wife Linda was a sweet girl. I remember on one evening meeting up with Johnny, Bob Murawski and Eddie Vedder at Sage Stallone’s condo to watch a check disc of the long delayed uncut version of Cannibal Ferox, and meeting a then unknown filmmaker named John Gulager, who I’d end up working with on the foley sessions for Jim Van Bebber’s The Manson Family.
I was fan of the Ramones, but in the multitude of conversations I’d had with Johnny Ramone, I don’t think his life as a musician ever came up. I saw them live a few times and they were an incredible live band, but the swagger he had on stage was nowhere in his casual, easy-going demeanor in the real world. Having seen End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, I’m glad that didn’t know him in that context. The business shark persona detailed in every book written about the band, and evident in every documentary seems like a completely different guy from the enthusiastic, good-natured film buff.
Well back in the early spring of 2002, Johnny was hanging out at the poster shop to visit with owner Eric Caidin, and probably buy the latest issues of Cult Movies and Ugly Things. I no longer worked there but happened to be picking up a photo order for one of the Blue Underground documentaries I was (assistant) editing. The door was opened, and with Johnny to my left I happened to look out onto the sidewalk and stopped in the alcove was a thin, intense figure in trademark leather jacket and skin-tight black jeans. I had sort of crooked my neck and begun to point when this man pivoted and walked straight through the doorway and uttered, “Hiya, John.”
It was Dee Dee Ramone.
The two had not spoken directly in half a dozen years. It had been less than a year since Joey’s death, and the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame induction was approaching. Dee Dee had been in town filming the low budget film Bikini Bandits, and was talking about working with someone from Guns N Roses on a new album. There was a heavy air of potential tension in the air that was broken when Johnny extended his hand and Dee Dee pulled him into a hug. They both started laughing and held a full conversation right there in the shop. Johnny took Dee Dee out to lunch and they parted as old friends.
Following the induction ceremony, Johnny segregated himself from the rest of the band, so aside from a brief moment between acceptance speeches, the two never spoke again. Within two months, there would be one less Ramone above ground. I saw Dee Dee’s band play twice in Hollywood, and I actually saw him walking the boulevard near Sycamore the night before he died of a heroin overdose. Johnny would succumb to cancer two years later, three days before Dee Dee’s birthday. I remember talking to Eddie about the posibility of Johnny playing at a benefit concert that was scheduled that September and I remember the phonecall from Linda to Eric telling him that Johnny had passed away. At the second funeral, I stopped to pay my respects to Dee Dee who was buried just a few yards away, and as I rose from a kneeling position, Nicholas Cage helped me to my feet. I nodded my thanks and turned to walk away when he said,”I didn’t know Dee Dee like I knew John, but I feel like I need to do this, too.”
I had met Nic several times, but I don’t think he was speaking to me out of recognition. In fact I’m not sure he realized he was speaking out loud. It was a simple, honest moment that made me realize that no matter what the level of wealth or celebrity, emotional pain at a time of loss is the same for all of us. A few years later, at a memorial service in Hollywood Forever cemetery, Rhino Films screened End of the Century. There was a T-Shirt concession and someone was selling beer. After a few minutes I got up and left, thoroughly disgusted. Johnny hated alcohol. And the idea that there were more people at this industry party than ever showed up for one of their Hollywood shows would have probably pissed off Dee Dee.
If teenage angst turns into curmudgeonly wisdom, I guess you can never be too old to be punk, even if the best of them are already *dead. *Iggy Pop being a notable and worthy exception.
Happy belated birthday, Dee Dee.