The Arty Semite

Tommy Ramone, Jewish Punk Icon, Dies at 65

By Michael Kaminer

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As Thomas Erdelyi, he was the Budapest-born son of Holocaust survivors who settled in Forest Hills, Queens.

But as Tommy Ramone, he became the leather-jacketed, rhythm-slashing backbone of The Ramones, arguably one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century.

Ramone, the last surviving original member of the band, died July 11 of bile duct cancer at his home in Ridgewood Queens. He was 65.

The Ramones first came together in 1974, at the height of California-rock flab and music-business excess.

Erdelyi, who had worked as a record producer beginning in his teens, was going to be the band’s manager and was helping audition drummers when the group was forming in 1974, according to the Washington Post.

When none of them could follow the Ramones’ style, he picked up the sticks himself, learned to play drums on the job, and became Tommy Ramone. He was also widely credited with creating the band’s signature look — leather jackets, huge mops of hair, and, for himself, omnipresent sunglasses.

Erdelyi initially hid his Jewishness from his bandmates, according to Steven Lee Beeber’s book “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk.” Not even Danny Fields, the band’s Jewish manager, knew of Tommy Ramone’s Jewish roots.

Along with the family’s persecution in Europe, Beeber’s book revealed that Ramone had been ostracized as a “goy” at an Orthodox yeshiva he attended as a child. “Subconsciously, perhaps, he had recreated himself as a tough Jew, shedding the uncomfortable skin of the Jewish victim,” Beeber wrote.

Propulsive drumming, furious guitars, and compact songs like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” aimed to explode 1970s rock paradigms of indulgent solos, flaccid songwriting, and anesthetic lyrics.

“The Ramones were a rock-and-roll primal scream, an expression of rebellion, loneliness, spite and raw, unfiltered fun,” the Post’s Matt Schudel wrote. “The band was an upthrust finger pointed toward the sappy, overproduced pop music of the time.”

Although the Ramones never scored a top-40 hit, the band influenced a generation of rockers, from Nirvana to Green Day — and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

“It wasn’t just music in The Ramones: it was an idea,” Ramone said. It was bringing back a whole feel that was missing in rock music — it was a whole push outwards to say something new and different. Originally it was just an artistic type of thing; finally I felt it was something that was good enough for everybody.”

Tommy Ramone left the band in 1978. The Ramones disbanded in 1996 after a tour that followed their final studio album. A live farewell tour album, “We’re Outta Here!” was released in 1997, according to the Associated Press.

The band’s Jewish co-founder, Joey Ramone — ne Joey Hyman — died of lymphoma in 2001. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone, another founding member, overdosed on heroin in 2002. And guitarist Johnny Ramone succumbed to prostate cancer in 2004.

At the time of his death, Tommy Ramone was performing acoustic rock as Uncle Monk with Claudia Tienan, his partner of 40 years. She survives him.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Obituaries, Tommy Ramone, The Ramones, Punk, Music

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