Tommy Ramone Goes Gold
Drummer left his beat on every generation after his
By William Harries Graham,
2:00PM, Tue. Jul. 15, 2014
Tommy Ramone, the last original member of the Ramones, died from cancer Friday. There’s little doubt that the musical and cultural impact of his band will last as long as Mozart’s.
How had Tommy spent the last several years? Digging hard into bluegrass. In 2007, Cary Baker, a veteran publicist and the owner of L.A. PR firm Conqueroo, attended the Americana Music Conference and Festival in Nashville. After taking part in a panel, a gentleman with gray hair in a ponytail approached Baker.
“Hi, I’m Tommy Ramone. I have a bluegrass duo called Uncle Monk. Do you want to work with us?”
“Usually I wait until I’ve heard the music,” acknowledges Baker. “However, the one and only answer to a question like that – coming from a bonafide Ramone – is ‘Yes.’”
Baker continues: “In addition to being the guy who put the big beat into the Ramones, Tommy Ramone was an ardent bluegrass aficionado and had written an album of traditional acoustic instrumentation given an unexpected twist with lyrics about ironies of modern life. His death, on the day after the Ramones’ debut quietly certified gold, provided sweet poetic justice.
“I hope that he got to hear the news before he left us.”
That helps explain a line from Belgian film Broken Circle Breakdown, winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. At one point, the lead character, a bluegrass musician, says, “I used to be a punk rocker. Now I play banjo because it snarls like punk.”
I grew up listening to “I Wanna Be Sedated” on my mother’s music mixes. When my brother Roy came to visit for the summer back when he was in high school, the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” blared through his headphones.
“The Ramones are a way for me to connect with my parents’ generation,” reminisced Roy over the weekend. “In high school, I liked how their music felt energetic and really unconnected to my own life, or anything significant or serious. It was music that didn’t give a shit in a lot of ways.”
Christianne Swenson, who plays with the Tiny Be, told me Sunday, “The Ramones were the first punk band that I listened to. I had the Loud, Fast compilation CD in my mom’s old car and we listened to it constantly. They had a profound impact on me.
“They taught me that music can be straightforward and unpretentious. That there’s nothing wrong with having short songs with three chords if you execute them properly.”
Io Hickman, echoes: “I started to listen to the Ramones when I was 10, which is when I realized there was more music than what was on pop radio. I liked how simple the chords and Tommy’s drums were with Joey’s unique and nontraditional voice. They were punk, but not too heavy or obscure.
“They inspired me by letting me know that you just needed a few simple chords and some killer lyrics that needn’t be complicated.”
My dad, Jon Dee Graham, and his buddy Alejandro Escovedo, along with rest of the True Believers, went out for drinks with Tommy once when the band was looking for a producer for their first album.
“We thought it’d be a cool idea,” remembers my father. “He was quiet and shy. We drank a lot.”
I feel the same way that retired Chronicle writer Margaret Moser does about the Ramones’ music: “Free! Their music makes me feel giddy and happy.”
Of Tommy’s iconic status, local drummer Jon Greenesums it up: “Tommy’s brand of simple, boneheaded playing was perfect for the Ramones’ sound. If any other drummer tried to play in his place, it would just sound wrong. He seemed to always play for the song, and that’s as good a legacy as you could want.”