Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Band of Brothers

originally published in 2004, with quotes added following the death of Tommy Ramone.

Photo by Bob Gruen.
Photo by Bob Gruen.

The singer was an Olympic-sized geek with obsessive-compulsive disorder who found his escape in grandiose pop songs. The guitarist was a sullen, right-wing former street tough turned control freak. The bassist was a bottom-feeding junkie who used to rent his body on street corners for heroin. The drummer, a Hungarian immigrant with a love for all things American, was the sensible one, and the other three resented him for it. No four guys from the same neighborhood were more different from each other. And yet, when Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Doug Colvin and Tommy Erdelyi donned their uniform of black leather jackets and ripped jeans and spit out 90-second songs, which would’ve run into each other if not for the shout of “1-2-3-4!,” they became brothers: Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy. The Ramones! Presenting themselves as much as a street gang as a band, they were the group every outcast dreamed he was in; thus many went out and started their own versions. No band has ever moved more pawnshop guitars.

The Ramones, who never had a top 40 album and yet were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, the first year they were eligible, had barely touched their instruments until the first band practice. They were the GED of musical training, making up years in hours. Suddenly, you didn’t need to know how to play to be in a band. You just had to have guts and two chords memorized. This was a revolutionary idea in 1974, one that reverberates 30 years later, even as many new punk bands think it’s Green Day they’re copying.

The beloved quartet from Forest Hills, Queens is the subject of End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones, which touches on all the important facets of their career, including their 1976 ignition of a British punk scene that almost swallowed them up, and their continual attempts to break into the mainstream.ramoneslogoimages

But the fascinating documentary, more reality show than concert film, is also the story of what it’s like to be in a band, the ultimate dysfunctional family.

“I thought the movie was pretty accurate,” drummer Erdelyi, the last surviving original member, said ten years ago. Tommy Ramone passed away from bile duct cancer Friday at age 65. “But you’d really have to have a six-hour movie to get it all in. We were all very intense guys, with a lot of big egos floating around, so there was a lot of inner band conflict.” The Ramones are what happens when a quartet of losers stumbles upon a musical invention and saves rock ‘n’ roll. But they’re still the same misfits.

“We couldn’t play anyone else’s songs, which turned out to be a blessing,” Tommy said in 2004. “We were writing songs like nobody else was writing. And Joey had this great pop voice.”

Musically, the Ramones presented a unified front — they all knew their distinct roles. But offstage these four parts of a puzzle didn’t always fit together like “Gabba Gabba” and “Hey!” Joey and Johnny didn’t speak to each other for the last 16 years of the band’s existence after Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and married her (reportedly the inspiration for Joey’s song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”). Dee Dee and his girlfriend Connie, meanwhile, were Sid and Nancy with better luck, self-destructive co-dependents prone to stabbing and punching each other. They all fought like brothers but didn’t always make up like they were of the same blood.

ramones-live“Johnny was a controlling monster,” recalled Tommy. “He was a master of the divide and conquer mentality. It could get brutal in the band. It was three against one when we went out on the road. I wasn’t treated well by the other guys so I just said ‘I’ll continue to help you guys make records, but life’s too short for this crap.'”

Joey Ramone got his revenge when the band went into the studio with Phil Spector to record End of the Century in 1980. “Johnny liked the hard, fast stuff and Joey liked pop music,” Erdelyi recalled in 2004. “Working with Phil Spector was a dream come true for Joey, but a nightmare for Johnny. Spector’s got a fetish with tall people. He had pictures of Wilt Chamberlain on the wall.”

As much as they despised each other, the Ramones had to stay together because they knew it was the only band any of them could be in. In the end, they didn’t even go to each other’s funerals.

Joey was the first to go, dying of cancer at age 49 in 2001. Dee Dee, 50, died of a heroin overdose in 2002. Johnny passed away from prostate cancer in 2004 at age 55. Tommy was 65 when he passed last week.

“It’s just so bizarre the way they went — one right after the other,” Erdelyi back in 2004. For the past 10 years he WAS the Ramones in the flesh and his passing was an obituary on the band that started punk. “I feel like my contributions to the band have been overlooked through the years. Then, after Johnny passed away, everybody’s going ‘Tommy Ramone is the last one left.’ All of a sudden, everybody remembered that I helped start this band, that I produced those early albums. In my heart I’ve always been a Ramone. It’s just bizarre that I’m getting all this attention now.

Erdelyi had one quibble with the End of the Century doc, which takes its name from the Spector album. “That part where Johnny and Dee Dee say that I had nothing to do with the Ramones sound — that’s (bull) and they knew it. Those guys never wanted to give me any credit because they were afraid that I’d get all the credit,” Erdelyi said. “The truth is that the Ramones was my concept. I saw the New York Dolls and they weren’t great musicians, but they were the funnest band to go see… We were also big Stooges fans- we were really the only ones in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t hard to figure out who would be the Ramones.”

In the beginning, Tommy was the band’s manager and adviser. But when original drummer Joey showed he could sing the tunes the guys were writing, he was moved to lead vocals. Unable to find a suitable drummer — after all, what self-respecting musician would play with these lunky bashers? — Tommy sat at the kit out of necessity.

At first they tried to play songs by their favorite bands, the Stooges, the Dolls, the MC5, but they weren’t good enough, so they made up their own songs. “Judy Is a Punk” and “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” were in the earliest batch. Incompetence was the mother of invention. Each musician just did what came naturally — Johnny playing fast aggressive chords, Joey singing like Ronnie Spector, with Dee Dee and Tommy just going where the adrenaline took them. Nobody had ever sounded like the Ramones before they debuted at CBGB in August ’74, a gig recalled in the film with great amusement by a handful of witnesses.

Some thought they were a joke band, but the Ramones were totally serious.

“I knew, even before the first gig at CBGB, that we had something totally innovative,” Erdelyi said.

Soon they were packing CBGB, which was becoming a graffiti-covered incubator of such anti-Pink Floyd acts as Blondie, Television and Talking Heads. As the band’s success became more tangible — all that press had translated into a record deal and larger live gates — Johnny stepped in and took control of the band’s finances, often orchestrating power plays within the band. “Johnny saw the Ramones as a once-in-a-lifetime thing and he was going to push that thing for all it was worth,” Erdelyi recalled.

All the personal conflict shown in “End of the Century” doesn’t diminish the legacy of the Ramones; it actually enhances it. Onstage, they were brothers, liberated from humdrum, hopeless lives, beating the odds with a baseball bat, oh, yeah. They chanted “Hey ho! Let’s go!” and we followed them. We had no idea there was all this turmoil within the band, and we didn’t care.

They were the Ramones. They were us. And when they played “Rockaway Beach” or “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” or “Commando,” we all forgot about our problems.

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