Tommy Ramone, RIP
I was born the year the Ramones played their first show making me a generation too young for their revolution. But still the simplicity and power in their sound impacted me like no other band.
In my early teenage years I dubbed a copy of Ramones Mania (for the Ramones were already being anthologized in the late 80s) from a friend and listened until the tape wore out. At 16, I would have listed hardcore punks the Dead Kennedys as more influential to me but it was the Ramones who stuck around.
As I grew into a proper fan, each Ramone came to mean something special to me. Johnny was the curmudgeon with integrity I wanted to be. Joey was the sensitive guy I identified with. Dee Dee was the troubled kid I knew. But Tommy might have been the closest in temperament and personality to me.
Tommy was the architect of the band. He put the other elements in place and when he couldn’t find a suitable drummer, he stepped in. After three albums and the constant touring, he called it a day…as drummer. Tommy continued to be the architect. He literally sat behind Marky at the drum kit to teach him the Ramones style of drumming. He produced Road to Ruin and Too Tough to Die. He stepped into the role of historian after the band broke up.
It’s easy to miss how much of a struggle the Ramones had. They rebooted music. They created punk rock: its ethos, sound, and look. But they didn’t start making money until the bitter end. Johnny and Joey spent decades hating each other but traveling in a van together for months out of the year. A van. They couldn’t afford tour buses. But more than anyone else, Tommy and Johnny knew the importance of the Ramones and Johnny kept them moving until their legacy could take hold.
Tommy is the last of the original band to pass away. None of them made it to old age. When I saw the headline of his death this morning, I went to Arturo Vega’s website to see if he had posted a tribute. When the website didn’t load, I had a sinking feeling. Arturo — the creator of their iconic logo, their lighting and design director for their entire career — passed away last year. I’d missed the news. I bought my Ramones shirt from him. He was the fifth Ramone.
I wrote a novel largely about one fan’s obsession with the Ramones. In it, the fan mourns Johnny’s death wrapped in her leather jacket watching old clips of the band. I feel like doing that today to mourn the passing of four blue-collar weirdos from Queens who reshaped rock music. They were accidental futurists with retro impulses. They were deliberately confrontational to the status quo but cartoonish enough to be lovable. They were — arguably — geniuses.
I don’t experience fandom the way I see it in others but I’m unabashedly a fan of the Ramones. They mean more to me than their music. I feel a kinship with them. I’m sad to hear of Tommy’s passing. I’ll remember him and his band fondly and I’ll do my part to keep their legacy alive.
Addendum: the documentary End of the Century is an eye-opening and heart-breaking document of the Ramones story. It is essential viewing for Ramones fans or rock historians. If you want to read about them, I recommend Monte Melnick’s On the Road with the Ramones. Monte was their tour manager and his book is an awesome oral history of their career (in which Monte is arguably the sixth Ramone). Everett True’s Hey Ho Let’s Go is a fantastically detailed biography of the band but it heavily favors Joey in the Johnny/Joey rift. Balance that out by reading I Slept With Joey Ramone by Joey’s brother Mickey Leigh and Johnny’s incredible posthumously published memoir Commando. Johnny’s book absolutely ties the story together and shows a warmth inside him that isn’t portrayed by other documentarians.