The Ramones changed my life. It seems incomprehensible that with drummer Tommy Ramone’s death on Friday (11) that all four of the original members are gone (none of them got out of their 50s other than Tommy). I was out of pocket for most of the weekend, but his passing is too significant not to observe it.
I was too young—and not cool enough— to get into their music when the foursome’s self-titled debut album came out in 1976. I remember as I got older, seeing photos of them in their matching black bowl haircuts, leather jackets and sunglasses and feeling scared. I was raised on Top 40 pop and didn’t veer outside the lines very much until I got older. They looked like they would push me into a school locker and make fun of me. How could I have been so wrong?
It took until I saw The Ramones on New Year’s Eve, 1988, at Irving Plaza in New York with my then-boyfriend to realize I had been a fool. By then, of course, Tommy was no longer playing with the band. His replacement, Marky, had gone and come back again. But the show was an epiphany for me. Instead of being afraid of the Ramones, I should have embraced them and their dumb, mindless fun. They were misfits just like me.
I dove into the albums. That first album, all 26 minutes of its ragged glory, is a classic. For all my fears that the music was unapproachable or just noise, it was as inviting as could be with a keen pop sensibility. Listen to “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and try not to draw comparisons to early-day Beatles. Even “Chain Saw,” about missing his love who’s murdered in the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, has a certain undeniable charm, if for nothing else that they sing “massacreee” instead of “massacre.”
Those first four albums, released within a 2 1/2-year span, are all brilliant (though most purists are captivated only by the first three). Tommy left after the first three and he took a bit of the edge with him, but even today when I listen to “Blitzkreig Bop” and his steady, simple playing I’m transfixed. As Robert Christgau wrote in Billboard, “Tommy thought the simplicity of the band's attack required something much cleaner than [original drummer Joey Ramone’s] choppy style – "eight-notes across, with the `one' on the bass and the `two' on the snare, fast and consistent." So when the drummers who auditioned wouldn't stop with the fills and rolls, he climbed behind the kit and found he had a knack for it.”
I never met Tommy. The only one I had a relationship with was Joey. When I was talent editor at Billboard in the last ‘90s, I interviewed him a number of times. We hit it off and he would call me a couple of times a year just to check in. I’d pick up my phone and hear in that instantly recognizable voice, “Hey, hey Melinda. It’s Joey.”
There was a underdog sweetness to Joey that was impossible to resist. We may start talking about one thing— including his joy over producing a Ronnie Spector album and, later, how he was doing once he got cancer— for a while it looked like he had beat it -- but the conversations usually veered into his sadness and resentment that the Ramones had never had the commercial success they deserved. Indeed— was there ever a band that influenced so many acts that followed who had so little sales? It’s bittersweet that only two months before Tommy died, the Ramones’ debut album was finally certified gold for sales of 500,000, the group’s only title to do so. I hope he got to know.
The biggest thing I learned from the Ramones was to never ever judge a band by anything other than the music. I lost out on years of enjoying their music because the image scared me. I haven’t made that mistake again since.