The death yesterday of Tommy Ramone ends, somewhat, one of the most glorious and tragic stories in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.
Glorious, of course, for what The Ramones accomplished in kicking off the hugely influential punk rock movement. Tragic in that for the most part the original band members never received their just rewards for doing so.
Indeed, Tommy’s death at 65 came just two months after The Ramones’ landmark 1976 debut album Ramones was certified gold (for sales of 500,000 copies) by the Recording Industry of America. It is the first and only gold record for the band, whose founding members were frontman Joey (real name Jeff Hyman, died in 2001), bassist Dee Dee (Douglas Colvin died in 2002) and guitarist Johnny Ramone (John Cummings died in 2004).
As historic as The Ramones were, they obviously never sold a lot of records, never got much commercial radio airplay. They just kept playing and playing to an international fan base, selling tons of t-shirts along the way, up until disbanding in 1996—though Tommy and Dee Dee had left the band long before.
Tommy, in fact, left The Ramones in early 1978, and was replaced by Marc Bell—who became Marky Ramone. Under his real name Thomas Erdelyi, he co-produced the band’s 1978 album Road to Ruin and 1984 album Too Tough to Die. Then in the early 1990s, he formed an alt-country indie-bluegrass duo, Uncle Monk, with vocalist/guitarist/bassist Claudia Tienan.
Now singing and playing mandolin, guitar, banjo and dobro, Tommy had replaced his Ramones black leather jacket with a casual t-shirt, denim and cowboy hat. His hair was still shoulder-length, but neatly tied together in a pony tail. The gray beard, however, made the Ramones connection virtually impossible—that and the switch in instrumentation from drums, along with his new role as singer.
New original songs like "Wishing at the Moon," "Home Sweet Reality" and "Emotional Needs" (not to mention bluegrass staples like “Working on a Building” and opening for the likes of bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley) may have been a far cry from Ramones classics like "Blitzkrieg Bop," "Teenage Lobotomy" and "I Wanna be Sedated,” but "there is a similarity between punk and old-time music," Tommy said. "Both are home-brewed as opposed to schooled, both have earthy energy, and there is a certain cool in old-time music that is found in the best alternative acts.”
Uncle Monk's songs, he added, "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."
Again, not so much different from The Ramones and punk rock.
But the passing of the original Ramones quartet only ends their story somewhat. For even without mainstream commercial success, the band and their music long ago achieved immortality.
Indeed, not a day goes by without spotting someone on the street wearing a classic Ramones t-shirt. Currently, they’re prominently heard on Cadillac’s “Garages” TV commercial, and “Blitzkrieg Bop” has become a rock anthem, its “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” shout-out a sports team rallying cry.
At least Joey lived long enough to become a celebrity, while Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy were present at The Ramones' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Together, they made up one of the most significant bands in rock ‘n’ roll history, whose music has and will continue to outlive them all.
With the final loss of Tommy Ramone, I'm remembering again the band who changed us all," tweeted The Go-Go's' Kathy Valentine. "I saw them probably 20 times, they made me so happy."
[The Examiner wrote the first book on The Ramones--Ramones--An American Band.]
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