More than any other band I’ve ever called a favorite, loving the Ramones feels like a lifelong allegiance. You’re making a pledge as part of something bigger than yourself. You take a stand with the underdog– the rejected, the dejected, the downtrodden and beleaguered. You celebrate everything that is wrong with you and everything that makes this mess of an existence so uniquely beautiful. You laugh and you cry in equal measure, but you’re glad because you’re out there feeling. This is what made their music so vibrant and so enduring. In all its malformed simplicity and unabashed goofiness, it was loaded with heart. When you declare yourself a fan of this band, you know that it’s about more than the catchy and energetic tunes, but also the fact that the dysfunctional weirdos who made those tunes were able to rise above their maladies & sundry neuroses to make something this joyous.
I hesitate to talk about this kind of stuff because it sounds like exactly the kind of pseudo mystic bullshit that people come up with as a way to introduce themselves into the narrative of somebody else’s tragedy, but I think I’ve accumulated some goodwill in the pages of this here webrag. And let me also preface this by saying that I am 100% certain that this is nothing but a crazy coincidence; I don’t believe there are cosmic forces at play here, there’s no great wind upon which we are being carried, putting each factor into a specific order as part of some greater meaning. This is just what I consider to be a remarkable coincidence.
I love the Ramones. They are, and long have been, one of my all-time favorite bands. But sometimes I’ll go through long stretches of time– months, even years– when I just won’t feel like listening to their music. It’ll still be there in the background, I’ll still smile whenever I happen upon one of their songs, but I won’t actively seek them out. This is pretty reasonable; for as prolific as they were, there’s only so many times you can listen to the same bunch of albums, the slight variations in barr chord sequences over and over again. However, every once in a while, I’ll go into a Ramones frenzy; an extended period– usually weeks, sometimes months– when they’re all I’ll listen to. Whether it’s the later stuff or the old classics or the unfairly maligned middle period, I’ll go through these sudden bursts of Ramones enthusiasm where all I wanna hear is the sound of that buzzsaw guitar, those crude & angular basslines, and Joey’s soulful vocals singing teenage love songs or songs about getting lobotomies. Alright, now here’s the creepy part…
The last three of these Ramones frenzies have happened to coincide with the death of one of the original band members. No, I don’t mean it was their death that prompted me to listen to them– rather, I’ll have a sudden and inexplicable urge to listen to their music for weeks, at the end of which the news will come out that one of the four original members has bitten the dust. It happened first with Joey, during the early days of my Ramones fandom. Soon after that, Dee Dee. And a few years later, Johnny. And for the first time in years, I had one of these Ramones frenzies recently; for the last month or so, I’ve been listening through their full discography, and re-reading my books about them. I was even in the middle of writing a blog post about some of their overlooked gems (proof). And just a couple of hours ago, I find out that Tommy Ramone– their first drummer, and their last original member– has passed away at age 65. Beyond the sadness of his loss, I find this coincidence unnerving.
(I shared this phenomenon with a friend recently. “I’ve been listening to nothing but the Ramones for the last few days,” I said. “The last few times this happened, a band member has turned out dead.” “Maybe you should stop listening to them before you kill them all,” she joked. For the sake of remaining members Marky, Richie and CJ, maybe I should. Although they were not part of the original lineup, so perhaps they’re safe.)
Tommy was their drummer from 1974 to 1978, playing on their first three albums (their biggest and most influential). He was also a producer for several of their later albums, having left the band due to a distaste for touring. From everything that I’ve seen in interviews and read in books, he was a kind and funny guy, with a level of self-awareness that perhaps eluded the rest of the group. He wasn’t a showy drummer, but he understood exactly what his drumming needed to be. He understood that Ramones songs were really just pop songs set on fire. And since my upcoming post is about their overlooked gems (and there really aren’t any overlooked gems in their first 3 albums), it felt strange not to pay my respects to a man whose role in forming the band and setting them on their course contributed to the shaping of my teen years and my musical identity. So long, brother, and Gabba Gabba to you.
Here’s Tommy in his prime, playing a legendary gig with the Ramones at The Rainbow in London, 1977.