INTERVIEW- Legendary: Last Ramone brings new act to town
Tamás Erdélyi is better known as Tommy Ramone, part of the legendary punk rock band that formed in New York in the mid 1970's.
He started off as manager and eventually stepped up to offer his services as a drummer for The Ramones when the band decided to expand from a trio to a quartet. He left shortly after they released Rocket To Russia– and after penning the classic "Blitzkrieg Bop"– but he remained involved as the band's producer for many years. Since he's the remaining founding member, you might think that Erdélyi would find the band's legacy cripplingly important, but he's recently wandered off with Uncle Monk, a folk and bluegrass duo heading for Gravity Lounge on October 9. It's a far cry from the band that made him famous, but after three decades of asking for it, he's finally been sedated.
The Hook: Is the music of Uncle Monk new territory for you?
Tommy Ramone: I've always been a big fan of bluegrass and authentic folk music, since I was a kid. When I was a child, my older brother would bring back records from the library, and I was always a fan. I really started getting heavily into it in the mid-'80s, and in the mid '90s I started playing the instruments.
The Hook: Have you found it hard to stylistically reinvent yourself?
Tommy Ramone: No, not really, because I've always been into this music. In a sense, what we're doing now is a continuation of my creative aesthetic anyway. It's just that we're using acoustic instruments, but underneath it all, the framework is based on the same ideas I had in other things I was doing. There's a connection between old-time music and what's known as punk rock. They're very basic chord structures, and the songs deal with people's lives.
The Hook: Has it been difficult to present yourself to the public in the new format?
Tommy Ramone: There are Ramones fans coming to shows, and a lot of the time this is the first time they've heard music like this, and they haven't had this experience before. They don't seem to know why they like it. The reason is that underneath there are similarities.
The Hook: So does it feel like you're a missionary of sorts?
Tommy Ramone: I never thought about it that way, but now that you bring it up, yeah. I guess I do introduce people to this music, very much. A couple years ago, "O Brother, Where Art Thou" was the
first time people got the chance to hear old-time music. When given a chance, a lot of people do like old-time and bluegrass music, because it's very different from what they think it is. A lot of the time they hear jingles on TV that make it sound humorous, or they think of the Beverly Hillbillies. It has nothing to do with that.
The Hook: The Ramones are credited with starting punk rock. How do you feel about where it's gone since then?
Tommy Ramone: I look at it this way: because of what we were doing when we first got started, without really realizing it, we sort of kick-started alternative music, indie rock, new wave, and punk music. The concept was instead of just plain virtuosity, we'd come up with original ideas, paring things down to their essence and working in a more solid way, and I think that influenced a lot of the musical movements over the last 25 or 30 years.
The Hook: The Ramones had plenty of explosive personalities and legendary egos. In the bands you've played with since, what else have you learned about the importance of personal chemistry?
Tommy Ramone: Sometimes talented people or people of unusual personalities are drawn together. I think that's how that happened– I was drawn to them because of their personalities, and as it turned out, they were great songwriters too. There was a chemistry in that. But a lot of the bands I've been in, there was no chemistry, and they weren't particularly good bands. What we have now, again the chemistry is there. It's very similar in a lot of ways.
The Hook: So do you think that Uncle Monk is even more pared down and potent than the Ramones were?
Tommy Ramone: We're keeping things in a very classic, less-is-more sort of aesthetic. We're working with similar aesthetics, but to say that one is more pared down than the other isn't really what we're going after. We want to make sure everything is just right.
The Hook: The closing of CBGB, the club where the Ramones took off, made headlines for months. Do you think it got a fitting send-off?
Tommy Ramone: It was fine. There was always sort of a rough edge to all the things that involved CBGB anyway, so it shouldn't have been too slick a production. I thought it went out in good style.
The Hook: It seems strangely poetic that Hilly Kristal, the owner, died so soon after it closed.
Tommy Ramone: He was relatively young, just in his early 70s. It was very sad. He kept himself busy until the very end trying to save the club and trying to keep the name going. It's very sad to see someone like him, who does so much for the bands, pass away.
The Hook: Johnny, Joey, and Dee Dee have all passed away, and now Hilly and the club as well. What were your thoughts as you watched the decline of that world from a distance?
Tommy Ramone: I deal with it all the time, with reissues and preserving the legacy and everything. People have passed on and everything, but they're definitely with me all the time. It's sad that all these people have passed away, but it does go on. Their legacy goes on, and the influences go on, and all the bands who have gone through CBGB have influenced other bands. There's evidence of it in everything that's out there.
Uncle Monk performs at Gravity Lounge on October 9 at 7pm for the very punk-rock bargain price of $10.