About the Author
Born Marc Bell, Marky Ramone, a Brooklyn native, joined the Ramones in 1978. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 along with Johnny, Joe, Dee Dee, and Tommy, and has received both a Grammy and an MTV Lifetime Achievement Award. Visit him online at MarkyRamone.com to keep up with all the latest.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Punk Rock Blitzkrieg 1
THE BEAT OF A DIFFERENT DRUM
My father’s father, Peter Bell, came to America from Holland in 1920 along with my grandmother. My father was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on August 11, 1931, and christened Peter, after my grandfather. My grandfather was a chef at the Copacabana for ten years before becoming the head chef at the “21” Club. The Copa, as it was known, was located on East Sixtieth Street in Manhattan and was owned by mob boss Frank Costello. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin made their debuts there. If you were a singer, bandleader, or comedian in the forties and fifties and made it to the Copa, you had made it, period.
My grandfather worked at “21” for eighteen years, right through its heyday. Established during Prohibition and located on West Fifty-Second Street in Manhattan, you could always spot the place thanks to all the painted statues of jockeys above the front entrance. Everyone who was anyone ate at “21.” My grandfather got to meet and hang out with stars including Humphrey Bogart, Jackie Gleason, and Judy Garland. These weren’t just a bunch of tall tales—my grandfather had the pictures to prove it! Whenever we visited my grandparents’ house, I would just stare at those photographs in awe that my grandfather actually knew the same people I saw on TV and in the movies.
In 1944, my father and his parents moved from Hoboken to Brooklyn. My dad went to PS 217 elementary school on Coney Island Avenue, and that’s where he met my mother. My mother’s maiden name was Gertrude Joest. Most people called her Trudy. Her mother, Johanna, was French, and her father, Julius, was German. They immigrated to America in 1923 and settled in Willoughby, Ohio. My mother was born on September 10, 1931, in her parents’ home. Julius was an electrical engineer, and the family was middle class, but most babies at the time were still delivered by a midwife instead of in a hospital.
When my mom was only two years old, her mother died. A few years later, Fredrick, my mom’s older brother, died of pneumonia at the age of ten. Little Trudy and her dad moved to Cleveland for a few years before relocating to Brooklyn, New York. They lived on Ocean Parkway for a couple of years, and then moved to a four-story brick apartment building at 640 Ditmas Avenue, a few blocks south of Prospect Park. It was a solid working-class neighborhood made up mostly of modest private homes.
Mom and Dad were friends for quite a few years before they started dating when they were around eighteen. About a year later, on December 15, 1950, they got married at city hall in Lower Manhattan. On July 15, 1952, my twin brother, Fred, and I were born at New York Infirmary Hospital.
Our family lived with my grandfather Julius in a three-story brick walk-up, off the corner of President Street and Rogers Avenue in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. The buildings were all attached, usually with a little store on the ground floor and a separate stairway to the apartments above. Fred and I shared a room with bunk beds, which was fine with us because we got along really well.
My father was a card-carrying longshoreman, and my mother worked as a secretary. They sent Fred and me to a racially integrated nursery school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood just to the north. In the mid-fifties, most neighborhoods were segregated, but Fred and I were happy to be with kids from different cultures and made friends right away.
One strange thing about our nursery school was the school bus. We didn’t have one. What we had was a Cadillac hearse converted into a kind of station wagon minibus. It was big and black and came rolling up to the school like there was a funeral to attend. When the kids saw the hearse coming up the block, we would all run to try to get into the backseat first. It was roomy and padded back there, and it was cool to think this same compartment was once used for dead bodies. I loved riding with the window down. We all loved looking out the back window and making weird faces at the cars behind us.
The only thing I really didn’t like about nursery school was when they put us all down for naps in the middle of the day. I thought it was weird the way they set us all up on little floor mats and turned the lights out. There was plenty of daylight still coming in through the windows. I knew I was supposed to be quiet like everyone else, but it was hard. I knew there was no way I was going to fall asleep, so the best I could do was lie there with my eyes closed.
I daydreamed about doing anything else but taking a nap. There were toys put away on shelves all around the room—wooden blocks, a Slinky, Play-Doh, Mr. Potato Head, a Lionel train set—and they were begging to be played with. After our nap, the teachers let us play a little rough, especially outdoors where we could just run around in the yard and make up our own games. To me, lying down on that mat and faking a nap was just a big waste.
In 1957, Fred and I turned five, and we moved along with Grandpa Julius back to the four-story building at 640 Ditmas Avenue, where my mother had lived when she was little. The bunk beds moved with us, so I still had to share a room with Fred. That was fine, because we still got along.
Dad and Grandpa Julius put their mechanical skills to work for Fred and me by helping us build a huge electric train set, which we played with for many hours. Dad also got us started building plastic models of cars, airplanes, and battleships. Fred loved making models of the Universal Studios monsters—the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He painted them almost lifelike.
All the models required Testors glue, which had a very powerful smell that hit you sharply way up your nostrils. The smell was so bad it was good, and we got a little buzzed from it. That was the bonus of building models.
There were no more naps once we got to elementary school. PS 217 was the same place our parents first met. Mom packed our lunch boxes. We got to play in the schoolyard at lunchtime. I got along with the other kids for the most part but got into a fight here and there. One time some kid in the bathroom accused me of stealing his grape juice. Why the hell would I want some kid’s grape juice? So we got into it right then and there by the urinal until one of the male teachers burst in and broke it up. It was just kids’ stuff.
When Fred and I got home, our grandfather Julius watched us until Mom and Dad got back from work. The deal was we would usually get our homework out of the way before we played. If the weather was bad, we would watch reruns of The Three Stooges Show, Abbott and Costello, or Adventures of Superman. The Three Stooges Show was probably my favorite because they were out of their minds with the slaps, hits, and smacks, but at the same time they were a unit—a team. It was like three times as much comedy packed into a half hour as anybody else.
Most days, I’d be waiting outside our apartment building for my father to come home from work. When I saw my dad, I’d run toward him to give him a big hug. I really looked up to my father. He was very relaxed about most things but firm when he had to be. My dad was six-foot-two-and-a-half, 230 pounds, and wore the thick, black-rimmed glasses that were popular at the time. He reminded me of Clark Kent. My mother looked like an actress. She was outspoken, and she was tough when she had to be. But my parents seemed to have a great relationship. I don’t think I ever heard them argue, even once. If they did, it was never in front of us.
When the weather was decent, Fred and I would usually play punch-ball or stickball with our friends from the neighborhood. Stickball was basically street baseball using a broom handle. When that got boring, we moved on to more exciting things like climbing fire escapes or sneaking into boiler rooms. We got into fights with kids from other blocks in the neighborhood, usually because someone was on someone else’s turf. We were just your average kids from Brooklyn.
On one particularly boring day, a friend had a cool idea to take a bunch of pillows and blankets, tie them together, and make a human dummy. We did a pretty good job considering we weren’t pros. We carried the dummy up to the roof of our building and waited for a passerby.
Timing was everything. When someone was walking along the sidewalk about fifty feet away from our target, we would toss the dummy over the parapet wall and scream at the top of our lungs like someone jumped. It worked. When you had less than a second to look up and figure out what was happening, it really looked like a falling body. People flipped out.
One time we nailed a young couple carrying grocery bags. As the dummy plummeted to his “death,” the man and the woman both dropped their bags, and the groceries rolled all over the sidewalk and the street. Up on the roof we laughed so hard our eyes watered and our stomachs hurt. It was one of those laughs where you weren’t sure you were going to be able to breathe ever again. If it wasn’t for the parapet wall, I think we might have rolled off the roof and wound up like the dummy.
The dummy always lived to see another day, and we kept getting better at throwing him. One time we threw him way out to the middle of Ditmas Avenue in front of an oncoming ’55 Plymouth. The driver hit the brakes hard and skidded just short of running over the dummy’s head. The problem was that the driver and the passenger both hit their own heads on the dashboard. The other problem was the size of the driver. He was huge. And he was pissed off. He stepped out of the car, looked up, and spotted us up on the roof. It didn’t help that we were laughing, but we stopped laughing when he shouted he was coming up there to throw us into the street next.
We disappeared fast onto the rear fire escape, down the building stairway, anywhere to safety like a bunch of roaches scattering when the light comes on. There were places to hide in the basement. I came out when I figured it was safe. Whenever I thought about the stuff we did, I told myself that if you were a kid living in Brooklyn, getting in trouble was your job. Eventually the dummy got kind of beat-up and the prank got old, so we moved on to other things.
I had a friend named Joel who lived in the building. He was a chubby kid. We hung out all the time, and Joel would do whatever the rest of us were doing. There was an empty lot close to our building where a bunch of us kids would go to have rock fights. One time I hit Joel with a rock and blood squirted out of his head like a fire hydrant. It was like a scene from a horror movie. One of the kids knew enough to apply pressure to the wound and stop the gusher. Amazingly, Joel didn’t need stitches.
Another time Joel and I were in a neighbor’s yard trying to squeeze between two one-car garages to get to another yard, but Joel’s big belly got stuck and he started to cry. I wanted to help him, but I was laughing so hard I was pretty useless. As I stopped laughing, I told him maybe we’d have to get a crane and fish him out. Or maybe we’d have to demolish one of the garages. Or maybe he would just have to lose some weight. Finally, I got him to stop crying and relax a little, and we wriggled him out. The next day, he told me his mother wouldn’t let him play with me anymore.
Not long after that, I was playing in my room with a kid named Robert, who I really didn’t like that much. We were darting and jumping around the room and throwing whatever we could get our hands on. At one point I was on the top bunk and grabbed an old wooden milk crate off a shelf. I tossed it down to Robert, who tried to catch it and missed. One of the metal edges on the box caught him in the head.
Blood was everywhere. It was like the sequel to the horror movie with Joel—this time indoors with blood shooting all over the blankets and the walls. A few days later, I ran into Robert with a Band-Aid on his forehead, and he told me he wasn’t allowed to play with me anymore. This became a pattern in my neighborhood. Ten years old and I had a reputation. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t deserved. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I was just out to have some fun.
PS 217 was strict. In the morning we had to line up in the schoolyard and march into the building, grade by grade, like an army. Boys were required to wear a tie, a button-down shirt, and a sport jacket. For girls, the dress code was a skirt with dress shoes. The girls wound up looking like miniature versions of their mothers. Sneakers were forbidden for boys or girls except in gym.
In the classroom, seating was in size order with the short kids at the front and the tall kids in the back. The desks were made of old dark wood that looked like it had been there from the day the school was built or maybe before. To get into your seat, you had to flip the desktop. There was a groove at the top for pens and pencils, and an inkwell with a brass lid. There were so many names carved into the desk that there were names carved over older names. Maybe if I looked hard enough, I could find Mom’s and Dad’s.
Every day started with us standing, placing our right hands over our hearts, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Once we sat down and started the lesson, we were expected to remain silent unless called upon. If anyone made a sound or caused any disruption, they’d be punished. That usually meant standing in the corner and facing the wall. I had the corner memorized—the little crack, the missing paint chips. Usually the teacher would also call your parents and let them know you had behaved badly.
Once every week or two, a loud bell would ring, and we would do an emergency drill in case an atomic bomb was dropped. A few years earlier, the Soviet Union had developed its own atomic weapons, so we were expected to live on high alert. The drill was called “duck and cover.” There was even a goofy civil defense movie by the same name. The teachers marched us all into the auditorium and made us watch Bert the Turtle show us how to survive a nuclear holocaust. There were kids in the movie about our age, dressed neatly like us, who saw a flash of light in the sky. Instead of freaking out, they all calmly crawled under their desks, knelt down, and covered the backs of their heads and necks with their hands and shirt collars.
It was hard not to laugh. Like squatting under a table was going to do anything in a massive atomic blast. But we did what they did, because what we were afraid of was not getting fried by a radioactive shock wave but getting sent to the corner to look at the wall. If we ever did see a flash of light in the sky and knew what was coming, I doubt we would have been quiet or gotten under the desks. I mean, this was Brooklyn.
From the late fifties into the early sixties, things were pretty stable from year to year. That included our school, which stayed just about the same. The only thing that was changing was my attitude, which was getting more negative every semester. I was a hyper kid to begin with, so I had a really hard time sitting still. I’d bang on the desk, melt crayons on the radiator, and constantly disrupt the class. I was fidgety. I had a hard time paying attention, and my mind would drift off. The teachers called my parents in so often that it got to be a drill—as stupid as duck and cover.
My father would sit me down and try to talk to me about my behavior. He’d explain how important education was and ...
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