July 13, 2014

FROM JIM MEIGS, A REMEMBRANCE OF TOMMY RAMONE:

So sad to hear the news about Tommy Ramone. When my band Spuyten Duyvil was starting out about four years ago, we opened for Tommy’s roots/bluegrass duo Uncle Monk at a small folk-music series at a Unitarian church. There were maybe 40 people in the audience, mostly folk aficionados (as opposed to die-hard Ramones fans turning out to see one of their idols, regardless of genre). Tommy played mandolin and his somewhat somber partner, Claudia Tienan, played guitar in a straight-ahead manner that would have would have fit right in with the Carter family. They both huddled around a single condenser microphone, in the style of mid-century Grand Ole Opry performers.

The music was simple and pure, but polished like a piece of hand-made furniture. They played a few traditional tunes, but their original songs also had a timeless feel—like something handed down from an earlier generation. (Mean to Me is one of the tunes they did that night.) Talking with Tommy backstage I was struck by his peaceful humility, but also with his underlying sense of professionalism. Performing with the Ramones in riotous arenas, being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—or playing quiet, traditional ballads to a sparse crowd in a suburban Unitarian church–apparently it was all the same to him.

In no way did he suggest that his venture into traditional music was a repudiation of his years with the Ramones. He was proud of those years (and it was no accident that he continued to appear under the name Tommy Ramone, rather than his Hungarian birth name of Thomas Erdelyi). To me, the most powerful moment of the night came when they performed the Ramones tune “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend.” Stripped down, slowed down, the simple tune took on the same timeless feel as the traditional folk and bluegrass tunes they’d been playing all night. It reminded my why the punk revolution was so important, coming as it did during a high point in rock grandiosity. A great punk song is just a song–words, melody, emotion–stripped of all pretension. Strip it down still further, to a ringing mandolin and guitar and a single voice, and it’s still a great song, as pure and heartbreaking in its way as an ancient Irish ballad. I watched Tommy singing that song that night and thought about what it must have been like to go from being a rock star playing the world’s biggest stages to being a traditional musician playing tiny halls and coffee houses for polite audiences. He gave no hint that there was anyplace else he’d rather be. He seemed happy.

Punk was an ethos, not just a style of music.

Jim Meigs, by the way, is not only the until-just-recently editor of Popular Mechanics, but also an extremely accomplished musician himself.

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