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Ramones produced fun music through all the turmoil

  • Written by Jeff Vorva

Jeffs Col ImpressionsThe final pinhead has passed.
Erdelyi Tamas, more famously known as Tommy Ramone, died of cancer at age 65 Friday and was the last surviving original member of my favorite rock group – the Ramones.
(For the record, the group was called Ramones and not “the Ramones’ but it’s easier to just call them the Ramones).
I’ve loved this New Yawk group for close to 40 years when I first heard the song “Judy Is a Punk” in the late 1970s on something called Triad radio, which was located somewhere on the right on the FM dial in Chicago. At the time, Triad played artists no one else on radio was playing and that included this struggling, rarely heard dude named Jimmy Buffett.
The Ramones were like nothing I had ever heard before. They came up with fast and melodic assaults that were so brilliant that their first three albums were clones of each other but each one got progressively better. “Rocket to Russia” contains my favorite song of all-time, “Rockaway Beach’’ but also had gems such as covers “Do Ya Wanna Dance” and “Surfin Bird” plus original classics “Cretin Hop,” “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,’’ and “Teenage Lobotomy.”
The Sex Pistols were called the Beatles of punk rock and I thought the Ramones were the Beach Boys of that genre.
On stage, the group was pretty basic. Joey Ramone was the human totem pole rarely moving from the mic stand with his long hair spilling into his sunglasses. To his left (and our right) was bass player Dee Dee Ramone, who was jumping up and down like he stuck his finger in a light socket. To Joey’s right (and our left) was Johnny Ramone who also jumped around but was mostly content to pose and look cool while playing music on his guitar at a million miles an hour.
About the only change came toward the end of each show when they performed “Pinhead” and some roadie would come dancing on stage with a sign that said “Gabba Gabba Hey” that Joey would raise over his head.
And in the background was Tommy who was later replaced by a few others including Marky Ramone, who served the longest term as the group’s drummer.
To me, their first three albums, “Ramones,” “Leave Home,” “Rocket to Russia” and their fifth, “End of the Century” (produced by the insane Phil Spector) are masterpieces. The fourth, “Road to Ruin” is OK. The sixth album, “Pleasant Dream” is also pretty cool, but I didn’t appreciate it until decades later. The rest of the albums are hit-and-miss with some flashes of brilliance here and there. Heck, even an average Ramones song is still pretty good.
The group had a cult following and had no big charting hits for many of its years.
Then the boys started dying off and their legend started to grow. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. The first song off their first album, “Blitzkrieg Bop,” never cracked the top 100 but is now used in commercials and sports arenas and is considered a classic.
I never met of talked to any of the fellas. One time I got to meet Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and we talked a lot about the Ramones and he took my business card and said he would have Johnny call me. That never happened.
When I covered the Cubs, I would attend parts of spring training and one year I missed out on meeting Johnny attending a game in Arizona by a week. The other writers razzed me about that.
That said, I’m kind of glad I never did get to meet these guys.
I’ve done a lot of reading on them and I liked them less and less as people.
Dee Dee was just flat out crazy and had way too many drug problems and didn’t always treat people very nicely.
Joey had drug issues of his own and in so many interviews I tired of his whining about how underappreciated the group was. At times he complained about not having a breakthrough single or album. Other times he said he was glad the group never made it big because they kept their integrity. Can’t have it both ways, big fella.
Johnny? There are plenty of stories about how he was ultra conservative and had a fascination with Hitler, the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. When Johnny stole Joey’s girlfriend and married her, the two Ramones rarely talked. Legend has it that Joey wrote the song “The KKK Took My Baby Away” in dishonor of the incident.
If that’s true, how dumb is Johnny to play that song thousands of times live not realizing that it is a direct slap at him?
Anyway, there are plenty of ugly and dysfunctional stories about these dudes to be found (heck, a book about them is called “The Complete Twisted History”) but it never seemed to affect the magic on stage or in the studio.
So as the final original Ramone has been laid to rest I was grimacing at the stories I remembered about their lives but grinning at the great music they made.