August 27, 2014
Tommy was a punk rocker
“1,2,3,4!” Counting as fast as the following chords, Johnny Ramone’s battle cry ignited many of the rapid-fire live songs that ringed through each frenzy-filled stadium the Ramones played in. Up until 1978, Tommy was the one behind the drums, keeping up with the pace that defined New York — later on, worldwide youth — in the late 70s. The founding member of one of punk’s founding bands was part of something much bigger than just another punk band. Like Lou Reed (both with the Velvet Underground and solo) painted a musical picture of New York’s counter-culture — Waiting for my man, a.k.a buying heroin at Lexington 125 makes for a perfect example — the Ramones took that narrative, pushing it further, faster and rawer: Now I wanna sniff some glue, as they boldly titled the sixth track of their first album; a song that even inspired the name of one of the first and most important punk fanzines of the time, Sniffin’ Glue. And still, that was just the beginning.
Live fast, die young? Let me pull out a Tarantino-like stunt by starting right at the end of Tommy Ramone’s journey. Sadly, Tommy was in hospice care at his home in Queens following treatment for cancer of the bile duct. He passed away on Friday at 12.15pm — as informed by his 40-year partner Claudia Tienan — and will be farewelled at a private ceremony. Tommy was the last Ramones’ founding member to go — he outlived lead singer Joey (who died due to a lymphoma in 2001), bassist Dee Dee (drug overdose in 2002) and guitarist Johnny (prostate cancer, 2004.) He was also one of the most down-to-earth members of the band, leading a normal, excess-ridden life during the Ramones era. The last couple of years, he embarked in a bluegrass/country music project with Tienan, called Uncle Monk.
Short and sweet. Born as Tamás Erdélyi in a WWII-recovering Budapest in 1949, young Tamás and his family moved to New York in 1953, where he met the future Johnny Ramone (at the time mundanely called John William Cummings) during their teenage years. At the dawn of the Ramones birth, Tommy took on the drums simply because no one else wanted to. But his role was bigger, for he was involved in the production of several records, crafting the band’s higly-recognizable sound even after his departure in 78. But there is also an important fact that needs to be point out: without Tommy, there would be no Blitzkrieg Bop. Indeed, the lyrics for the song that opens the band’s first album with the trademark “hey ho, let’s go” are credited to him and Dee-Dee Ramone, who allegedly suggested the title. Three tracks later, the record presents another one of his creations, I wanna be your boyfriend, a sweet vintage-rock-ballad-like tune that works as an almost funny contrapunto for the faster, harsher realities the album depicts. Two albums later, Tommy left the band claiming to be fed up with life on tour, though circumstances were somewhat more complex than that. It was 1977 and punk mainstream was being established with Malcolm McLaren’s best-selling product, The Sex Pistols, defining a new sound and approach for the genre. Also, frictions within the band were starting to emerge, so Tommy decided to focus on the production of Rocket to Russia, launched that same year.
Los Ramones. There is an undeniable link between the Ramones and Argentina that stretches far beyond their 1987 first live appearance in the country, when they were received as musical demi-gods in a heavily packed Obras Sanitarias stadium. Needless to say, the band’s sound rooted deeply in Argentine punk-rock. Though UK-punk was also an important part of the cocktail that gave birth to numerous bands through the late 80s — most of which were included in the compilation Invasión 88 — one may listen to 2 Minutos’ debut album Valentín Alsina (1994) to recognize a firm Ramones input in the band’s song structures as well as the street-life point of view of the lyrics. Others bands furthered that influence, such as Embajada Boliviana and — most remarkably — Expulsados, a band that heavily emulated the Ramones’ sound and aesthetics. Need more proof? Dee Dee Ramone met his wife in Argentina; streets all over the country are still populated with Ramones t-shirts; they ended up being perhaps the US band that had visited the country the most and — last but not least — Marky Ramone (the historical Ramones drummer that replaced Tommy) is still returning to the country year after year.
¡Adiós amigos! As expected, Twitter reactions to the late drummer’s departure started pouring when the news went public. Marky Ramone simply stated “We’ll miss you my buddy,” accompanied by an early snapshot of Tommy. Other drummers joined in, like Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Chad Smith (“We’ve lost one of the greats. R.I.P Tommy Ramone”) and Velvet Revolver’s Matt Sorum (“Another legend gone today Tommy Ramone the original Ramone’s drummer. A reunion in the sky is in order. RIP Punk Rocker.”) Bands and artists such as Social Distortion, Garbage, Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Django Django also expressed their condolences.
Just like fast-food, the Ramones represented a simple, accessible, all-American, deeply urban, highly caloric cultural intake. They crafted an art form solid enough to pierce through multiple cultural barriers, reaching generation after generation all around the world. Now, more than 30 years later, their influence still echoes through many modern musical expressions — their records still stand strong as the chronicle of a past epoch. Just like Sheena is (still) a punk rocker, Tommy was one too, for a while. One of the first to appear, and yet one of the last ones to go.@lorenzomiquel