The moment cited at the start of this post took place in 1974 in the basement of the Art Garden, a Queens art gallery owned by Joey Ramone’s mother. At first, Joey had been the group’s drummer and Dee Dee was the lead singer as well as the bassist; Tommy was the band’s manager. But after it was determined that Joey was a lousy drummer and a much better singer than Dee Dee, things were shuffled. Joey stepped out front and Tommy, who had never before played drums in his life, got behind the kit to demonstrate the sound he had in his head. It all clicked immediately. History was born. In 1978, after five albums with the band Tommy left the quartet to concentrate on his career as a producer (in addition to the Ramones, he produced Talking Heads, the Replacements, and Redd Kross, among others), and was succeeded by Marky Ramone, Richie Ramone, and, very briefly, Blondie’s Clem Burke (as "Elvis Ramone"), all of whom did their best to adhere to the unwavering four-on-the-floor template laid down by Tommy.
I got to interview Tommy twice, once for Roll magazine for a piece about Uncle Monk, the bluegrass duo he had with his companion Claudia Tienan, and once for a Chronogram feature on Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson. On both occasions, he was incredibly thoughtful, very introspective, and super sweet. “Historically, I knew the Ramones would eventually be recognized,” he said when asked about his old group's late-blooming recognition in the former article. “Because the band was just so different than anything else at the time [it began] and we influenced so many other bands. But how it’s just gotten bigger and bigger in terms of commercial popularity and how it keeps getting bigger all the time—that’s a really unexpected phenomenon.”
In 1979, I went to a Ramones record-signing event at Looney Tunes Records on Route 23 in Wayne, New Jersey (a pivotal place for me). In my haste, I forgot to bring a record for the Ramones to sign. Of the albums they had out at the time, Leave Home (1977), was the only one I didn’t own, so I bought a copy at the store and took it up to the table the Ramones were sitting at as they autographed records and posters for lines of kids. I didn’t think about the fact that although Tommy had played on that album, it was Marky who was actually the band’s drummer at the time of the in-store. (Who’s the pinhead now?) But Marky, gentleman that he is (or maybe he just didn’t care), went ahead and signed it anyway. I still have it, and had planned to seek out Tommy to have him sign it at last. But after cancelling an acoustic show he was supposed to play with the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock in Albany a couple of years back due to illness, he dropped out of sight; presumably, it was the same bile duct cancer that eventually took his life. Although reality now dictates that Tommy’s scrawled signature will never grace the tattered cover of my copy of Leave Home, his sonic and spiritual signature remain indelibly imprinted on it regardless, as they do on all of the Ramones’ music (even the stuff he doesn’t play on) and that of so many others.
Tommy and Claudia were Phoenicia part-timers and still kept a place in Queens, which, fittingly, is where Tommy passed last Friday. When I met him at an Uncle Monk show in Woodstock a few years back, as I consciously try to do when I meet other artists who have impacted my life, I made sure to look straight into his eyes and tell him thank you, for what he had done. Now that Tommy’s joined the other original Ramones at that ultimate punk gig in the Great Beyond, I’m very glad I had the opportunity to do that.
Peter Aaron’s first book, "If You Like the Ramones…," was published last year by Backbeat Books. Peter will be a guest tonight on “E.D. Show Fanzine” at 8pm EST to talk about the book and other topics: