Tommy Ramone: His Story as Told to Legs McNeil
In 2003 Tommy Ramone – a.k.a Tommy Erderly or his birth name, Erdelyi Tamas -- sat down for an interview with me for research I was doing on Mickey Leigh’s book, "I Slept With Joey Ramone." (Mickey, whose real name is Mitchel Lee Hyman, was Joey’s brother.) I knew it was going to be a tough interview because of all the drama, craziness and hatred that the Ramones nourished in the band’s 22-year existence. The Ramones never caught a break, and so they turned their frustrations and anxieties inward— and on to one another. It was a nasty business, and Tommy, the most rational member of the band, seemed to carry a lot of emotional fallout from his experience. Tommy, who died on Friday at the age of 65, the last of the original Ramones, talked openly and honestly about the band’s formation and writing those first amazing Ramones songs.
Here, in Tommy’s own words, is his story:
It was never fun being in the Ramones, which is the saddest thing of all, cause it shoulda been fun. It was probably fun when we played Performance Studio, and maybe some of the early gigs at CBGB's. But the Ramones were the type of group that had a bizarre mindset. Being in the band was so cut-off from reality. I was with them all the time--and it was very disturbing.
I was born in Budapest, Hungary and moved to the United States in 1956. It was during the Hungarian Revolution when Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, and my family – me, my brother and my parents -- escaped over the border to Austria. We just took whatever we could carry. It was perilous, but we made it across. It was a little hard for my parents, but it was cool for me.
We moved first to the South Bronx, then to Brooklyn, and, finally, to Forest Hills. I’ve been a loner all my life, so it didn’t bother me that Hungarian was my first language and that I had to learn English. I had a pretty heavy accent in junior high school and would say things like, "wolume control" instead of “volume control.”
In high school, I got into folk music, and I taught myself guitar. And when The Beatles came out, I got an electric guitar.
I met John Cummings –a.k.a. Johnny Ramone -- in 1966 in the Forest Hills High School cafeteria. Bob Roland, who was in a band with John called the Tangerine Puppets, took me over to the table and introduced me. John can be incredibly charming when you first meet him. He was fun to be with, but he always had this psychological need to take control or feel superior. He would even hit people and stuff, but he never hit me because I was so little.
John had good stage presence. When the Tangerine Puppets would play, John would hold his bass real high like a machine gun and move it around. He was a very entertaining performer.
I joined the Tangerine Puppets, but we broke up when John graduated. And that's how the Ramones started. John had given up on music, but I’d tell him, "You know, you should go back because you're great!" I said, "Look, try singing, maybe you'll be a lead singer. If you can't sing, then play guitar. But you should get a band together."
So eventually, we did.
I met Dee Dee (Douglas Glenn Colvin) at the same time I met John. He had just moved into the neighborhood, and he was telling us about all this equipment he had, and we found out pretty soon that he was full of shit. But Dee Dee was really interesting – he was different from everyone else -- and John took a liking to him right away.
The first time I saw Joey, he was sitting on his bed-- in the house they had before they moved into Birchwood Towers-- with his snare drum between his legs. We didn't say a word to each other.
At the time, the New York Dolls fascinated me. I was fascinated by the fact that these guys could barely play and were drawing big audiences. Studying them, I realized that people were sick of guys just jamming on guitars. They wanted to be entertained and the Dolls were giving it to them.
I thought that if I could get Johnny, Joey and Dee Dee together they'd be a really colorful band. I was going to be the manager, Richie Stern was on bass, Dee Dee was on lead, John was on the other guitar, and Joey would be the drummer.
We got together at Johnny's apartment, and we saw that Richie Stern wasn't going to work out, so he was gone. That meant Dee Dee had to play bass, reluctantly, because he wanted to play guitar. Joey was still playing drums, but he would have to keep re-adjusting the kit all the time. He would also have to wear bandages when he played because he would get calluses on his hands. But the main problem was that Dee Dee would be hoarse after singing three songs. So we'd give the mic to Joey to sing “I Don't Care.”
Joey was a good singer, but he wasn't that good on the drums, so it made sense to switch him to lead vocals. It perfectly fit my conception of the image of the band as being unique. So, that led to us auditioning drummers. I would sit down and try to show them what to play, but they couldn’t get it. And the guys said, "Why don't you play the drums?" That’s when I switched from manager to drummer.
The name of the band came pretty fast. We made a list of like forty names. And we chose the one Dee Dee suggested; I think Dee Dee got it from Paul McCartney because Paul would call himself “Paul Ramon” when he didn’t want to be recognized. I thought the name—The Ramones-- was ridiculous.. I wasn't crazy about it, but it was the best name by far from all the others. And by the way, we started calling ourselves by the last name Ramone, right away. We got that idea from the Walker Brothers album.
We’d get together to work on songs, and I remember Joey and Dee Dee working on “Judy is a Punk” at Joey’s mom’s art gallery in Queens, the Art Garden. Thhe first time I heard that song, I knew we had something incredible. I knew we were good before that, when I heard “Judy Is a Punk,” I thought, this band could really change things.
I wanted to contribute too, but the rest of the band wasn’t real receptive to my input. Actually, this was mostly due to Dee Dee because he was very competitive. I don’t know how Joey felt, because Joey was very quiet. Joey would just sit there and not say anything.
So, I wrote ‘Blitzkrieg Bop,’ only I called it ‘Animal Hop,’ and it was too good to be rejected. But it wasn’t about Nazis. It wasn’t about gassing Jews, it was about kids going to a show and having a good time. It went: ‘They’re forming in a straight line, they’re going though a tight wind, the kids are losing their mind, the Animal Hop.” I also had a line that went, “Hey Ho, Let’s Go, they’re shouting in the back now.”
But Dee Dee said, “‘Animal Hop’? Let’s call it ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’!” He was already sabotaging the song. He goes, ‘I don’t like that line, “they’re shouting in the back now”. Let’s say, “Shoot them in the back now.” He wanted to do the Nazi thing, so that it would never get played on the radio. But now it’s a TV commercial. Who knew?
I also came up with the riff to “Pinhead.” At the time, the rest of the band said, "Nah, nah, nah..." Then about a month later, Dee Dee says, "I wrote this new song.” He plays it and I go, "That's the song I wrote a month ago!” This time, the band went, “All right.”
We wrote the lyrics to “Pinhead” together. We had just seen the movie, Freaks in Cleveland, and Dee Dee said something like, “Goobo Gaboo, Googo Goboo?" I said, "Well, why don't you just say, 'Gabba Gabba?" I was referring to the end of the movie when all the freaks are sitting around the table going “[gobble, gobble].” Then I added one more word: “Gabba Gabba Hey! Gabba Gabba Hey!”
We were working so hard all those years, and the Sex Pistols came along with all this money and publicity and great management behind them. Suddenly, we felt like we were being left behind. A lot of people were also dumping the Ramones for the Clash because the Clash were politically left wing. The Ramones weren't political, and if they were, they weren't left wing. So, after creating this whole new genre, we were just left out. Nobody cared about the Ramones. Nobody cared about the New York scene. The English cared about it, but as far as Americans were concerned, punk started in England. The historians brought everybody up to date on what actually happened. But that took twenty-five, thirty years.
In 1977 or ’78, I had a conversation with John on the phone, and he said, ‘Joey's in the hospital. It’s his foot or whatever. We've got to get rid of Joey. I said, ‘What do you mean we’ve got to get rid of Joey?"
He said, "I don't want him. Let's get Lux Interior [lead singer of The Cramps].” We had a huge argument over the phone. And Claudia, my wife, almost got killed because [when I was still on the phone,] Claudia said, "Why don't you get rid of John?" John heard it, and at the next rehearsal, he goes straight for Claudia and hit her. I went crazy and started crying. I said, ‘John, don't you think of doing anything like that. You fucking get away!’
Joey was not aware of any of this.
Pretty soon after, in 1978, I left the band. I realized I just couldn’t win. I was losing my mind. I was under a lot of stress. I realize that I was probably suffering from clinical depression, but I didn’t know it at the time. At that point, I said, "Listen, this is no good. Why don't we bring a drummer in [to tour], and I’ll work in the studio. I can help you guys write the songs. If I stay on the road I'm going to go nuts.”
I made the right decision to leave. If I would have stayed, it probably would have been much more volatile. If I’d had a thicker skin and my ego was more like the other band member’s egos, the Ramones would have combusted. The fact that I left probably saved the band. I mean, they hated each other, and but they needed the job.