The Importance of Being a Ramone

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Gabba Gabba Hey Is from the 1930s horror film, Freaks," Tommy Erdelyi (formerly Ramone) explains to me one evening over sandwiches in an East Village eatery. "There's a party going on in the film and one of the midgets has married this pretty woman – she's not a freak. During the celebration, they start chanting, 'Gooble gobble, we accept her, one of us!' Or something like that. So when we wrote the song 'Pin-head' [on the Ramones Leave Home LP], we decided to use the chant, but we changed it to give it more power. We were trying to tell the audience that we're all one."

Unfortunately, Tommy and the other band members are currently estranged. Fed up with the grind of the road ("I couldn't stand it; my nerves were shot"), he left the group after the release of the Ramones' third LP, Rocket to Russia. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Erdelyi, now twenty-eight, immigrated to the United States with his older brother and parents when he was four.

Tommy served as manager of the group during the period when the nucleus was Joey on drums, with Dee Dee and Johnny splitting the lead and rhythm guitar chores. The boys auditioned several bassists before Dee Dee agreed to give it a try, and Joey was drafted as the vocalist, because, as Tommy admits, "He had the best voice." That left the drummer's slot open, and Tommy eventually shrugged, sat down and started pounding the skins.

"The truth of the matter was that my function with the Ramones was as a producer and an organizer," Erdelyi reflects. "My least contribution was as a drummer." He began his career as an assistant engineer at various Manhattan studios, working on John McLaughlin's Devotion album and some of the later Jimi Hendrix sessions that would resurface on Crash Landing and other LPs reconstructed after Hendrix' death.

As producer of their legendary sixteen-song demo and coproducer of all four Ramones LPs released in the States (a live collection entitled It's Alive is due to be issued overseas), Erdelyi sees himself as the Ramones' seminal theorist and the man who played the chief role in honing their musical concepts.

"There was never anything like the Ramones before," he assures me. "It was a new way of looking at music. We took the rock sound into a psychotic world and narrowed it down into a straight line of energy. In an era of progressive rock, with its complexities and counterpoints, we had a perspective of nonmusicality and intelligence that takes over for musicianship.

"Going back to the first album, which was the seed, we used block chording as a melodic device, and the harmonics resulting from the distortion of the amplifiers created countermelodies. We used the wall of sound as a melodic rather than a riff form; it was like a song within a song – created by a block of chords droning.

"I'll tell you what else was distinctive," he says, gathering steam. "The hypnotic effect of strict repetition, the effect of lyrics that repeat, and vocals that dart out at you, and the percussive effect of driving the music like a sonic machine. It's very sensual. You can put headphones on and just swim with it. It's not background music."

Was all of this conceived beforehand or are these just Tommy's accumulated after-thoughts?

"Well," he demurs, "it was always a combination of talent and intelligence."

"Wait a minute," I say, "Johnny told me that the first LP sounded so primitive because that was the best you guys could play at that time."

"Yes," Erdelyi concedes, "but there was always intelligence behind it. If every untrained musician doing the best he can decides to make a record, he's not going to get a Ramones LP out of it."

Intrigued by this high-minded analysis, I decide to schedule a symposium down at Joey Ramone's dingy Lower East Side loft to give the other members of the Ramones the opportunity to explain themselves and their rock perspective. The band assembles around a rickety table at one end of the long rectangular room.

Flopped across a mattress in one corner is sad-eyed Danny Fields, who says he's "a young thirty-five" but looks a bit older. A Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania and a Harvard Law School dropout, Fields is a veteran of the rock wars, having signed the MC5 and the Stooges to Elektra while working there as director of publicity. After being fired from Elektra, he says, for defending the MC5's right to have the word fuck on their album jackets and in their print ads, he moved to Atlantic Records as a publicist – and got fired again, he says, for openly detesting Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

He subsequently resurfaced as the editor of 16 Magazine, wrote a music column for the Soho Weekly News, and then – Gabba Gabba Hey!

A raconteur of considerable renown, Fields maintains a curious silence during the talk.

As I gaze across the table at the current Ramones lineup, I am struck by the great differences in their personalities and backgrounds. All are twenty-six years old and similarly dressed, but that's about all they have in common apart from their music.

Johnny Cummings, the authoritative, business-minded guitarist, was born on Long Island. An only child and a self-confessed teenage reprobate, he drifted from one military academy to another during his secondary-school days, searching for some sort of "discipline" in his life. The son of a construction worker now retired in Florida, Johnny has since found inner peace as a Ramone, a Betamax junkie and an avid reader of film biographies and history books.

Dee Dee (Douglas) Colvin, who is secretly married, was born in Virginia but spent fourteen years as a service brat in Germany, where his father, an army career officer, was stationed. Hard-jawed, with dark chilling eyes, his meek, courtly manner cannot conceal the streetfighter's savvy that earned him the ugly knife scars that mar his upper torso and – he later reveals – his buttocks.

Marky Bell is a timorous outsider from Brooklyn, where his father labored for eighteen years as a longshoreman before becoming a lawyer. He is the most seasoned musician, having drummed over the years with transsexual Wayne County, Richard Hell and the Voidoids and a defunct group called Dust that recorded two albums in the late Sixties for the Kama Sutra label.

Joey (Jeffrey) Hyman, the lovable scarecrow, is a native of Forest Hills. His father and mother have been divorced since the early Sixties. He has a younger brother named Mitch, who is a guitarist with rock critic Lester Bangs' band, Birdland. Contrary to popular belief, Joey is the most clever and quick-witted of the Ramones.

We begin by discussing Forest Hills, which Johnny describes as "a middle-class, mostly Jewish neighborhood – if that means anything." He then mentions that Michael Landon, the star of TV's Little House on the Prairie, is from the same area. I interject that Paul Simon also lived in Forest Hills, and Marky corrects me: "Paul Stanley - of Kiss." When I say no, I mean Paul Simon, he gives me a blank stare.

"Aw, you know Paul Simon," Johnny chides the drummer, but Marky replies with another blank stare.

"Don't mind him," Johnny tells me with exasperation. "He's from Brooklyn."

"Speaking of celebrities," says Joey, "I once played for about five minutes with Keith – you know, the guy who did that [1966] hit song, '98.6'."

Everyone expressed great surprise at this revelation . . . except Marky.

Marky: [Confused] Keith Allison? Joey: No! No! The "98.6" Keith! I auditioned for him, playing drums. He took me out for a beer and it was exciting, ya know? When I first got to his loft he was blow-drying his hair. I brought my double-bass Keith Moon set of drums up there. But he was fucked up because he made me play in a room all by myself, without accompanying me or anything. He said, "Alright – play!" So I played "Toad" or something, ya know? The fuckin' jerk!

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