Sometimes, guys change Rock and Roll because they’re prodigies, re-writing the rules as a result of their virtuosity. In that category, you’d have a guitarist like Jimi Hendrix, or a demonic drummer like Ginger Baker. Then there are the sneaky little simpletons. The ones who keep things so spare, they make you listen to the music with brand new ears. In this equally-important category, would be Tommy Ramone. Tommy played supersonically-speedy tempos with such a ridiculous-rich simplicity, cavemen might’ve laughed at him. But certainly not after he inspired a thousand other drummers to do the same. And most certainly this weekend. The last remaining original Ramone has died. Tommy is gone, goddamn it! Dead of cancer at age 62.
Like most cataclysmic changes in history, the whole thing he helped invent, happened by accident. Talking to Tommy (whose real last name was Erdelyi) two months ago, in one of the last interviews he would give, he laid it all out for me.
“I originally planned to be the manager,” he told me, his Hungarian accent still shaping some of his Queen’s-ese. “I got an idea to put a group together after seeing The New York Dolls. I knew these colorful kids in Forest Hills, and in early 1974 I decide they’d make a real interesting group.”
Tommy Ramone wasn’t supposed to be the drummer of the Ramones, which started out with Joey on the skins and Dee Dee singing lead. But Dee Dee, according to Tommy, kept going “hoarse after about three songs” and Joey “wasn’t that good a drummer.” They auditioned skin-men for days, Tommy showing them the simple patterns he wanted. Still, none of these mechanical Mitch Mitchells could do it right.
“Finally, the guys said, ‘Why don’t you play drums?'”
Joey moved to lead singer, Dee Dee moved to just (sorta) playing the bass and Tommy hit the drums as simply and perfectly as a wind-up monkey. The Ramones were born. The world has not been the same since.
Mr. Erdelyi made it for three albums, found that touring and the tensions of the band were too much, so he ended up producing. He made the massive but uncompromising sound of Road To Ruin, the album that should’ve made The Ramones big stars (but, alas, did not). He also helped shape the sound for a little Rock and Roll combo called The Replacments. Tommy produced Tim, the ‘Mats major label debut. And helped them shape what is, arguably, their finest record, sound-wise. Just enough noise to please their core audience, just enough clarity so that leader Paul Westerberg’s world-weary lyrics shone through. It too, didn’t sell….then. But Like The Ramones records, every year, it does better and better.
As unpredictable as the best Rock and Roll, Tommy eventually took solace in a bluegrass band he called Uncle Monk. He played where they’d have him. Got his unassumingly brilliant ass into The Hall of Fame, finally started making money off of Ramones’ merchandise. Even as he watched his “brothers,” Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny, all die off like there was a price to be paid for having paved the way for Punk.
Still, he sounded, when we last spoke, as a sweet and (more importantly) contented man. He knew he was the guy who came up with the chant “Hey Ho! Let’s Go!” He knew every time you turned on a TV or went to a movie now, you’d probably hear another goddamn great Ramones song. And without bragging, it was because he had the foresight to see that, in 1974, Rock and Roll had gone all puffed-up and Prog while we were sleeping, that it was time to get back to basics. His final words to me make me smile, even now.
“We’re in The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame,” he said, proudly. “That’s amazing. We’re in there, along with other great American musicians like Louis Armstrong. So you know? I think it shows everybody something. It turns out we knew what we were doing all along.”
So, beyond just playing with The Ramones, Tommy imagined them. At the same time Yes and Jethro Tull were all over the radio the radio. Tommy Erdelyi wasn’t just a great drummer. He was a visionary.