Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee Ramone) was the Ramones’s bassist and boyfriend of the Cockettes’s Pam Tent, who connected him with others in the downtown arts scenes.
When Patti Smith began transitioning into music, she staged a series of shows playfully dubbed “Rock and Rimbaud.” On November 10, 1974—the anniversary of the death of her favorite poet, Arthur Rimbaud—the Patti Smith Group kicked off the series at the Le Jardin disco in the Hotel Diplomat. She recalled looking out in the crowd and seeing Susan Sontag and other downtown luminaries, then realizing that something was really starting to happen. Also in attendance at the Le Jardin show was Cockette Pam Tent, who was dating bassist Dee Dee Ramone. “It was so crowded with people,” Tent recalled, “and it was so hot and sweaty and filled with energy that Dee Dee and I actually had sex standing up in the crowd.” On another night of the series—this time at the Blue Hawaiian Discotheque—the Fast’s Paul Zone captured Smith’s performance with an unlikely photo that included the raggedy punk singer and a glittering disco ball in the same frame.
From Chapter 21 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Like Patti Smith, Richard Hell transitioned into rock after spending time in the underground poetry scene, where he learned a useful DIY skill set. “I had become completely acclimated to that culture of doing it yourself as a writer in the world of street poets,” he said, “so when I started doing music it felt familiar.” Hell was a bit nervous about having no previous musical experience, but Tom Verlaine assured him that the bass was an easy instrument to learn, and the two friends began rehearsing in Verlaine’s apartment. “At the same time I started working on lyrics and melodies to some guitar compositions he’d got going that he hadn’t worked up words for,” Hell recalled. “The idea was that he’d sing his lyrics and I’d sing mine, and eventually I’d write music, too. I had the name for the group: the Neon Boys.” Hell and Verlaine wanted to strip rock ’n’ roll down to its essential core, doing away with the showbiz theatricality of the glam bands and jettisoning the kind of excesses that dominated 1970s corporate rock. Looking to flesh out their lineup, they placed an ad in the Village Voice classifieds section: “Narcissistic rhythm guitarist wanted—minimal talent okay.” Blondie’s Chris Stein auditioned, but wasn’t a good fit, and Dee Dee Ramone also tried out even though he couldn’t play guitar. Hell and Verlaine never found the right musician for the Neon Boys, and in 1974 the fledgling group hooked up with guitarist Richard Lloyd, morphed into Television, and began playing regularly at CBGB.
From Chapter 30 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Cockette Pam Tent and Dee Dee Ramone were already an item when he joined the band, which provided the Ramones with a connection to the various downtown arts scenes. He got his cosmetology license and was working for the Pierre Michel Salon, but as Tent recalled, “Dee Dee wanted to be this nasty rocker around downtown. He and I had a lot of fun. Oh, my god, did we have fun. He was like a little boy and he would giggle at things. He would read comic books, but he used to drive me crazy. I came home from work once, and he let Johnny Thunders babysit my four-year-old son. He took him out on the town—Johnny Thunders, of all hare-brained people!” After the Cockettes’ disastrous New York debut in 1971, Tent resettled in the city because she was already friends with David Johansen, who had just started out with the New York Dolls. “David was a good friend and he was around,” Cockette Lendon Sadler said. “Pam had an East Coast connection to lots of people.” She performed in The Palm Casino Revue at the Bouwerie Lane Theater with people from the Cockettes, Ridiculous, and Warhol crowds, and also was a member of Savage Voodoo Nuns. That drag group also included Fayette Hauser, John Flowers, and Tomata du Plenty—all from the Cockettes—as well as Arturo Vega, who later became the Ramones’ longtime lighting designer and also created their iconic eagle logo. Tent was staying with Hauser and Flowers in a loft at 6 East Second Street, right around the corner from CBGB, and Vega lived below them. “We introduced Dee Dee to Arturo,” she said, “and after I left New York it became the Ramones hangout, that whole place.”
From Chapter 32 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
By the early 1970s, the future Joey Ramone began playing drums (using the name Jeffrey Starship) for the glam band Sniper, which performed at Mercer’s and Max’s Kansas City. Meanwhile, Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh joined a short-lived band with two future Ramones—John Cummings and Tommy Erdelyi—which practiced in the basement of his mother’s gallery, Art Garden. “We put the PA down there, so it had already been turned into a rehearsal place,” he said. “And when my brother got into the Ramones, of course they were all allowed to rehearse there as well.” Erdelyi encouraged Cummings to start a band, and was more of a manager figure during the Ramones’ early days. “Tommy’s role became increasingly more important and pivotal in an organizational and artistic way,” Leigh said. “Tommy really helped the whole thing gel and kind of helped it define itself.” For Craig Leon, who produced the band’s first album, the Ramones were like a performance art piece. “Tommy knew how to create this image of what they became,” Leon said. “He originally studied to be a film guy, and he saw things in that visual sense. Even though the Ramones were definitely rock ’n’ roll, they reminded me a lot of Warhol. The four of them had that deadpan Andy Warhol persona. They were, like, straight out of the New York art scene.” Joey Ramone started out as the band’s drummer until it became clear that he was a much better frontman, so Tommy took over on the drum stool. Joey, Johnny, and Tommy expanded to a quartet when another neighbor, Douglas Colvin (later Dee Dee Ramone), joined on bass, and by 1975 they were regularly playing at CBGB.
“At first the Ramones just had one long twenty-minute song, with different riffs running through,” said Craig Leon, who was tasked with transforming the group’s live sets into an album that was recorded at Plaza Sound, above Radio City Music Hall. “They were all written as individual songs, but they never thought about it from a recording point of view—you know, ‘How is this song gonna end?’ They’d just play and then ‘One-two-three-four,’ they’d start the new one.” Most punk histories maintain that Sire Records paid a paltry $6,400 to record Ramones, but Leon said, “We never paid the full studio rate. It was actually cheaper than $6,000.” The album cover had similarly modest origins. Sire hired a music biz pro to photograph the band, but they hated the results and instead chose an outtake from a more informal photo shoot with Punk magazine contributor Roberta Bayley. “We just went over to Arturo [Vega]’s loft and everybody was there,” Bayley recalled. “We went outside, and first we found this playground, and then did a few different setups there against that brick wall.” The Ramones likely sold more T‑shirts than records—especially in the 1970s, when mainstream listeners couldn’t decode the catchy pop songs that lurked just below the surface guitar noise. When they opened for blues-boogie arena rocker Edgar Winter, the Ramones were met with a hail of bottles and boos. “There were people who wanted to burn the Ramones records and stuff like that because they were horrible, in their opinion,” Leon said. “Ramones songs are now played at sports arenas and on commercials, so it’s hard to understand how extreme they sounded at the time.”