Johnny Thunders used to say everyone in New York City claimed they wrote Chinese Rocks at one time or another. Then he took credit for writing it.
Dee Dee Ramone said the punk ode to heroin was all his own work. Richard Hell told people he was responsible for half of it. At different times Jerry Nolan, Sid Vicious, and all four members of The Ramones appeared in the songwriting credits.
Chinese Rock was the street term for heroin out of Vietnam, strong stuff that saturated New York during the punk era. The song named after it captures the sordid reality of scoring dope in the late 70s: the trip to Alphabet City, the dark hallways, money in one hand and a 007 knife in the other, a paper packet of heroin, scrambling home to lock the door and get out the works.
They’re still arguing over who wrote it.
It first appeared as track six on the 1977 debut album by Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers. A fizzing guitar track with punk energy and rock chords, shouted vocals from Thunders and Walter Lure, and lyrics that sounded like Sid Vicious trying to write poetry on Twitter.
‘The plaster’s falling off the wall,
My girlfriend’s crying in the shower stall.
It’s hot as a bitch, I should’ve been rich
But I’m just digging a Chinese ditch.‘
The sleeve credited the song to Johnny Thunders, drummer Jerry Nolan, former member Richard Hell, and Dee Dee Ramone, the bassist of groundbreaking New York punk band The Ramones. Dee Dee wasn’t happy. For one thing the opening verse named him as a junkie:
‘Somebody called me on the phone,
They said Hey, is Dee Dee home?
Do you wanna a take a walk, you wanna go cop?
You wanna go get some Chinese Rocks?‘
Dee Dee was a junkie but he didn’t want everyone knowing it. And the other reason for not liking what The Heartbreakers did with the track was simpler: Dee Dee wrote the whole song. Or at least most of it.
Douglas Glenn Colvin never stood a chance. Born to an alcoholic middle-aged US soldier stationed in Germany and his teenage bride, Colvin grew up a dysfunctional home of mental torture and physical abuse.
As a young teen he was an antisocial loner who skin popped morphine and collected Nazi memorabilia. His parents divorced and Colvin moved with his mother to New York. Forest Hills was a respectable residential neighbourhood in Queens, somewhere between blue collar and middle class.
Colvin fell in with a gang of dropouts who shared his interest in drugs, alcohol, and loud music. Construction worker John Cummings, lanky drunk Jeffrey Hyman, sawn-off recording engineer Tamás Erdélyi. The gang didn’t much like each other but hated everyone else more. In 1974 they formed The Ramones, aiming for a sound somewhere between The Stooges and The Beach Boys but getting instead a ferocious blur that kick started the punk movement.
Colvin, now calling himself Dee Dee Ramone, had trouble with coherent sentences and staying sober but to everyone’s surprise became the group’s main songwriter. Fuelled by heroin and written on a two string acoustic guitar, his songs were compressed slices of pop culture (‘Havana Affair’), NYC life (‘Rockaway Beach’), and urban hell (’53rd & 3rd’). Colvin’s influences covered everything from 60s-style love songs to his time as a rent boy feeding a drug habit.
In 1975 Dee Dee wrote a song out of pure spite. Punk rival Richard Hell of The Heartbreakers had announced that he wanted to write a song better than ‘Heroin’ by The Velvet Underground.
Dee Dee went home, dug out his acoustic, and beat Hell to it.
Richard Lester Meyers was a 26-year-old punk fashion plate with a drug problem. The ripped clothes, safety pins, and dark glasses all started with him.
He arrived in New York in the late 1960s determined to be a poet. Within a few years he married that ambition to music and formed The Neon Boys with old friend Tom Miller. The band turned into Television in 1974 and Meyers became Richard Hell, Miller morphing into Tom Verlaine.
Television were one of the proto-punk bands who inspired the scene, along with The Ramones and the glitter-meets-Rolling Stones rock of The New York Dolls. Hell’s time in the band didn’t last long. He and Verlaine fell out in early 1975 so Hell hooked up with Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan of the now-defunct New York Dolls and formed The Heartbreakers.
Thunders and Nolan were old school rockers, Hell was a beatnik poet. But they all liked heroin.
‘The junk scene was just like the sex, it was all a lark,’ said Hell. ‘I mean, it still had this ‘nice’ taint of the forbidden, yet at the same time nobody really thought of it as dangerous.’
Hell wanted to write a song about it. Dee Dee got there first.
The first version of Chinese Rocks was a killer riff, the first verse, a chorus, and two lines of the second verse. Then Dee Dee got stuck.
‘The plaster’s falling off the wall,
My girlfriend’s crying in the shower stall …’
And the inspiration dried up. So Dee Dee showed the song to Hell, partly to show off and partly to get some input. Hell admired the junkie pocket symphony and added the last two lines to the second verse and wrote a third. Dee Dee promised credit and took it to The Ramones. No dice.
‘I did play it for Johnny Ramone [John Cummings],’ said Dee Dee, ‘and he said no way y’know, we’re not doing that song. It’s about dope. I said John we sing about everything else y’know we sing about sniffing glue. And he said we don’t sniff glue any more.’
Dee Dee gave in. A little over a year later Chinese Rocks was on The Heartbreakers’ first album.
There are different stories about how it got there. Hell claimed he brought in the song; he’d written half and Dee Dee couldn’t use it now. Dee Dee claimed he played the song for Heartbreakers’ drummer Jerry Nolan, a friend and musical hero, who introduced it to his band mates. Either way, Dee Dee was okay with it.
‘I was like flattered that they did the song,’ he said, ‘and I did give it to them and I wanted them to do it. But when it came out on that record it said Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders and Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone. I said wait a minute …‘
The Reason Why
Two things went missing from The Heartbreakers in early 1976: Richard Hell and the third verse of Chinese Rocks.
Hell was never a good fit for The Heartbreakers. The avant-garde, arty, and nihilistic bassist clashed frequently with his more conventional rocker colleagues. He started getting dictatorial about who got to sing what and Thunders walked out.
‘We just followed John after the initial walkout,’ said Walter Lure. ‘Hell wasn’t a real rock ‘n’ roller – just a beatnik poet using music to get his stuff across commercially, although he did have a certain natural facility with the bass on a basic level. I guess Hell thought we’d all stay with him as he was probably a little more the flavour of the moment than John and Jerry were.’
Hell formed The Voidoids and his old band carried on without him. By the time The Heartbreakers recorded their debut album early the next year his third verse to Chinese Rocks had been dropped. It can still be heard on a Hell-era demo from a badly miked performance where half the words are inaudible. It’s probably Hell singing and the lyrics are something like:
‘When they set me [inaudible],
at first they thought my pulse was gone,
I found that I was [inaudible] die,
and Chinese Rock is the reason why.’
Sounds like it’s about an overdose. Thunders and the other junkies weren’t comfortable singing it and dropped the verse. Nolan and Thunders also gave themselves co-writer status.
I Should Have Been Rich
It was a great song and a great performance but no-one thought The Heartbreakers deserved much in the way of songwriter credit. Walter Lure occasionally changed the lyrics live for some punk outrage (‘You wanna go suck some Chinese cock?‘ ‘I’m still fucking a Chinese bitch‘) but that never made it to the studio version.
At some point the line ‘I’m still digging a Chinese ditch‘ replaced the original ‘I’m still lying in a Chinese ditch‘ but that could have been Hell tweaking his own lyrics. Even if Thunders and Nolan were responsible, one word didn’t seem to justify adding themselves to the song credits.
Dee Dee wasn’t happy. Neither were his band mates.
‘It had nothing to do with money,’ said Dee Dee, ‘it was like prestige y’know. It kind of like became prestige to do that song and The Ramones never felt it y’know.’
The track got covered a lot. Sid Vicious, who became friends with Dee Dee in New York, used to play it live. A 1985 Sid Kills NYC live bootleg credits the song to Johnny Ramone and Johnny Thunders.
The Ramones eventually recorded their own version that came out on the Phil Spector produced End of the Century in 1980. It got called ‘Chinese Rock’ (possibly Dee Dee’s original title as the Richard Hell demo also uses the singular throughout the song) and credited to all four Ramones. The opening lines change ‘Is Dee Dee home?‘ to ‘Is Artie home?‘, a reference to artist Arturo Vega who worked with the band and let Dee Dee stay at his loft until the bassist almost burned it down during a fight with his girlfriend. The Ramones also skip Hell’s third verse. The track isn’t as good as The Heartbreakers’ version.
Dee Dee always felt betrayed by Thunders but that didn’t stop them working or scoring drugs together for many years. Walter Lure even got to contribute some uncredited guitar work to a few future Ramones albums.
Johnny Thunders died of drugs when his leukaemia ravaged body couldn’t cope with the heroin. Dee Dee Ramone died of a heroin overdose in 2002. His autobiography Lobotomy gives real insight into his tortured psyche, although second drummer Marky Ramone’s Punk Rock Blitzkreig is more honest about Dee Dee’s behaviour. All the other original Ramones died of more-or-less natural causes.
Richard Hell is still alive. If there is a God, he’s a poetry lover.
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