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Remembering Tommy Ramone, the Original Punk Rock Drummer

The original Ramones lineup: Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey
The original Ramones lineup: Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy and Joey
Courtesy of Sire/Warner Bros. Records

Thomas Erdelyi, better known to his friends and the world as Tommy Ramone, died at his home in Queens this past Friday. His death came from a battle with bile duct cancer, an illness that he kept relatively quiet. Tommy was best known as the original, pioneering drummer of The Ramones.

I was relaxing on my front porch when I received the news. I didn’t say anything for several minutes, just prayed it was a hoax and darted around the dark corners of the Internet searching for clues. I half-convinced myself it was a bad prank, but as I ultimately discovered, it wasn’t.

To say that Tommy and I were friends would have been a lie. Saying we were acquaintances was an overstatement that I would cling to with glee. To say that I was a fan, however, would be a drastic understatement.

And as any good fan would do, I dove head first into my Ramones records.

In a very real way, Tommy sired The Ramones. Tommy decided to move tall, skinny Joey from drums to lead vocals after hearing him sing for the first time. Tommy decided to put Dee Dee on bass. Tommy recognized the simple, pure brilliance behind “Judy Is a Punk.”


Tommy became their drummer out of necessity. He was a guitar player, but was convinced that he could make the leap. He tried a style that he thought would match theirs, playing eighth notes at breakneck speed, and accidentally created a seminal punk rock drumming technique.

He wrote with them, he lived with them; he suffered and triumphed with them. He produced some of the best records they ever made, even after he left the band.

Every screwed-up kid (if they’re lucky) finds the band that’s the one. It’s more important than any juvenile romance. The Ramones were it for me, my one true sonic love. I took them with me everywhere. I even wore my old, torn sleeves, battered Ramones T-shirt under my cap and gown at both my high school and college graduations.

A couple of years ago, I decided to track down and interview the living former members and associates of the band on my own. The coup, which I doubted could happen, was Tommy.

 

Monte Melnick, the former Ramones’ tour manager, wouldn’t give me Tommy’s contact info (respecting his old friend’s privacy), but promised that he would pitch the idea on my behalf. A week later, despite the odds and beyond my wildest dreams, we  did the interview  over the phone.

I asked him if he got to speak to Joey, Johnny or Dee Dee before they died, and how he remembered them today.

“It’s like family, ya know?” Tommy told me. “It’s an emotional thing; they’re always with me. They’re just so much a part of my life that it’s like missing a part of you, a big part of you.”

After we finished the interview, I talked to Tommy for a while longer. He was shy, but friendly and accommodating. At first, it wasn’t a fan talking to a legend. It was just two people, from very different worlds, having a conversation.

Figuring it would be my only chance, though, I went for broke. I thanked him for starting the band that made my teenage years bearable. I told him that he was very much responsible for me becoming the man I was, and that speaking with him, if only for a short time, was something that meant the world to me, and a memory I would cherish forever.

I could tell it made him a little uncomfortable. He was a modest man. I could also tell that it meant something to him, which was the greatest gift I could give or receive, as a fan. He thanked me, and politely excused himself.

I’m not sure if there has ever been a band with worse luck. The Ramones never quite achieved the fame they wanted, or that many felt they deserved. They never got universal credit for laying down the foundation for what became punk. What remains true, however, is they changed the face of rock music. They came in at a time when Elton John and Emerson, Lake and Palmer ruled the radio, and they brought rock and roll back to basics.

They were like The Beach Boys, but twice the speed, distorted and on an acid trip. They were simultaneously earnest and silly. They influenced almost every band that came after them in that genre: Blondie, Dead Boys, Bad Brains, The Replacements (with whom Tommy worked as a producer). If you’ve ever loved a punk or alternative rock song, partial credit goes to The Ramones. Metallica, Green Day, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and countless others would agree to that.

And, in a very real way, it’s all thanks to Tommy.

Tommy’s death marks the end of the original lineup, and the end of an era. I can’t think of another band of their generation that has lost every single original member. But Tommy's impact is felt the world over, and in many ways, he and the band will be immortal.

They say never meet your heroes, but I’m happy that I did.

So long, Tommy. You’ve left home, and I hope that you feel safe somewhere, flying on a ray, on the highest trails above.

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