The 10th anniversary of Dee Dee Ramone’s death was marked in Los Angeles last night with a celebration of his lesser-known visual art at Subliminal Projects, the gallery owned by famed street artist Shepard Fairey.
"It’s really great to see that dimension of Dee Dee," said Fairey, a longtime student of punk, whose office walls are covered by vintage punk-era art by the likes of Raymond Pettibon and Ed Colver. "When you look at the Ramones’ overall aesthetic – musically, their sense of humor, lyrically – you can see strands of that in Dee Dee’s work, but there’s an emotional rawness to some of the pieces of art that peel back the curtain a little further."
At the packed opening of "Dee Dee Ramone: A Memorial Exhibition," Fairey spent most of the night working as DJ, playing songs by the Ramones, David Bowie, the Kinks, Joan Jett and others. "Punk rock is the idea that you don’t have to be a virtuoso to make things that affected people," Fairey said. "There can be a rawness, but as long as you passionately deliver a powerful idea it’s going to be meaningful."
Dee Dee Ramone (born Douglas Glenn Colvin) dabbled in drawing for years, but began to paint more seriously in 1996, encouraged by artist-musician Paul Kostabi, who eventually collaborated with the Ramone on some paintings. At Subliminal Projects, the images are often dark and cartoonish, with a worldview familiar to Ramones fans. One series of self-portraits show Dee Dee grinning with black skin covered in tattoos of scorpions, crosses and skulls. Another has his head severed and soaring through the air. Also in the show are new portraits of Dee Dee by Fairey, drawing from vintage photographs by Jenny Lens.
"Dee Dee was an artist in every sense of the word – an artist who could translate in every different medium," said John Cafiero, who manages the estates of Dee Dee and Johnny Ramone, and first met the band at age 16 in New York. "He always wanted to break the mold. He never wanted to do what everybody else was doing."
The show, which will remain at the gallery until November 17th, reflects ongoing efforts to collect the scattered legacy of the Ramones bassist and songwriter, who kept busy and creative during his years after leaving the band in 1989, but gave much of his work away. Cafiero hopes to gather enough of Dee Dee’s paintings for an art book.
"He would either give it to somebody or throw it away: 'Oh, this is shit, trash,'" said his widow, Barbara Zampini, who collaborated on some paintings. Dee Dee had a couple of small art shows in his lifetime, usually at his book signings.
"He probably wouldn’t believe how much attention he’s getting because he never believed – ‘I don’t know why everybody likes me,'" said Zampini, who first met him in 1994 and married him two years later. "He didn’t understand. He was like, 'I’m just Dee Dee.'"
That was typical of the Ramones, who never achieved the mainstream pop stardom they craved before breaking up in 1997, but are arguably now as essential to the history of rock as any of their heroes.
"The last time I saw Johnny, I said 'You guys were the Beatles of my generation,'" recalled Cafiero. "I could tell he wanted to believe it, but he wasn’t really sure. And I think Dee Dee more than any of them never really felt the appreciation. Now in death, the world loves them."
Also at the opening Friday was Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, who only got to know the Ramones well long after the birth of punk in the Seventies. After Dee Dee had moved to Los Angeles in 1999, Jones remembers running into him.
"We were somewhere in Hollywood, and we were talking for half an hour, and all of a sudden I realized he had no idea who he was talking to," Jones remembered. "I thought that was the funniest thing."