‘All Good Cretins Go to Heaven’: Dee Dee Ramone’s Twisted Punk Paintings
According to people who knew him, Dee Dee Ramone was so good-looking in his youth that he could charm his way into any job he wanted. The cash-strapped high school dropout from Queens could ace interviews just by dressing up, showing up, and being polite (and pretty). The trouble, of course, always came with keeping the job. Ramone was never good at that.
John Cafiero, curator of the Dee Dee Ramone Exhibition at the Hotel Chelsea Storefront Gallery, tells me the story as we stand in front of a wall of vintage Ramones photographs. It’s hard not to believe him.
Ramone, a founding member of the band often credited with inventing punk rock in the late ‘70s, wasn’t a singer, but he was a heartthrob. Legs McNeil, of Punk magazine fame, once called him “cute” and “charming.” He dubbed him “the Paul McCartney of the Ramones.”
Of course, Ramone was more than that. He was funny and self-effacing, though prone to fits of anger. He was an on-and-off drug addict and sometimes a criminal; he was a collector of switchblades and vintage Disney T-shirts.
Douglas Glenn Colvin, as his parents named him, was bassist and songwriter-in-chief for the Ramones, but he was also a novelist, a memoirist, a (terrible) rapper, and a painter.
Twelve years after Ramone’s fatal heroin overdose in Hollywood, the largest-ever collection of his paintings is on display for the first time in New York City, along with handwritten setlists, a denim vest, his rap persona Dee Dee King’s embroidered jacket, and a Dee Dee Ramone Limited Edition Fender Precision Bass (which is gorgeous).
But it’s Ramone’s paintings that dominate the space. They’re both playful and gory, sharp and primitivistic; most are cartoonish. Like the Ramones’ music, they were made without formal training. Instead, they’re pure id. As “Rockaway Beach,” “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “I Wanna Be Sedated” and other Ramones classics play on shuffle throughout the gallery, the paintings become a kind of visual translation: punchy, loud, absurd, and often hilarious.
One painting renders U.K. punks the Sex Pistols—who were greatly influenced by the Ramones but whose violent antics were in many ways responsible for their commercial failure—as angular, chaotic cartoons. Sid Vicious is stomping all over Steve Jones, about to smash in his guitar (again).
Drummer Paul Cook looks on, tiny in the background, while Johnny Rotten, yellow as a Simpsons character, reaches out toward the rampaging Vicious. What initially looks like a white blotch on Rotten’s pants turns out to be a comically tiny, pale penis.
Ramone captured dysfunction within his own band, too, from mild disagreements (himself wearing a Burger King shirt, playing alongside McDonald’s-clad Joey Ramone) to more violent arguments. One large canvas shows his three bandmates clinging to each other, forming a chain dangling from Ramone’s feet.
Ramone himself, fist pumped in the air, crows in all-caps, “Hi everybody, my name is Dee Dee. I am also one of the Bad Ramones. I will be difficult. Watch out!!!!” The whole thing is covered in demons, spiderwebs and red lettering that reads, in part, “You can try to change it by yourself but only you would care about spiders and such things.”
For context: Ramone left the band in 1989 to make his Dee Dee King rap debut, telling McNeil at the time that he was sick of playing “in a revival act.”
“No one in the group was really growing up besides me, which is pretty weird ‘cause there was no one in that group more self-destructive than I was. I was a big troublemaker in the group,” he said at the time. “I put them through a lot of pain, but as much as I gave to them, they gave right back to me.”
Promo shots for Dee Dee King, taken by famed rock photographer Bob Gruen, are also on display at the Storefront Gallery. A smirking Ramone is shown wearing both a CBGB shirt and heavy gold chains, posing next to an enormous boombox.
He looks like an Ad-Rock prototype. “He was the first white rapper,” Cafiero informs me.
Ramone didn’t begin taking painting seriously until sometime after 1996, at the encouragement of the Ramones’ art director Arturo Vega. By then, he had had plenty of time to reflect on the death of Sid Vicious, whom he befriended pre-Sex Pistols (Vicious is thought to have either inherited his iconic chain-and-padlock necklace from him or copied it).
Vicious had overdosed four months after the death of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, who was found stabbed to death inside the Chelsea Hotel on October 12, 1978—now acknowledged by some as the day New York’s early punk scene died.
The hotel itself clearly haunted Ramone. Like many rock stars of the time, Ramone lived there on-and-off for a time; he even detoxed from heroin there once. His 2001 novel, the Chelsea Horror Hotel, is a fictitious account of time spent there with his Argentine wife, Barbara Zampini Ramone, and their pet Dachshund.
Images of the hotel crop up repeatedly in his paintings, sometimes plagued by bats or monsters. But most of all, Ramone lingered on Vicious, whom he painted and drew over and over again.
In one painting, framed as a split-panel comic between the two, Ramone simply asks Vicious, “Did you kill her?” Vicious replies, “Yes.” Red letters scrawled underneath seem to be Ramone thinking aloud: “I wonder but I think so.”
And in a series of gory and darkly comedic drawings, Vicious is checked into the “Horror Hospital,” where a deranged doctor and nurse attempt to lobotomize him to force him off drugs. Vicious ends up with both his arms and legs cut off, but in the end, he triumphs: “What the doctor doesn’t know is that Sid has been using the veins underneath the padlock that he wears on a chain around his neck to shoot up,” the final panel explains.
A mad-eyed Sid—with a smile identical to the kind Dee Dee draws on his own self-portraits—shouts into a dialogue bubble, “HA. HA. THEY CAN’T STOP ME.”
Ramone’s self-portraits, of course, are no less conflicted. He paints himself different colors, in different guises. Here he’s a wart hog (like the Ramones song about a sick, hopeless junkie), and there he’s a rock star. In one picture, his head gets ripped off by a blue dragon; in another, he is the blue dragon.
Seen through other people’s lens, however, Ramone is positively a sweetheart. We see photographs of him with his arm around Joan Jett, two punks mugging for the camera. Or there he is, matching leather jackets with a baby-faced Bruce Springsteen. (Springsteen originally wrote his first big hit, “Hungry Heart,” for the Ramones.)
Photographer Stephanie Chernikowski captures him pointing ferociously at Joey while screaming along to “Pinhead”: “D-U-M-B / Everyone’s accusing me!”
Chris Stein of Blondie catches Ramone with an “aw, shucks” expression just after he drops a plate of food. Keith Green finds Ramone at the Chelsea, trying to kick heroin for good. And another photo shows all four Ramones in 1975, with Johnny carrying his guitar in a shopping bag and Dee Dee carrying his bass in hand. The Ramones couldn’t afford guitar cases at the time.
But my favorites, and by far the most intimate photos at the gallery, are by Jimmy Steinfeld. He captures Ramone and his second wife, Barbara, together in the studio in one photo, him on bass, her on guitar. In another, they sit smiling inside their Los Angeles apartment at a messy kitchen table. In a third, she’s playfully koala-ed onto his back; they’re both laughing.
Near the end of my tour of the exhibit, Cafiero lingers on the last photos of Ramone. Then he tells me that he was at the book release party for Ramone’s last autobiography, Legend of a Rock Star: The Last Testament of Dee Dee Ramone in 2002. Ramone had performed live and looked “better than ever,” he says.
“He looked really healthy, he sounded great, and I really thought, ‘Man, he is gonna have a total resurgence of his career now,’” Cafiero says, before gesturing hopelessly. “But two weeks later, he died.” Dee Dee candles, rosaries, shirts and prints are offered for sale near the gallery's door as a kind of consolation. Ramone, who turned to religion while trying to kick drugs, would probably approve (and laugh a little, too). After all, according to lyrics he once wrote, “all good cretins go to heaven.”