All Good Cretins Go to Heaven: The End of the Ramones
Tommy Ramone was the band’s rock of strength, the pulse at the heart of the "Blitzkrieg Bop."
And then there were none.
The death of original Ramones drummer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Tommy Ramone (nee Erdelyi) at the age of 65, following treatment for cancer of the bile duct, brings to an end one of punk rock's enduring myths, and like the band's two-minutes-and-a-cloud-of-dust repertoire, it's one that leaves us all just a little earlier than expected.
That means there are no original Ramones left. Sure, there's Marky Ramone (Marc Bell), the drummer who originally replaced Tommy, and Richie Ramone (Richard Reinhardt), the drummer who sat in for Marky after he was fired for being an alcoholic. And don't forget C.J. Ramone (Christopher Joseph Ward), Linda Ramone (Johnny's widow, Linda Marie Daniele) or even Joey's brother Mitch Leigh, but as far as the founding four go, all that's left are the memories.
Joey (Jeffrey Ross Hyman) was the first to pass, dying from lymphoma in 2001 at 49; Dee Dee (Douglas Glenn Colvin) was next, from a heroin overdose in 2002 at 50; and Johnny (John William Cummings) last, from prostate cancer at 55 in 2004. They lived as they played — hard, loud, fast and short — giving their all for the time in which they were here, leaving nothing on the table but everything on that stage and in the recorded legacy they left behind.
It's hard to describe what seeing The Ramones was like back in those early days at CBGBs, often playing to a virtually empty house at the beginning, their 15-minute sets over before we could catch our breaths in the front row, popping amyl nitrates and luxuriating in that buzz-saw wall of sound that seemed to envelope the entire narrow, neon-lit club next door to a flophouse on the Bowery. Almost 40 years later, the lofts and apartments in that area now sell for upwards of $10 million.
Tommy, of course, was always a little apart from the rest, and while none of them were stupid, he was the most clever and resourceful, the one who guided their careers from the beginning behind the scenes in the most important areas. Born in Budapest as Erdelyi Tamas to Jewish parents who survived the Holocaust by being hidden by neighbors, he emigrated with his family to the States when he was four, and he grew up in Forest Hills performing alongside then-John Cummings in a mid-'60s garage band dubbed the Tangerine Puppets while still in high school. By the time he was 21, Erdelyi was working at N.Y.'s Record Plant as an assistant engineer on the Jimi Hendrix album, Band of Gypsies.
From the start, with Johnny on guitar and Dee Dee on bass, Joey was supposed to be the drummer and Erdelyi the manager. When Joey found he couldn't keep up with the band's increasingly fast tempos and was the only one who could carry a tune with that nasal Noo Yawk whine, Tommy finally had to sit down behind the drum kit because, as Dee Dee later recalled, "Nobody else wanted to."
"We started auditioning drummers, but they just couldn't grasp the concept of the band — the speed and simplicity," Erdelyi said in a 2011 interview with the website Noisecreep. "So I'd sit down and show them what we were looking for and the guys just finally said, 'Why don't you do it?' So I gave it a try and that's when the sound of the band sort of solidified."
Eredelyi's approach was deceptively effortless, not all that different from the jazzy style Charlie Watts employed with the Stones, but he never allowed the energy to flag. He didn't try to keep up, content to support the maelstrom, a solid presence who just tried to stay out of the way. He remained the group's drummer on their first three, and arguably best, albums. He served as associate producer on the groundbreaking self-titled debut, co-producing with Tony Bongiovi both Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, and with Ed Stasium Road to Ruin, returning as sole producer on the 1979 It's Alive live album. He also co-produced 1984's Too Tough to Die with Stasium.
Tommy was also the most competent, together member of the group, able to cook himself dinner and organize his life in a more functional manner, without the psychoses, neuroses and drug addiction that plagued the others. He was the one who drove the band around in his car in the early days. He was also credited as the sole writer on "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" and the majority of "Blitzkrieg Bop," playing all the guitar solos with Ed Stasium on the albums they produced since Johnny preferred to handle rhythm duties.
After leaving the Ramones, he still managed them, going on to produce the Replacements' Tim album as well as Redd Kross' Neurotica.
In latter days, he and Claudia Tienan, his partner of 40 years, performed as a bluegrass folk duo called Uncle Monk, insisting there were "a lot of similarities between punk and old-time music… Both are home-brewed as opposed to schooled, and both have an earthy energy. And anybody can pick up an instrument and start playing." He joined songwriter Chris Castle, Garth Hudson, Larry Campbell and the Womack Family Band in July 2011 at Levon Helm Studios for Castle's album, Last Bird Home.
Growing a scruffy grey beard and favoring denim and a cowboy hat rather than the black leather he once wore as a Ramone, Erdelyi's Uncle Monk released a self-titled album in 2006 on their own Airday label.
The group, for which he sang, played mandolin, guitar, banjo and dobro, combined original songs such as "Wishing at the Moon," "Home Sweet Reality" and "Emotional Needs" with bluegrass staples like "Working on a Building," while opening for the likes of Ralph Stanley.
Uncle Monk's songs, said Erdelyi, "deal with many aspects of modern existence: joys, sorrows, loves, fears, longings, desolation, revelation and exhilaration. The themes are about small town life, coming to the big city, urban gentrification, interpersonal relationships, spiritual longings, melancholy and emotional needs."
It seemed a long way from "Blitzkrieg Bop," but maybe not.
With their July 4, 1976, appearance at London's Roundhouse, The Ramones struck a bicentennial revolution in reverse, as U.K. punk bands sprouted up in their wake, and now, some 40 years later, a new generation proudly wears their T-shirts and their music can still be heard in sports stadiums and TV commercials. At the heart of that beat which spread around the world was a European emigre who stepped up to produce and manage the band and, for a short while, man their drum kit. But, unlike those Spinal Tap tubthumpers who imploded along the way, he made it out alive. Until now.