Elder and Grandma Ramone


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With Dee Dee Ramone's Grandma in Berlin, 1991, Photo by Chuck Ames

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Here’s my brush with fame as a Mormon missionary in East Germany…

So it’s the winter of 1991 and I’m looking for an apartment in this nasty old high-rise in East Berlin with Chuck Ames, a former childhood buddy who just happened to be serving in the same place. The Wall had come down almost two years earlier, but East Berlin still looked as decrepit as it had been under the communist regime. I’m guessing the apartment building had originally been painted one color or another, but like every other building on the block, its façade was coated in drab, gray soot from the thousands of coal-fired furnaces across the city. I only had a few engineering classes under my belt at the time, but I knew enough about shoddy reinforcement to realize that any seismic activity would level the entire concrete structure in a heartbeat.

We stomped our boots in the entryway, and the sound echoed through the noisy corridors and stairwells. The interior was bleak and dimly lit, but it sure beat the damp chill outside. I checked my address book for the apartment number. Vacant apartments were definitely rare at the time – although many of the building’s younger residents had split for the west, the previous tenants were now being replaced by new immigrants from Poland, the Balkans, and elsewhere in the disintegrating East Bloc.

Most of the elderly German residents, on the other hand, had stayed put – feeling it was too late for them to pursue new opportunities elsewhere. A couple of the old-timers were checking their mailboxes in the entryway. I overheard their complaints about this new onslaught of foreign languages, strange aromas from foreign dishes, turbans and burqas, and other unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells – from their comments I gathered that these particularly hardened Germans were nostalgic to have their tightly controlled borders back. The newly arriving immigrants sure made them nervous, but none so much as two white guys in suits. They immediately fell silent when they noticed us.

In days past, the only people who had dressed in suits and traveled in pairs were agents of the now defunct Staatssicherheitsdienst – East Germany’s secret police. I wondered if these old pensioners, who were a bit out of touch with the rapidly changing political scene, had mistaken us for Stasi agents.

I found the apartment number, and we started making our way down a dark corridor. An elderly lady approached us from the other direction, but in typical fashion she scurried past us, trying hard to avoid eye contact. I decided to introduce myself, so she’d realize we were harmless.

“We’re from America,” I said, “We’ll be moving in here.”

She turned and looked at me with suspicious bewilderment, squinting to try and read my nametag.

“What?” she asked.

Apparently she was nearsighted, farsighted, and hard of hearing. I gave it another shot, trying to be as loud, clear, and succinct as possible.

“We’re Mormons!” I said.

“Oh, you’re the Ramones!” she replied, instantly lighting up and dropping her guard, “Well, why didn’t you say so?”

Now in German you pronounce Mormon by stressing the second syllable with a long “o”, as in “moan,” so I could understand why she misunderstood me. What I couldn’t understand was why the Ramones would mean anything to an old East Berliner. I knew they had a huge fan base, but come on!

“Well this is just wonderful,” she said, digging through her purse for her apartment key, “Follow me and we’ll catch up.”

As we followed her to her door, I gave Chuck a brief, puzzled look – which was instantly reciprocated.

“Come on in!” she said in a welcoming, friendly tone.

Sure enough, her humble little box of an apartment was fully adorned in Ramones regalia. And right in the middle of the oversize posters on her wall was a framed picture of her holding a bass guitar. At her side, with his arm around her, was Dee Dee Ramone, a founding member of the band.

“Boy was that guitar heavy,” she remarked, “I don’t know how he jumps around with it on stage!”

“Did you see their concert here?” I asked, having seen Ramones posters plastered all over Berlin for a show they had done a few months earlier.

“Oh no,” she answered, “This was taken in New York - my Douglas flew me all the way to America for a show there.”

“Douglas?" I asked.

"Yes, Douglas Colvin," she answered, "Or do you call him Dee Dee like his fans? I always thought that was a funny nickname!"

I was still confused, but I just nodded and made my way to the next pictures on the wall.

"He takes good care of his grandma," she added with pride, "I got to stay with him in his apartment the whole week.”

Suddenly it all made perfect sense: this was Dee Dee's grandma, and she thought we were part of the band - maybe dropping by to invite her to our next show! I wasn't quite sure how to let her down, but in the meantime I was cracking up with the thought of Dee Dee trying to entertain his grandma between shows for a week in New York. Going straight from East Berlin to a backstage Ramones party in New York must have been quite a shock to her, but she didn’t seem a bit phased.

I have to admit, as Ramones fans, Chuck and I were wondering whether we should play along in an attempt to land some concert tickets or autographed memorabilia from the meeting. I, for one, was even wondering how we might manipulate this poor old lady into arranging an introduction to the real band. Perhaps I was even blinded by some brief, grand delusions of converting the Ramones to Mormonism! What a story that would make - we'd be the rock stars of the mission for sure! With band members quitting left and right, maybe they'd be looking for some replacement Ramones. With four power chords and a capo, Chuck and I could already play along to most of their songs, so who better to fill in than the two of us? While we were still in uniform, I guess we'd both have to call ourselves Elder Ramone, but we could seamlessly fit that into our new Mormones logo!

Well, the logo hasn't made it onto any T-shirts yet, and the delusions turned out to be just that. And in the end that night, we did just give in and try to clarify what we were really doing in Germany. I'm not sure whether the explanation ever sank in for Grandma Ramone, and the only thing we took home with us was a story we could wear out time and again in retelling. But once we got back to our apartment, I sat down and wrote my own grandma a letter. And to this day, whenever I hear a Ramones song I think about how long it's been since I called my grandma. So I guess if there's a moral to the story, it's this: if Dee Dee can do it, so can you! If you hear a Ramones song on the radio or see some naive kid walking down the street in a Ramones T-shirt, instead of thinking "You were still in diapers last time the Ramones toured," go home and write your grandma a letter! To quote Dee Dee's own lyrics: "Hurry hurry hurry, before you go insane!"

By the way, for the rest of my mission, just for kicks when we’d knock on doors, sometimes I’d say, “hi, I’m Elder Ramone and this is Elder Ramone..." No one ever got it, though.

I did always wanted to add, "We’d like to share with you a message of sedation. Do you wanna be sedated?" Probably wouldn't have gone over so well either...guess it's a good thing it doesn't translate into German...

Anyway, next time you hear the Ramones, think of Dee Dee and go call your grandma, your grandpa, your mom, your dad, your kids, whomever you love...Hey, ho, let's go!


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Well that's the story of my indirect brush with Dee Dee which, incidentally, gives me a Bacon Number of four - with none other than Rob Zombie providing the bridge between Dee Dee and Kevin Bacon. I didn't realize it at the time, but when we ran into his grandma he had already split from the band and was making what arguably remains to this day the absolute worst rap album of all time. Perhaps for that he deserves to be forever stuck upside down at the bottom of the Ramones logo, but to his credit he was the most prolific songwriter of the bunch, and I understand he was even the one who came up with the band's name in the first place.

I really did hope to meet him one day, if for no other reason than to tell him the story of how we ran into his grandma. So I was particularly saddened, if not surprised, when I heard back in 2002 that he had done himself in with the help of a heroin overdose.

Born to Die in Berlin, which would turn out to be the final song on the final Ramones' album, features Dee Dee singing in German on the bridge of the song. Given his battle with drugs and other vices, the lyrics are understandably harsh, but the song makes me think of this sweet old German lady, without whom the Ramones would never have been a band...nor would hundreds of other groups we take for granted today. Even U2 wouldn't be around since they allegedly got their first break by stealing a couple of Ramones songs for themselves. Countless other stars likewise claim the Ramones as their inspiration. Now maybe a guy who spent his teenage years pimping himself out for drug money and ultimately followed that path to an untimely death doesn't seem like a role model I'd want my kids to emulate, but I do believe there's something to learn from everyone. In Dee Dee's case, I think it's good to know that even rock stars don't forget their grandmas!

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A few links and random Ramones trivia bits:

  •  The Ramones were all big fans of 60's British Invasion rock and roll (Beatles, Who, Kinks, etc.). Paul McCartney's brother was in a band called Scaffold. To give himself an original identity he called himself Mike McGear. When big bro Paul would appear on Scaffold records he would call himself "Paul Ramone." Paul started using that surname to check himself into hotels anonymously. Being big fans, the Ramones' name is a nod to Macca himself. [Source: "From The Velvets To The Voidoids- PrePunk History For A Post Punk World" by Clinton Heylin.]

  •  Metallica were being filmed practicing one of Dee Dee's songs when they found out he died. Here's the video

  •  At the risk of killing any hint of humor with too much explanation, Mormon missionaries give up their first names and address each other as "Elder so-and-so" for two years. Since band members adopted a common surname to join the Ramones, put them together and you get Elder Ramone. Not sure how the Ramones would feel about the copyright violations, but I'll bet these P-Day T-Shirts would sell better than Mr. Mac's suits in the MTC!

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