“I’m gonna jam this thing down your throat so that you’re not going to be able to breathe with your mouth open.”
The speaker is Richie Ramone and, just so there’s no misunderstanding, he is discussing the West Side Story drum solo that he’ll perform this weekend with the Pasadena Pops. A big man who moves with a big man’s confidence, Richie speaks in the husky growl of the Jersey boy he still is — there are few exclamation points at the end of his sentences and even fewer question marks.
Perhaps the least-known of the Ramones (he penned “Someone Put Something in My Drink”), Richie joined the ur-punk group in 1983, replacing drummer Marky, then left in 1987 in a fight over finances and respect. The collaboration between punk and pops might seem a discordant juxtaposition, especially given this weekend’s outdoor venue — La Cañada–Flintridge’s Descanso Gardens, that rustic suburban refuge whose loudest nighttime racket comes from crickets. But the common ground is West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein’s iconic urban opera that exploded on Broadway in 1957 prophesying that “the air is humming and something great is coming.” Today, thanks mostly to its film version, West Side Story is as much a part of the American pop subconscious as Muzak.
Richie hadn’t seen the movie when, as Richard Reinhardt, he first encountered the score on a high school friend’s stereo. What he heard wasn’t the Broadway or Hollywood cast album, however, but Buddy Rich’s famous big-band arrangement, West Side Story Medley. He was instantly hooked.
“This music is really tough at times, a little dark,” Richie says. “It’s about violence, stabbing. It’s not a cheery thing — I don’t like that kind of smiley stuff. I won’t play it.”
He was also moved by what Rich had done with it, and for him the experience confirmed the primacy of percussion.
“I’ve been drumming since I was 4 years old,” he says. “The drummer is the ultimate driver of an orchestra — I don’t care what anyone says.”
Not surprisingly, when Richie eventually did see the movie version, it wasn’t the Romeo and Juliet narrative of Arthur Laurents’ book that grabbed him, but the story’s seething rebelliousness.
“The film was a total connection,” he recalls. “Coming from my background of hanging out on the street with kids in Passaic, that’s what I did, and I understood it.”
The Reinhardts moved around a lot. His father had a successful landscaping business, but Richie felt suffocated in his family’s strict household.
“They wanted to send me to West Point,” he continues in his heavy Jersey accent, coming as close to laughing as he can. “One of those schools where they want to send you away to become a better kid.”
Instead, Richie left home when he was 17.
“I threw my jewelry at my mother and left,” he remembers. “At that time we all wore onyx and turquoise and ivory.”
He crossed the Hudson and on to the tail end of the Max’s Kansas City scene, where no one wore turquoise. He spent the next half dozen or so years drumming in small bands before landing in the Ramones.
For the last 15 years, Richie Ramone has worked in corporate hotel management.
“I’m not into being a 50-year-old uncle playing rock,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Instead, for roughly the past year, he devised his own West Side Story medley, called Suite for Drums and Orchestra, that distills several of the musical’s motifs into one 17-minute drum-dominated performance. Working with an electronic drum kit using ProTools software, Richie developed an early arrangement in a room of the North Hollywood apartment he shares with his wife, the writer Annette Stark. Then he began researching possible venues.
“Here’s what you need to know about orchestras,” he says today. “They don’t want to take a chance. Especially on an old punk who might show up drunk and puke on the stage.”
But then he discovered Rachael Worby, the innovative director of the Pasadena Pops, which is currently winding down its last season before merging with the Pasadena Symphony — an economic move that has triggered controversy and a lawsuit from Los Angeles’ Musicians Union Local 47. Worby, whom Richie describes as “a real Leonard Bernstein freak,” liked what she heard.
“I immediately put him on to Ron Abel,” she recalls, “with whom he worked very closely. I suspect the live version will be very exciting.”
Together, Richie and Abel, who is a professional composer and arranger, produced a 250-page score of 600 bars. For this week’s performance, Abel will play grand piano, which, Richie says, makes the piece “more clubby and [gives it] less of a traditional orchestra feel. [Ron] comes from more of a Broadway background. I’d bring my electronic drums to his place and we’d work on it. I told him it needs to be tough and fast.”
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Richie Ramone’s suite features him as the Pops’ drum soloist and will close a very eclectic two-and-a-half-hour evening, called “76 Trombones.” The evening is dedicated to the year 1957 and, ironically, will feature a tribute medley to that year’s other big musical, The Music Man. 1957 was also the year Humphrey Bogart died, and so the Pops evening will have music from Max Steiner’s score for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, along with Franz Waxman’s music for 1957’s Peyton Place, some Lennon-McCartney tunes celebrating the 50-year anniversary of their first meeting, along with Finlandia, marking Jean Sibelius’ 1957 death, and a reading from Dr. Seuss’ 50-year-old The Cat in the Hat. Not to mention that this month Richie Ramone turns 50 — call it his own End of the Half-Century.
Richie Ramone hopes the Descanso Garden gig will be the first of many and is trying to book other venues for an expanded version of his work, along with a new suite tentatively called Ramones Meet Bond. For now, though, he’s hoping for the best this weekend.
“The percentage of punks we get will be very exciting,” he says. “Maybe they’ll rush the stage, stomping over people’s blankets. I’ll tell you at 10 to 10.”
Richie Ramone, Suite for Drums and Orchestra, part of “76 Trombones,” Pasadena Pops Orchestra at Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada–Flintridge; Fri.-Sat., Aug. 17-18, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 19, 7 p.m.; $20-$85. (626) 792-7677, Ext. 217.