The singer was an Olympic-sized geek with obsessive-compulsive disorder who found his escape in grandiose pop songs. The guitarist was a sullen former street tough, the bassist 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 had to quit because of 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 a family 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.
When I interviewed Tommy Erdelyi in 2004, just months after Johnny Ramone died of prostate cancer, following the deaths of Joey (lymphoma in ’01) and Dee Dee (drug overdose in ’02), he said, “It’s just so bizarre the way they went — one right after the other.” For the past 10 years, Tommy was the Last Living Ramone and when he died of cancer at age 65 on July 11, 2014 the obituaries were as much for the band as the man. “In my heart I’ve always been a Ramone,” Erdelyi said ten years ago. “It’s just bizarre that I’m getting all this attention now.” The morning of July 12 would’ve freaked him out.
The Ramones, who never had a top 40 album or hit single and yet were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, have become American folk heroes. Having barely touched their instruments until the first band practice, they skipped basic training and went right into combat. Suddenly, you didn’t need anything more than guts and three chords to be in a band. This was a revolutionary idea in August 1974, when the Ramones first played CBGB and turned that Bowery shitbox into the punk rock holy land. “I knew, even before the first gig at CBGB, that we had something totally innovative,” Erdelyi said.
The British punk scene, which would soon swallow the Ramones’ relatively tame presentation, was born at a Ramones show in London on July 4, 1976, the American Bicentennial. Members of that audience would form bands- the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Damned- that added politics and fashion to the punk mix.
“We were all very intense guys, with a lot of big egos floating around, so there was a lot of inner band conflict,” said Erdelyi, who left the band after their album Rocket to Russia, which featured “Rockaway Beach,” the group’s masterpiece.
“Those guys never wanted to give me any credit because they were afraid that I’d get all the credit,” Erdelyi continued. “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 really 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 lunkheads? — Tommy sat at the kit out of necessity.
“We couldn’t play anyone else’s songs, which turned out to be a blessing,” Erdelyi recalled. “We were writing songs like nobody else was writing. And Joey had this great pop voice.” 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. Some people thought they were a joke band, but they were as serious as a gang initiation.
“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.’”
You take four numbnuts from the neighborhood and make them rock stars and it’s not going to turn out well on a personal level. It’s just not. But inner-band sickness became incurable after Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and eventually married her (reportedly the inspiration for Joey’s song “The KKK Took My Baby Away”). That shit may be no big deal with Mick and Keith, but in Forest Hills that’ll get you stabbed. Dee Dee and his girlfriend Connie, meanwhile, were Sid and Nancy with better luck, self-destructive co-dependents prone to pummeling each other. The Ramones fought like brothers but didn’t always make up like they were of the same blood.
Joey Ramone got his revenge on Johnny 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, so working with Phil Spector was a dream come true for Joey, but a nightmare for Johnny,” Erdelyi recalled. “Spector doted on Joey and treated Johnny like shit.” One story has the producer pulling a gun on Johnny and pointing it at him until he played a part right. “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. You don’t quit a good-paying job just because you can’t stand the people you work with. “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.
But the live shows were never as good as I wanted them to be. Certainly not better than their records, which is one reason the Ramones will live forever.
In the end, they didn’t even go to each other’s funerals.
Onstage, they were brothers, liberated from humdrum, hopeless lives, beating the odds with a baseball bat. 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,” our hearts kept the beat.