Having just now read Brent Swancer’s article “Rock Stars and Mysterious Curses,” I thought it would be an ideal time to bring to your attention the issue of the “curse” of the Ramones. They just happen to be my all-time favorite band. I first got into the group as a kid and never looked back. I would always go and see them play when they toured the U.K. – which was usually when they had a new album out. Some of the best gigs were in 1985, when they were touring to promote their now-ironically-titled album, Too Tough To Die. Along with Leave Home and Subterranean Jungle, it’s among their best. Forget 1989’s Brain Drain, which was a horrible glitch in an otherwise solid, unrelenting career.
Being in the audience was like going into war, but it was all fun and it was a good way to burn off tension and anger. I also enjoyed the fact that, after a few years, they all began to pretty much hate each other. The clashes undeniably added to the music and the atmosphere in fine and violent style. Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy (and, later, Marky, C.J., Richie and – for just two gigs – Blondie’s Clem Burke) might not have been the best of friends, but so what? You don’t need to be friends to get up on stage and play well.
Me and my mates gravitated to the band not just because of the music (fast, furious, and filled with catchy choruses), but also because of the image: low-slung guitars, black-leather biker-jackets, and scowling faces. They were the perfect band for us. They still are. In fact, aside from when I am grudgingly forced to wear a crappy gray, long-sleeve shirt on Ancient Aliens (I can’t even begin to count how many times that same bloody shirt has been worn…), I don’t think I own even a single collared shirt (if I do they must be buried under a pile of crap somewhere…). I threw the last one out a few years back. But, I do own at least a couple of hundred t-shirts and three biker-jackets. It’s hard to break habits.
I have to say that I was glad when they split in 1996 – it would have been ridiculous to see a band such as the Ramones playing songs like “Warthog,” “Psycho Therapy” and “Pinhead” in their sixties. Retiring when they were all still in their forties was exactly the right thing for a band like the Ramones to do. By that time, only Joey and Johnny were left from the original line-up, so that was another reason to say goodbye. All of which brings me to the so-called “curse” of the Ramones.
In her book, Poisoned Heart: I Married Dee Dee Ramone, Vera Ramone wrote that back in 1978 – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and after completing a gig – the band was approached by “a sinister young man.” That it was a dark and thundery night made things even more sinister. Wearing a long black coat and a black hat he screamed: “Repent or die! You must change your wicked ways or you will be cursed for life!” Vera notes that, “the van got silent as we drove away.” Were the Ramones really cursed on that fateful day? Well, it very much depends on whether or not you believer in curses.
The Ramones definitely had more than their fair share of bad luck; no-one can deny that. Despite putting out pretty much consistently great music, they never made the big-time. All four originals died young. Joey died in 2001 from the effects of lymphoma. Drugs took Dee Dee one year later. Johnny passed away in 2004 from prostate cancer. And Tommy died from bile duct cancer in 2014. Both Dee Dee and Joey were still only in their forties when they were gone. On top of that, death was seldom far from the subjects of their songs. Take, for example, 1987’s album, Halfway To Sanity. The back-cover of the album – and the interior too – has photos of gravestones. On the final track on the album – “Worm Man” – Joey repeats, “I wish I was dead; I wish I was dead.” There is a song on the album titled “Death of Me.”
In the 1989 video for their song “Pet Sematary”, the band is lowered into a grave – which makes for eerie viewing. “I don’t want to live my life again,” sings Joey in the theme-song for the movie version of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary novel. The band even has its very own headstone in the video. Interestingly, when the group’s 1989 album Brain Drain came out (Pet Sematary and Zero Zero UFO being the only good songs on it…), Joey talked about how, during and after the filming of the video for Pet Sematary in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York Village, the band was plagued by runs of bad luck and electrical problems with their equipment. And, could there have been a more fitting title for their final (1995) album, Adios Amigos? But, does all of that mean the band was cursed? Let’s look at the facts.
In her very insightful 2015 book, Too Tough to Love, Johnny’s girlfriend in the 1970s, Cynthia “Roxy” Whitney, says that Johnny had an aversion to going to the doctor. There’s no doubt, as Johnny’s own book, Commando, makes clear, that he left it too late when he got his prostate cancer diagnosis. Had he taken steps as soon as he got the initial symptoms (not being able to piss properly) he might still be with us. Joey was blighted from birth with illness and bad health: constant foot infections, the removal of a conjoined twin, and severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. And Dee Dee had a lifelong struggle with drugs. Tommy? He was just unlucky.
A real curse? Again, it depends on your personal views on curses. I’ll leave you with what, in my view, is one of their best songs – their cover of Tom Waits’ “I don’t wanna grow up.” They didn’t grow up. They just died.