A Farewell to Da Brudders – The Ramones Leave Home
When I woke up on Saturday morning, I checked my phone and had a notification that Tommy Ramone had passed away from bile-duct cancer. The news hit me like a kick in the gut. All four original members of punk rock’s most iconic band are now gone. Statistically, based upon dates of birth and actuary data, the probability of at least one of the band member’s being alive is greater than 99%. However, that data is essentially meaningless when dealing with this reality. Perhaps the Ramones were always more about possibilities than probabilities.
As everyone knows, the Ramones were a staple of New York’s CBGB’s club whose first album was a radical departure from major label production values and musical styles of the day. While pop was turning to disco and much of mainstream rock was focused on extended solos and individual performance chops, the Ramones boiled down rock into everything they loved – their music was fast, loud, simple, and fun. With simple downstroke guitar playing and the rhythm section locked into a relentless eighth notes pattern, the group turned their limitations as technical musicians into their strength as a unit. Their first album had 14 songs with an average length of two minutes and seven seconds. They established the punk rock template with that record and “Blitzkrieg Bop” has become a “Hey! Ho! Let’s go!” anthem, in spite of the complete commercial indifference that the group faced at the time.
The Ramones built their legacy between ’76 and ’78 with four outstanding albums released in a span of 26 months. Tommy Erdelyi, a.k.a., Tommy Ramone, was the most mature/normal member of the band and had worked in the music industry prior to joining the group. He left the drum kit on the ’78 Road to Ruin album (which he co-produced), due to the rigors of touring with such a combustible unit. He would later co-produce with Ed Stasium the band’s best album of the ‘80s, the now ironically titled Too Tough to Die, and has sole production credit for the highly regarded album Tim by The Replacements.
In terms of the band, creating their legacy was almost a breeze compared to sustaining a career. They never had a legitimate hit record or album in the United States – “Rockaway Beach” stalled at #66 on the pop charts, three years later their Phil Spector produced cover of The Ronettes’ hit “Baby, I Love You” went Top Ten in England and Ireland. The group lived on the road as a means of survival. The most famous dynamic in the band was Joey and Johnny’s utter hatred for each other. Despite leading the world’s best known punk unit, Joey (his parents knew him as Jeffrey Hyman) had a pure ‘60s peace and love hippie spirit – before joining the band he had sold plastic flowers on the streets of Greenwich Village. Joey also had legitimate mental illness issues. Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) had a fascination with military precision and was a right wing ideologue. Their always fragile peace was forever shattered when Linda Daniele ended a romantic relationship with Joey and eventually married Johnny. The song title “The KKK Took My Baby Away” wasn’t plucked out of thin air.
The quality of their albums tapered off after Too Tough to Die and bassist/songwriter Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin), of the famous “1, 2, 3, 4!” song introductions, left the group in 1989. He spent part of the ‘90s living in Amsterdam, because it was an easier place to score street drugs than New York. The man that had written many of the band’s best songs (“Blitzkrieg Bop,” “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Something to Believe In,” and the sadly autobiographical “53rd & 3rd”) died in 2002 of a heroin overdose. His “brother” Joey, who lost his seven-year battle with lymphoma in 2001, preceded him in death. Johnny Ramone, who was much more attentive to financial matters than his long term bandmates, lived a quiet life in Los Angeles after the group split up in 1996 and passed away from colon cancer in 2004.
While all the original members have passed away, their music will continue to live and inspire. Arguably, American’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, they created a sound and image unlike any other band, but those attributes weren’t the true key to their importance. While they endlessly sought commercial success, they were ultimately a gathering place for the outsiders – the kids that weren’t athletes or prom royalty or the beautiful people. The Ramones provided a psychological safety zone for a generation of misfits who intrinsically knew that conformity was neither a valid goal nor a viable option. They provided a haven not just as a gathering place for outcasts, but a beautiful celebration of the power of eccentricity.
On a personal level, as long as I have a beating heart, the spirit of the Ramones will be vitally alive.