From The Archives: Tommy Ramone is a Bluegrass Punk
On Friday, Tommy Ramone, the original drummer for the Ramones, died following a struggle with bile duct cancer. Today we look back at our feature on the musician from our February/March 2007 issue.
Long before he championed punk, Tommy Ramone discovered bluegrass. As a child growing up in Queens, NY, Tommy Erdélyi first heard the mandolin on the ABC variety show Hootenanny, which featured the country/comedy duo of Homer and Jethro. Spurred on by his brother, who constantly spun The Weavers’ Live at Carnegie Hall, Erdélyi began playing guitar in his teens.
Coming of age in the 1960s, Erdélyi’s interests switched from bluegrass to psychedelic rock and, in high school, the guitarist played in a garage-rock ensemble known as the Tangerine Puppets with Johnny Cummings (who, like Erdélyi, later adopted the pseudonym Ramone).He also developed a keen interest in production, and as a student worked on Jimi Hendrix’s famed Band of Gypsies album. “As the times changed, we got into the New York glam-rock scene and, from there [along with Johnny, Dee Dee, and Joey Ramone] put together The Ramones, which was the opposite end of the spectrum. So, I switched from long improvisation to strictly structured, short songs.”
Though he first served as The Ramones manager/producer, Erdélyi reluctantly assumed drum duties in time for the group’s 1976 self-titled debut. “I tried to explain the sound we were going for, but no one seemed to get it,” Erdélyi says now. “I didn’t know how to play, but I knew what I wanted, so I eventually became The Ramones’ drummer. It worked out well, because I was as good on the drums and they were on their instruments.”
The Ramones’ early gigs stripped rock ‘n’ roll down to its essentials, inspiring generations of punk, hardcore, and alternative musicians with its DIY attitude. In England, especially, The Ramones became icons, though the group’s commercial success never matched that of its peers. After three years, Erdélyi retired from the road, but stayed on as The Ramones’ manager and produced both 1978’s Road to Ruin and 1984’s Too Tough to Die.
Erdélyi worked in a production capacity for much of the 1980s, finding his greatest success on The Replacements’ 1985 album, Tim. In the late 1980s he returned to his first love, the guitar, and formed Uncle Monk with his longtime friend Claudia Tienan (best known for her work in the Simplistics). “We were a jamband,” Erdélyi says with a hint of hippie pride. “We would start with a song and then go off into these long improvisations, like the bands I listened to when I came of age in the 1960s: Cream and Jimi Hendrix.” Slowly, Uncle Monk shifted into more acoustic territory. “One by one, we started dropping our electric instruments and shifted gears until we locked onto something entirely different.”
A straight-ahead bluegrass duo, based around Erdélyi’s mandolin and Tienan’s acoustic guitar, Uncle Monk began gigging around the Northeast and in 2005, entered the studio to record an album of original material. “Bluegrass music has its own passion and soulfulness,” he continues. “I love its dry emotion.”
The only living member of the Ramones’ original lineup, Erdélyi reverted back to his more famous surname. “I thought Tommy Ramone sounded more likeabluegrass name because it’s more American,” the Hungarian-born musician admits. “But I still have a little Erdélyi and a little Ramone in me.”
Even though Uncle Monk has raised some eyebrows among the CBGB faithful, Erdélyi doesn’t see his new sound as a dramatic departure. “Bluegrass and punk are very similar in a lot of ways,” Erdélyi says. “They are both homemade styles of music that anyone can play and they both allow you to express yourself emotionally.”