All Good Cretins: Legs McNeil Remembers Tommy Ramone
The least likely Ramone was the one who believed in them the most.
My ex-fiancé told me, when she was breaking up with me, “I don’t care about your opinions; I don’t care what you think….”
As a writer, that nearly killed me. I’d become obsolete, in her eyes. In mine, too.
And yet, as seemingly everyone and everything that made up the 1970s New York punk scene dies off, publications from the Daily Beast to the New York Times to SPIN call me for my reactions, memories—and, yes, my opinions. I’m one of the last remaining eyewitnesses who remembers how much fucking fun it all was—and then has to try and translate all those dangerous, gorgeous memories into words.
Late Friday, Tommy Erdelyi, a.k.a. Tommy Ramone, drummer for one of the greatest bands of that or any era, died from cancer, at the age of 65. All four original members of the Ramones are gone, and it’s time for me to write another memorial.
Yeah, I get paid to write snapshots of moments in time.
How do you translate all those tiny flashes in your brain into a portrait of Tommy, the most unlikely Ramone of all? The shy guy who never lost his Hungarian accent or immigrant awkwardness, but had the vision to see that his three fellow mentally unstable bandmates had stumbled on to something truly life-changing?
When every young person in New York City at that time looked like a rock god, Tommy, God love him, looked like a plumber’s apprentice. He and the Ramones translated all the world’s phony beauty, yeah, all the world’s ugliness, into something fast, funny, and hummable. They said, “Life sucks and we’re crazy, but we’re gonna play it loud and fast—and short–cause we know ya got things to do…”
I mean, how do you explain that Tommy was so enamored with Johnny Ramone in high school that he’d get jealous when Johnny would bully some other friend instead of him. Tommy always believed in Johnny’s potential as a rock star—even after the failure with their first band, the Tangerine Puppets, because Johnny didn’t think they were anywhere near as good as Leslie West’s band the Vagrants? Or how Tommy eventually succeeded in getting Johnny—the most stubborn, close-minded man on the planet–to agree to give it one more shot in this new band that crazy Dee Dee kept saying should be called the Ramones?How do you explain that it was Tommy’s cute little song “Animal Hop,” about how everyone was bopping at the local dance, that Dee Dee got a hold of, filled with Nazi imagery and changed the title to “Blitzkrieg Bop?” And how Tommy felt sabotaged by Dee Dee’s re-write—but then when he saw Dee Dee and Joey writing “Judy Is a Punk,” Tommy’s entire vision of the Ramones crystallized.
As Tommy told me in 2003, “The first time I heard ‘Judy Is a Punk,’ that’s when I realized we had something. I just saw it all. I saw that this was totally different, that this was unique, and that these guys were so out of their minds. I knew we had something incredible.”
Yeah, how do you explain that Tommy was the first one to recognize the incredible brilliance of the Ramones?
Or how do you explain the fact that no record company thought the Ramones’ sound would translate to vinyl—sure, they thought they were a great band, but no one believed they were recordable–until Tommy helped producer Craig Leon translate the noise into music on the first album. Tommy would eventually take over as producer, along with Ed Stasium, and make the band sound like the loud, looney-tuned rock ‘n’ rollers they always should have sounded like. Perfection.
Joey never forgave him.
That’s the trouble with being friends with these guys. You know too much. You know what really happened, and so you don’t get to enjoy the myths, the public’s love affair with their friendly ghosts.
Rock photographer Bob Gruen said it best the other night at dinner. He was talking about how many more pictures of Sid Vicious he sold after Gary Oldman portrayed him in the film Sid and Nancy. Bob said that people loved to believe that Sid was as cool as Gary Oldman was in that film, instead of the clueless moron he actually was. Which is why Bob is selling as many prints of Sid Vicious as his photo of John Lennon in the New York City t-shirt.
When Tommy Ramone died on Friday night, people called me all weekend to try and get me to say something like, “It’s the end of an era, now all the Ramones are truly gone,” but the Ramones have been gone for a very long time. The last Ramones show I saw was in 1988, and even though Arturo Vega’s lighting was fantastic and the guitars sounded brilliant, Joey was skipping every other word, because he’d slowed down and couldn’t articulate the lyrics fast enough.
Joey always was terribly frail and it pained me to see him so ravaged.
For me, that’s when the Ramones were truly over. I knew then that I’d never see them again, and didn’t, even though I was invited to their last show in L.A., when I was living there. Instead Dee Dee and I had lunch at the Chateau Marmont and giggled about the old days. No, too much had happened to see them again and I felt it was better to preserve my memories of the Ramones than have them corrupted by a bad show. Anyway, I heard it was awful–Dee Dee told me he forgot the words to the song he sang. And then Dee Dee forgot to keep on living.
So remembering is a tricky business. Besides, if I ever really want to remember how great a band the Ramones were, all I need is to slap one of their first four records on the turntable and crank the volume. The Ramones will never really be gone because their legacy is preserved on vinyl until the end of time. The way it should be. The way Tommy always knew it would be.
Legs McNeil is the co-author of the definitive NYC punk history “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk.” He and Gillian McCain’s next book is “Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose.” Legs was a senior editor at SPIN and a founding editor of Punk magazine.