Just like fellow New York band The Velvet Underground, The Ramones’ debut album was initially met with pitiful chart success, but now resides as an LP that you couldn’t imagine the evolution of music without. The Ramones represented a singular figure in the 1970s, and they were never afraid to put their own lives on the slab.
As punk poet John Cooper Clarke describes them, unlike a lot of bands “they knew it was better to say clever things about stupid subjects” and not the prominent nuclear reversal. The album might have only shifted around 5,000 copies in its first year, but since then its made one hell of an impact and turned the Ramones into legends.
Everything about their debut record is now iconic; the cover image, taken by punks foremost photographer Roberta Bayley for only $125; the trashy sound recorded in seven days on a meagre budget of $6,400; even the snarling quickfire songwriting. Everything about the record seems quintessentially punk too.
However, hidden amongst this punk rock paradigm, shrouded in poppy melody and upbeat stylings, is surely one of the saddest songs in popular music history, at least from a backstory point of view. We’re talking about the quartet’s song ’53rd and 3rd’.
When the lyrics of ’53rd and 3rd’ are dissected, it quickly becomes clear that the song is a tragic dirge dressed in rather more glitzy clothing. The song details an unfortunate chapter in Dee Dee’s life when he worked as a sex worker and was always picked last on his particular corner. It is a tragic detail that summons sad connotations of being picked last for football only far, far, worse.
The lyrics that reveal this tragedy, and provide a spotlight on Dee Dee’s mishaps are snarled out in trademark style: “Fifty-third and third standing on the street /Fifty-third and third I’m tryin’ to turn a trick / Fifty-third and third you’re the one they never pick / Fifty-third and third don’t it make you feel sick?”
Behind the dark song is an even darker situation. Dee Dee Ramone, real name Douglas Glenn Colvin, struggled with heroin addiction throughout his life, which, among many other things, is an expensive habit and one which, prior to the band going global, he struggled to afford. During this rather more depraved period — in New York’s history as much as the bands — Dee Dee would resort to desperate measures to try and generate the cash. However, as the song details, even this wasn’t always the most fruitful.
As music biographer, Legs McNeil once wrote, “Dee Dee was the archetypical fuck-up whose life was a living disaster. He was a male prostitute, a would-be mugger, a heroin user and dealer, [and] an accomplice to armed robbery.” In the ever-present duality of music, he also happened to be a tremendous street-poet like some crazed kaleidoscopic version of Baudelaire, a brilliant bassist and a prototypical rock mutant personified.
All of these characteristic, including the divisive duality, are detectable in ’53rd and 3rd’ a song about just that, fuck-ups and depravity and music’s exultant power to drag someone out of that mire both literally and spiritually.
Just as John Cooper Clarke stated about their ‘against the grain’ songwriting, The Ramones also seemed to be drug addicts who got caught up in rock music and not the more typical reverse.