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Monday, May 11, 2009

A Better Drug Song Than "Heroin"

One of Dreamtime's regular correspondents, who goes by the complimentary title of "Dreamtime Fan" recently asked in the "comments" section:
"Maybe your investigative reporting could dig up the truth behind a song that I've wondered about for a while? In regards to the Classic Rock Show, there is a lot of confusion as to who really wrote Chinese Rocks. ... I would love to know the truth behind it."
I'm not sure I'm going to be telling DF anything more than s/he already knows about Chinese Rocks but here goes. I once had a friend who was connected to the movie biz who always forced me to sit through the closing credits of every movie we went to. This was before the common use of gag reels or the sort of bonus material you get these days in the credits of the theatrical release of movies like Cloverfield or Iron Man. After the second or third time of watching names scroll down a screen until the final copyright warning, I asked her, "Why are we were doing this?"

"I like to see which of my friends are making money," she answered.

A good way of knowing who's getting paid for their creative efforts is to see whether their names are on the credits. Now, that doesn't always hold true: Rum and Coca-Cola is a perfect example. However, if you go to the ASCAP and/or BMI databases, you'll see Chinese Rocks is credited to "Douglas Colvin" and "Richard Meyers," better known onstage as "Dee Dee" Ramone and Richard Hell. Chinese Rocks is the song's "official" name, although it's also known as Chinese Rock - part of the cause of controversy over its authorship, as there are several versions of Chinese Rock, while only one real Chinese Rocks.

While not a resource I normally point to as a font of accuracy, Wikipedia seems to have the facts straight on the song's creation as far as my other research indicates. Richard Hell has acknowledged that Dee Dee Ramone had the original idea, sparked by Hell boasting that he was going to write a better drug song than Lou Reed's Heroin. Wanting to one-up Hell, Dee Dee started writing Chinese Rocks. He had finished the music, one verse, and the chorus when his band, The Ramones, rejected the song. Dee Dee quoted Joey Ramone as saying Chinese Rocks was too obviously drug-related. Apparently I Wanna Be Sedated was okay in Joey's estimation, but I wasn't there to debate the topic with him.

In any case, once the Gabba-Gabba-Hey! boys had bounced Chinese Rocks, Dee went to Hell (no pun intended... much), offering the song for his band The Heartbreakers if he cared to finish it. According to Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, Hell added two more verses and Chinese Rocks was complete.

Things get a bit complicated after that. Stories differ about how Chinese Rocks got into the hands of The Heartbreakers, but it became a standard in their live shows, and the band eventually recorded it for release on their album of 19 and 77, L.A.M.F., better-known known by its acronym because of its unprintable title. The song was also released as a single, selling over 20,000 copies.

The single and the vinyl L.A.M.F. credit the song to all of The Heartbreakers - Johnny Thunders and Heartbreakers' drummer Jerry Nolan - as well as to Dee Dee Ramone and Richard Hell. However, the CD reissues of L.A.M.F. name all three Ramones, Joey and Johnny as well as Dee Dee, as the writers and leave out Richard Hell and the other Heartbreakers altogether. On their vinyl release of End of the Century, The Ramones credit Dee Dee and Richard Hell as the songwriters, but in the CD re-release, the song is again credited to The Ramones as a whole with no Hell in sight.

This is where the missing "S" comes in. Although it's obviously the same song with only slightly changed lyrics, The Ramones call their version on their albums - whether vinyl or CD - Chinese Rock.

Confused yet? Good. The question remains, "Why all the tsuris?" Money is the most obvious candidate, as it always is. With Dee Dee gone, Richard Hell is the only living person with a legitimate claim to royalty payments for Chinese Rocks/Rock, no matter who is claiming authorship on album credits. Whether he is seeing any money with all the machinations over credits and titles, I don't know. As far as the shift from Dee Dee as author to The Ramones as a whole as well as the missing "S", I suspect that both had something to do with the desire to keep the filthy lucre flowing to The Ramones rather than to any one Ramone.

Money or not, it probably also had had something to do with ego, arguments over things no one can remember now, slights - real and imagined - and pissed-off people leaving bands with other pissed-off people staying with the band and people in bands pissed-off at each other.

Johnny Thunders died in `91, with Heartbreakers drummer Jerry Nolan, the man whose lifestyle probably inspired Chinese Rocks, stepping out in 19 and 92. Dee Dee Ramone would make it to another decade, 2002, before overdosing. Thunders and Ramone would argue all the way to their respective graves about who wrote Chinese Rocks. Dee Dee had the final word, calling Thunders and the the other Heartbreakers "low-lifes" in his 2000 memoir, Lobotomy, notably without mention of Richard Hell's role in Chinese Rocks' creation.

Richard Hell, a.k.a. Richard Meyers, lives in New York City, and is the surviving co-author of Chinese Rocks, according to both BMI and ASCAP.


1 comment:

Dreamtime Fan said...

My man Fred, thanks so much!