Lazy eyes that capsize: an evening with Tommy Ramone

Punk rock…that’s all there was that evening. It was in the Mohawk adorning the leather-clad gent to the right of the sound booth. It was in the fire engine red painted in layers on the lips of the broad near the bathroom stall. Punk rock was all around and when the headlining act took the stage a hush came over the mischievous crowd. A silence I’d never heard at this venue before.

Uncle Monk was his new moniker, a once young and brilliant punk aficionado…a Ramone.

Clever wasn’t really my M.O. that night as I prepared to interview the original lineups lone surviving member, Tommy. I knew I had no desire to be redundant, to ask him questions about the Ramones or life as a punk rock ingénue.  As often as he’s clamored to answer inquiring minds I was certain this would be a weighty task.

Once his new duo took the stage they played mellow folk rock tunes that left audiences contemplating their whereabouts. It was so far gone from the dissonant beats he used to serve up that audience members dwindled into the night leaving only bar tenders, uber-fans and me, journalist in wait, go-getter and all around neat gal.

I hesitated to approach him as he rushed to pack his equipment. I was nervous but knew I had to get something out of this jaunt downtown.  I ever so gracefully climbed onstage as he threw his sunglasses down impatiently. The moment he looked at me I noticed his eyes, aged and worn crooked. One looked patiently toward me while the other stared off into space, a realm to which the Ramones likely traveled often. Tommy, however, was always touted as the responsible one, man of many trades as he produced, managed and wrote songs with his band far before he was asked to hop behind a drum kit.

The following are excerpts from the chat that ensued, ever so awkward and ever so scarce. Enjoy it please and note that I reference myself as AI (awkward interviewer) and Tommy as TE (Thomas Erdelyi, his real name).

AI: How do you find touring with Uncle Monk?

TE: Right now we’re enjoying it. It’s fun, a joy, because it’s the two of us and it’s easy, an adventure. It’s our first tour but so far we’re really liking it.

AI: You’re been known to play a mean set of drums and you obviously play guitar, what other instruments do you play?

TE: Let’s see, I play mandolin, banjo, Dobro, fiddle, steel guitar (I always forget that one) and a little accordion thing. Claudia plays guitar and bass.

AI: You’re used to playing a range of venues; do you prefer larger or more intimate spaces?

TE: We like them all, I mean they’re all different and they all have their own sort of positives and negatives. Uh, they’re all unique in their own way. We’re learning a lot ya’ know? For example, tonight’s an example, it’s a bar audience and we have to learn how to deal with a bar audience. We sort of get the gist of it. The first time we did that it was like “freak out” ya know? Everybody’s talking and yapping and we’re trying to play a piece of music. But if you get used to it, you get closer to the microphone, make it as loud as possible and work the audience, we’re getting better at that.

AI: Is it a problem that tonight’s crowds’ babblers outweighed the listeners?

TE: Well, it’s a bar, when you’re in a place that serves alcohol people are inebriated a little and wanna talk. So…they usually hear heavier rock bands with no problem, normally.

At this point in the interview I noticed I was in his light, he graciously asked me to move and I obliged, a little embarrassed I would sit in his direct light to begin with.

AI: When you began to book shows with the Ramones, was it difficult?

TE: It wasn’t that hard, we got pretty famous pretty quickly. The hard part was that we were so different, so unique and so original that it was hard for us to go to another level, to go commercial. But that wasn’t that kind of band the Ramones were. We were fortunate to have good reviews and play venues that were appropriate to us. It went pretty well, we didn’t get radio play, but why would we? We were so different from the stuff they’d normally play. We had to go through all of that.

AI: Do you have any advice for small town bands trying to make it today?

TE: Find something unique that you have, you have to work your butt off, plan ahead. It’s always a lot of fun and everything but you have to love what you do, you have to love music. It’s always a lot of work, it’s a job.

AI: Do you feel it’s harder to make a name now in the music industry than it was when the Ramones hit the scene?

TE: Yes, especially because everybody’s a musician. There are more musicians than audiences. Everybody wants to be a star. It’s a different climate and it’s hard, it’s really hard. Also, I’m not sure bands stick around as long as they used to.

In the end I found that Tommy Ramone was kind, hurried and honest while I was nervous anxious and brief. Tommy and Claudia Tienan (formally of the Simplistics) of Uncle Monk make a charming musical pair playing bluegrass that would make musicians in the mountains of North Carolina proud. The Ramones were angst and peril and non-conformity all strewn together like those large, obtrusive Christmas lights that some deemed hideous in all of their holiday glory. Uncle Monk is the complete opposite and while at first a bit of a shock to fans of his former group, Uncle Monk delivers with good lyrics, finger-picking galore and a sound that rivals others of the folk genre.

-Holly Jones, Editor, On Tour Magazine