FEATURE: The man behind Joey Ramone’s hair

Joey Ramone, the front man of the iconic East Village punk band the Ramones, took his hair very seriously.

For 17 years, until his death in 2001, Ramone relied on a sprightly East Villager named Hugh Mack Dill to transform his unruly mane of curly black hair into, well, an unruly mane of curly black hair.

Dill, known to his friends as Huck, has been cutting hair for 34 years. Now 55, the Paul Mitchell-trained stylist met Ramone while he was cutting hair at the now defunct Village VIP on Third Ave. and E. 10th St.

Ramone’s mother, Charlotte Lesher, recommended Dill — her own hairdresser at the time — to her rock star son.

“If he likes it, he’ll be with you for life,” she told the fledgling stylist, according to Dill.
And like it he did. Dill, a native of Scranton and Wilksbury, Penn., who moved cutsto New York in 1979 with his own aspirations of a career in show biz found himself washing and blow-drying Ramone’s hair backstage on David Letterman and whisked away with the punk band and their entourage on star-studded European tours where he brushed shoulders with Keith Richards and partied with Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes.

“It was a lot of fun,” he demurred, during an interview at a deli in Midtown near his current studio, Jean-Claude Biguine on W. 45th St.

“Hugh [Dill] loved being a part of that whole gestalt, the whole backstage show thing and getting Joey [Ramone] ready. He knew what Joey wanted and he was good for him,” Ramone’s mother, Lesher, said in a telephone interview. Ramone and his mother lived in the same E. Ninth St. apartment building, around the corner from Village VIP, at the time.

Ramone did not perfect the overgrown, shaggy dog look on his own, Dill says. “It was long and straight, I thought it should be more rock n’ roll,” the stylist
97f7bd8868f4d1973f5019219e841033said of his first encounter with Ramone. He chopped the rock star a fringe of heavy bangs and layered his black locks, bringing out the curls. Voila, punk rock!

Ramone’s mother, however, disagrees about who crafted her son’s quintessential look. “Joey more or less told Hughey what he wanted and you could not cut too much hair. He liked his hair long and Hughey understood him,” Lesher explained. “Hugh cut Joe’s hair the way Joe wanted it and perhaps that created the kind of look that kept Joey coming back.”

Regardless of who created the ragged look, Lesher agrees with Dill about the relationship that followed: “It was a happy union between the two of them, they became good friends,” she said.

The union was so chummy that Ramone gave Dill a nod in the acknowledgements page of the band’s album “Mondo Bizarro.” (“I was part of history,” Dill said.)

When the corner of Bowery and E. Second St. was officially renamed Joey Ramone Pl. in 2003, Dill gave a speech for his late client. He did the same for him two years earlier at a memorial service for the singer at CBGB, shortly after Ramone succumbed to cancer in 2001.

“I never knew he was sick,” he said. “He kept it to himself.”

Dill, a St. Mark’s Pl. resident since 1987, is not the sort of fellow one would imagine carousing with rock stars. A petite wisp of man, with an oval face, eNxlUwire-framed glasses and large ears that are as enthusiastic as his personality, he gushes about his life and the people who have touched it. “You must mention my grandmother Mae McCarthy!” he gushed. (She gave him his nickname, “Huck.”) He said the same about his Aunt Mary Jule McCarthy, whom he described as the “Mary Poppins of the entire world.”

Donning a black “Hairspray” baseball cap (he ushered at the Broadway performance), Dill gets easily choked up retelling his own trials and travails in show business. “I’ve struggled so much in my life,” he said, clutching his chest.

Dill attempted his own career in the theater in part to fulfill a promise he made to his mother, Mary Jean McCarthy Dill, a thespian at Dill’s hometown playhouse. She died of cancer when Dill was 16. “I want to make it because she never had the chance,” he said tearfully.

“If you could hear the singing voice that comes out of that little fellow, you would never believe it,” said longtime client and fellow actress Paula Martin. “He has a Broadway show musical voice.”

enhanced-9248-1409094958-25Mostly, however, Dill has made his mark cutting hair for the stage. “I’ve been touched by God. He touched me on the shoulders and said, ‘You are going to be a great hairdresser,’” he explained.

He cut Gaylen Ross’s hair on the set of the original “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 and also appeared in the film as one of the zombies. He did not cut his own
hair for the role, however. In addition to cutting hair for the 2003 Tony Awards and “Picnic” at the Roundabout Theater, he has cut his fair share of musical hair. He cut the musician Michael McDonald’s hair and in keeping with the Ramones spirit, Dill began cutting fellow Ramone band member Marky Ramone’s hair recently — and his wife’s hair, too.

Cutting hair, Dill says, may not be a life in the spotlight, but it has its perks. “If I never make it in showbiz, at least I have this,” he said of Joey Ramone’s hair. “I don’t want to go through life and not mean anything.”

WRITTEN by RONDA KAYSEN for downtownexpress.com (July 2005)