Tommy Ramone

Interviews | By on Nov 30th, 1998

In the new documentary, End of the Century, the sleeves of the Ramones are rolled up, showing all their warts and scars. And in the midst of all the dysfunction, squabbling, and resentfulness, there’s one positive voice who saw the potential of the Ramones, believed in them and never stopped believing. He’s Tom Erdelyi, aka Tommy Ramone – their original drummer by default, producer of their best albums, and writer of songs like Blitzkrieg Bop. But for virtually creating the punk sound, Tom Erdelyi is a humble, thoughtful, down-to-earth average guy. While the other Ramones kept (got stuck in?) their “Ramone” persona, Tom kept his own identity, becoming the most “inside” objective resource on the early Ramones. Just as he was the spokesman for the band in their earliest days, he is, by default in a tragic sense, their spokesman again. I spoke with him a few days after Johnny Ramone’s passing.

Hi, Tom, this is Adam from READ Magazine.
Yes, hi. How are you?

Good, thank you for taking the time. I just wanted to first send my condolences and say I’m really sorry about the passing of Johnny. Were you close with him toward the end?
We remained friends… we were close in the sense that we were bonded by the Ramones. Because the Ramones were like a family, a brotherhood of sorts. But we weren’t close in any other way, really. But we remained friendly.

Were you able to speak to him toward the end?
Yes, I did. I was out there in California… I didn’t get to see him, but I spoke to him on the phone and we talked and there was closure. It was good.

I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, with all three of them passing away in such a short period of time. Do you feel it’s a shame that they weren’t able to resolve a lot of their issues?
Of course it’s a shame, but they wouldn’t have resolved their issues. But it’s a big shame that they passed so young. And it’s a shame that they couldn’t resolve their issues, but the thing is, a part of their talent was tied into their orneriness, you know? You couldn’t have one without the other.

Yeah, I was thinking that they seemed so dysfunctional internally, but that dysfunction is what made them function as a band.
It’s part of what made the Ramones the Ramones.

How involved were you with the documentary?
Actually, I was very involved in the beginning. There was a lot more footage of me in the beginning. (laughs) But then Johnny got involved later and it became more of Johnny’s movie. (laughs) But I saw five versions of that movie.

Really?
Yeah, and they were all good. Yeah, [there were many versions] because it took like six years for it to be released.

Was each version a different viewpoint from each member? (laughs)
Yeah, there was a lot of that in the first couple of versions. But there were time constraints and you have to have all the viewpoints in, so that was left out. But there might be more footage in the DVD, I don’t know. But all in all, I think the movie came out really good. People seem to like it, and it’s really nicely balanced.

Do you think it’s a fair interpretation?
I think it’s a fair interpretation of a certain side of the Ramones. The hard luck fame and tough luck part of it. But there are other aspects of the Ramones – the music, the humor… The Ramones were really complex.

That’s a criticism I had of the movie – that it really accentuated the negative aspects, and I can’t imagine that 20 years of the Ramones was just them hating each other. What are some of the positives of the Ramones, when you were in the band?
Well, look. As far as I can remember, the positives were basically just the music and the shows. We were all very dedicated to creating as good stuff as we could. And that’s what we were doing. That’s what I look at as far as the good stuff is concerned. I mean, you get all these dysfunctional people together, and you know, there’s ego conflicts and turf conflicts and all this stuff, it’s not going to be a happy camp. But as far as the music and the work is concerned, we all loved that, and we all believed in it, and we all worked very hard for that. And that was the fun part. The fun part was making the albums.

How did you feel about Dee Dee’s comments about you not being deserving of credit?
Dee Dee was sort of afraid that if I got credit for anything, I would get too much credit. In other words, if I got some credit, I would’ve gotten all the credit. He was kind of afraid of that, I think, which is just absurd. If anything, the Ramones were one group with all four people contributing pretty much equally.

But do you feel that in the Ramones lore, you have been under-credited or underappreciated? Because a lot of people don’t know that you managed and produced the band, and that you wrote some of their best songs in the beginning.
Yeah, they would sort of not talk about me for twenty years. (laughs) So a lot of people, like the younger kids, don’t know I was in the band!

They seem to have rewritten history for a lot of members. I mean, you never hear about Richie Ramone. But in your case, it’s a real shame because not only did you help shape the Ramones’ sound, but by doing so, you really shaped the punk sound. And the punk sound really owes you a real debt.
Thank you very much.

It was one of the things that struck me while watching the documentary, and I hope that a lot of people realize it as well.
Yeah, I hope so too. It’s a little confusing with Dee Dee’s statement.

And another thing that struck me in the documentary was that you seemed to be the most levelheaded, most mature Ramone. Everyone called Johnny the father figure, but that was because he was very authoritarian, but you seemed to be the anchor.
It wasn’t like that when I was in the band, though. We all pulled our weight. I don’t know what happened after I left. Then it became a power struggle between Johnny and Joey. But right now, because of Johnny’s passing… Well, they’re saying he was the disciplinarian…

And that’s just a nice way of putting it?
Yeah, but you know, when I was in the band, it was fairly democratic. We all had a say. But there was a lot of politics involved. John was very good at divide and conquer tactics and things like that. He was always into that kind of stuff.

That’s interesting because I had heard, and this wasn’t in the documentary so I might be wrong, that Johnny spent time in a military school for a couple of years.
I think it was a couple of weeks. (laughs) But it was enough for him to… I think it changed him for life, yes.

Going back to what I was saying before, you always seemed the most mature of the group, and in a way, the punk scene didn’t seem to suit you.
We all had our role. My role was that I was the coordinator and the idea guy. I came up with a lot of the imagery. But basically, my job was to harness the talents of these very talented guys. And that’s the way I looked at it. As far as the drumming is concerned, I became the drummer because I couldn’t explain to drummers what they needed. They just couldn’t get it or understand it, so I started doing it. But, you know, I started as their manager and producer, and ended up in the band, and I was an important part of it. I was another dimension of it. Each of the guys had a personality, and we were all punk in our own ways. I mean, Joey wasn’t like Johnny, and Dee Dee wasn’t like anybody. Everyone brought their own personality into it, including me. And all those ingredients made up the Ramones. I brought in different skills than they did, whatever that was.

Speaking of roles, it was repeated throughout the documentary that you were the early spokesman of the group. And I guess it’s morbid, but it’s interesting that because of the tragedies over the past few years, you have become the spokesman again. How do you feel about that role?
(pause) I feel that the Ramones are my baby, okay? So I’m very proud of it, I love to explain it to people, and to enlighten people about the Ramones as much as I can. But it’s also an emotional thing. Sometimes… it can be hard. Because of all the…

Baggage?
Because of the baggage, and stuff involved with it. It’s a complex thing. I do it to enlighten the public, but sometimes it is hard.

It must be tough, because for years you’ve cheerleaded the Ramones, you’ve wanted them to keep going, even though you of all people knew of the resentment and negative feelings in that partnership.
Yeah, well, like I said, pain was part of the creative process, and… pain is pain.

Did you leave the band because you couldn’t deal with it anymore? Was it like escaping the asylum?
I had four years of it… The way I looked at it was that I was trying to figure out how to keep doing it without having a breakdown. Being the underdog so many times was rough on me, but I wanted to keep working with them, so I figured, well, I’m sure we could find a drummer who can do this. And it’s not necessary for me to be on the road, I could still help write the songs and produce the records, and give them what I’ve been giving them, and basically just keep working with them. That was the idea, and that’s what we did at first, with Road to Ruin. But then what happened was, the record company wanted to bring in Phil Specter to give them a hit, and I sort of drifted away. And whatever. Maybe some people in the band didn’t realize exactly how important my contributions were and they basically cut the rope.

But didn’t you come back to produce Too Tough To Die?
Yeah, they asked me to come back to do it.

That’s actually my favorite Ramones album.
Ah, thank you.

What did you think of Phil Spector’s production on End of the Century?
You know, I idolize Phil Spector. One of the reasons why I wanted to become a record producer was because of Phil Spector. But I don’t think he was the perfect guy for the Ramones, okay? It was just different sensibilities. Phil Spector LOVED the Ramones. I mean, right away he said, “Wow, the last time I got this excited by a band was when I saw the Rolling Stones.” So, you know, that says something. He really loved the band, and he got excited and really wanted to work with them. But it was just different worlds. So it was probably very difficult for them to work together. But there are some really good songs on there, and he did a wonderful job on Joey’s vocals. They spent time together and Joey and Phil really got on together.

Joey sounded different ever since. He had more range and depth.
Yeah, and after that, Joey worked differently. Doing a lot of overdubs and composite things like that, and it really changed the way they did records.

One theme of the documentary was their resentment that they never reached commercial success. A lot of blame was thrown around, but the documentary didn’t touch on label support. I mean, they could say that the radio stations were too afraid to play the albums, but maybe the stations didn’t get them. Maybe there was no real promotion support. Did you feel any real push from Sire?
Well, basically it was Warner Bros. Sire was great because they signed us and never dropped us. But the promotions was up to Warner Bros. which was distributing it and putting up the money. And I don’t know how much they actually threw at the band, you know, to get it on radio and things like that. From the evidence, it doesn’t seem like it was much. I never felt like Warner Bros. really understood the band.

Another thing I thought of, speaking of commercial success, is that, well… you can have a band that has one or two huge albums, and they become huge commercial successes for a bit, but they don’t really have any lasting influence. The thing with the Ramones is that they didn’t have a commercial success, but their influential legacy is just so great. Would the Ramones have traded their legacy of influence for commercial success without the legacy?
(pause) Let me put it this way. They were always seeking commercial success. Well, mainly Joey. Joey was always seeking commercial success. Dee Dee, I’m sure, would’ve loved the commercial success. John would’ve loved the money. But John, I think, also saw the integrity part of it and realized pretty early on that the commercial success might elude him. So he basically appreciated what he had. I think Joey always held onto the dream of a hit song; that the next song will hit and will change everything around. As far as I was concerned, at the beginning, I realized what a great band it was. I felt that certainly artistically, they were fabulous. But I always felt that they could’ve been certainly a little bit more commercially successful than they were. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t do just a little bit better than they did. So somebody is gonna have to figure that out. I think you might be on the right track, but I’m not in a position to say anything like that…

No prob.
…but you are. But anyway, I saw the greatness in the Ramones.

Millions of people did. And that can be shown by being inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. What was your first thought when you heard the Ramones were to be inducted?
It was a surprise because we got in on the first ballot. I thought there would have to be a bit of a struggle. So that was a real surprise. It was really rewarding; it justified our beliefs of ourselves. It meant more to us that it probably does to the average recipient of it, who already has platinum albums. So for us, it really meant something.

For some guys, it’s just a reward, but for you guys it was more like vindication.
Yeah.

Was it awkward seeing these guys again?
Not for me, but it was a strange event. There were different tables, basically. Johnny had his own table with his celebrity friends. Then there was another table with some Ramones in it, and a third table that had some Ramones and Talking Heads in it. And there were a couple of Talking Heads tables too. (laughs) But as far as I was concerned, I was getting along with everybody. And I thought it was a real shame that things were like this, but I don’t know… maybe they enjoyed these kinds of conflicts.

They must have enjoyed it to keep going like that. Looking back, how do you feel about the Ramones albums you were involved with? Do you have any favorites, or least favorites? Is there anything you would’ve liked to have done differently?
My favorite album is Rocket to Russia. I guess my second favorite would be the first album because it has really great songs on it. In retrospect, I don’t think I would do any of them over again. I think they represent what they were for their time. The first album is kind of raw and lo-fi, but I think it’s perfect for what it is. The second album is sort of like a pop album, and Road to Ruin, I think is really… I mean, we did a lot of work on that, we did some innovative production on that. I think we got a great sound, and I think it was a sound that a lot of other bands copied after that. So it was a great record sound-wise, and it was a very powerful record. So each album has its thing, but my favorite is Rocket to Russia.

Can you tell us about the musical that you’re working on?
The book was written by Michael Herrmann, who’s a novelist in Australia. And they sent me the book and I looked through it and it seemed really good. It’s about this kid who comes from a troubled home with an abusive stepfather, and he runs away to the Lower East Side and gets into more trouble. Then eventually he redeems himself through certain ways. There’s 18 Ramones songs, and a New York Dolls song and a Motorhead song… The show did a run in Australia last month, and it went really well, so now we’re looking to bringing it to the United States. It’s called Gabba Gabba Hey.

Are you still playing bluegrass [with your band Uncle Monk]?
Yeah, that should be finished by early next year. I’m having a lot of fun doing that. It’s interesting mixing those instruments with modern ideas.

So, it’s like bluegrass with a rock twist?
It’s not rock, but basically, the structure of the songs and the lyrics isn’t bluegrass, but the instruments are, and some of the melodic ideas are. But it’s modern… as if bluegrass took a weird turn somewhere.

Are you working on anything else?
Just those two things right now. I have a partner, but because I’m playing most of the instruments myself, it’s very time consuming!

What’s something about the Ramones that no one really knew or understood?
(pause) The depth, multidimensionality and complexity of what made the Ramones. The music, what went on in the minds of these people, and what it took to create something that on the surface seems so simple, but is really very complex and very hard, or even impossible, to imitate or emulate.

What is the Ramones’ place in rock n’ roll?
Umm… I can’t answer that. I was too much inside. I’d have to leave that up to other people. But hopefully we contributed enough to make a difference.

What does being a Ramone mean to you?
(pause) Wow. I think it was an incredible privilege that I was given the chance to be involved in something like this. It’s amazing.

Would you do it all over again?
There is no other way. I mean, I gave us a lot to do this. Because I was a guitar player and singer and budding filmmaker, and I put all that aside because of the Ramones, because I saw the potential. Picking up the drumsticks was a real…

Risk?
Well, decision. It was a decision to go with the Ramones. Because I knew what I was getting into. I knew what I was dealing with. And I thought it was worthwhile. And I did it… and I made it out. (laughs)

News about Tom’s projects, as well as other members of the Ramones, are posted on Ramones.com. Click here for information about the Ramones musical, Gabba Gabba Hey. End of the Century is still playing in cool theaters across the country – be sure to check it out.

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