Tommy Ramone, Mysterious Heart of the Ramones, Remembered by Robert Christgau

12:41 PM PST 07/14/2014 by Robert Christgau
REX USA/Ian Dickson

The Dean of American Rock Critics holds forth on the death of the last Ramone.

They were among other things our symbolic eternal teenagers.

It's shocking that all four original Ramones are now dead — but it's also shocking that only one member of this archetypal rock band suffered rock's archetypal death by excess. Dee Dee OD'd, but it was cancer that took singer Joey and guitarist Johnny, now joined by drummer Tommy on July 11. In Tommy's case, the cause was bile duct cancer, which first surfaced in March 2013 and forced him to cancel his Acoustic Anarchy tour with former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock.

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Officially, Tommy was a Ramone for four years and three classic albums, from 1974 to 1978. He was the band's first manager. But he was also the mysterious one, because the three years shaved off his age — born Erdélyi Tamás in Budapest on January 29, 1949, he long claimed 1952 — made his biography harder to synch up. Could he really have helped engineer Jimi Hendrix's Band of Gypsys when he was only 18?

Probably he couldn't have. But at 21 he did, and then stuck with the music business — when the Ramones cut their first demo, he was out doing sound for folkie Buzzy Linhart. Soon, however, he focused all his attentions on the band. He was the old hand. Only Tommy would have explained how the Ramones "used block chording as a melodic device." What guitar "solos" there were on those first three albums, Tommy shared with his co-producer, Craig Leon — Johnny was a peerless rhythm player,  but, as Tommy observed, "speed was his virtuosity." Although Tommy may have faded from view, becoming the least vivid of the four Queens weirdos who invented punk rock, it was he who conceptualized them most clearly.

The linchpin moment came when Dee Dee proved too intense a vocalist to sustain a set and was replaced by cymbal-bashing drummer Joey. Tommy thought the simplicity of the band's attack required something much cleaner than Joey's choppy style — "eight notes across, with the 'one' on the bass and the 'two' on the snare, fast and consistent." So when the drummers who auditioned wouldn't stop with the fills and rolls, he climbed behind the kit and found he had a knack for it. And when the more technically accomplished Marc Bell replaced him, the new guy was surprised by how hard Tommy's style was to duplicate.

"I played about five or six hours a day until I learned the whole live set," Bell recalled around the time of Johnny's 2004 death. "After a while I realized how not to overextend my energy, because to play at that tempo for an hour and a half, you could lose a lot. So I could see it was easier playing from the wrists and fingers instead of the arms."

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Tommy quit the band in 1978 because he couldn't take life on the road with the three volatile geniuses who all dressed the same and all made trouble in different ways. Johnny was a taskmaster, Joey was OCD, Dee Dee bipolar and then some.

In the words of Johnny's wife Linda, who was initially Joey's girlfriend: "Tommy was having a breakdown, and they laughed. Because that's what they did. He told them he was having a breakdown and they all just laughed; everybody laughed at everything."

But Tommy hung in there to school Bell and co-produce Road to Ruin anyway. And somehow the band outlasted its four-album flash-in-the-pan, generating more first-rate records than their maddest fans had dreamed possible and becoming tireless road dogs who regularly thrilled the proletarian fan base that some, Johnny especially, had always thought they deserved.

For nearly two decades, Johnny and Joey practically never spoke. Marky took five years off for alcoholism. Dee Dee quit to become a rapper in 1989 (it didn't work). But Tommy always stayed in touch. He came back to produce their finest post-'70s album, 1985's Too Tough to Die.  He also produced The Replacements' Tim and Redd Kross' Neurotica, and formed a bluegrass duo called Uncle Monk with his longtime partner Claudia Teinan. But though he tried never to miss a New York Ramones show, neither Johnny nor Joey was an easy guy to remain close to.

When the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, Tommy was grizzled and bearded — the other three sported the same dark bowl cuts the Ramones had made a uniform in 1974. Neither Johnny nor Dee Dee mentioned Joey, who had died a year before. Tommy and Marky both did. Tommy never badmouthed his old band mates. The Ramones, he believed, were "one of the few bands that was an equal part of four." The Ramones, he reflected, “were dangerous people, who came up with brilliant creative ideas. In my dealings with them I tried to harness as much of the brilliance, but a lot of times I got burnt." In 2011, he said: "I think about them all the time. They are all always present in my consciousness — in my daily life, they're always with me.”

Tommy deserves to be remembered with equal affection and respect.

This piece originally appeared on Billboard.com.

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