Tommy Ramone & David Johansen: Not Just Punks

Influences: Tommy Ramone & David Johansen


BEST KNOWN FOR HIS ROLE AS TIMEKEEPER FOR NYC-based three-chord punk heroes, the Ramones, Tommy Ramone was born Tamás Erdélyi on January 29, 1952 in Budapest, Hungary. Tommy’s family immigrated to Queens, New York during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, landing him smack in the middle of the American rock ‘n’ roll revolution.

“In those days on the radio you heard great music,” Ramone recalled. “You could turn the dial and go from Frank Sinatra and Perry Como to Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. It was all being played on the AM radio. It was just a great time to arrive in this country.”

Ramone’s father and older brother liked country music and brought home folk and old-time music records from the library. “I got a guitar as a birthday present, and I was very much into that folk era,” he said. “Then the Beatles showed up, and six months later or a year later, we all got electric guitars.”

In high school during the ’60s British Invasion, Ramone met John Cummings—later known as Johnny Ramone—and the two started the garage rock band the Tangerine Puppets, with Tommy on guitar.

At age 18, he was assistant engineer on Jimi Hendrix’s album Band of Gypsys. When the Ramones formed in 1974, Tommy assumed managerial duty, but soon picked up the sticks in true DIY punk ethos. The Ramones were regulars at CBGB, which, despite the music inside, is an acronym for country, bluegrass and blues, all genres which influenced Tommy’s pre-Ramones music, and would resurface later in his career.

Tommy toured and recorded with the Ramones until 1977, when, tired of life on the road, he relinquished the drums to Marky Ramone, becoming the producer on both 1978’s Road to Ruin and 1984’s Too Tough To Die, and went on to produce other artists’ albums, including the Replacements’ Tim and Redd Kross’ Neurotica.

After returning to college in the late ’80s, Tommy met bassist Claudia Tienan. Their project, Uncle Monk, started as a psychedelic jam band three-piece, but stripped down when Tommy picked up the banjo and mandolin in the early ’90s. The couple moved from NYC’s Greenwich Village to upstate NY, dropped electric instruments altogether and went on as an acoustic duo. Uncle Monk’s self-titled 2007 release is an old-time, back-to-basics approach to country bluegrass. He says, “It’s kind of the music that I grew up with as a child.”


NEW YORK NATIVE DAVID JOHANSEN IS BEST KNOWN for his stint in the short-lived but megaiconic protopunk outfit the New York Dolls, which solidified Johansen’s role as a pioneer of punk. After the group disbanded, chameleon Johansen shed the spandex from his days fronting the Dolls and eventually reemerged as an actor, bluesman and as alter ego Buster Poindexter before re-forming the Dolls.

Johansen was born on January 9, 1950 on Staten Island to an Irish librarian mother and Norwegian tenor father. His earliest musical endeavor came as the teen vocalist for local band the Vagabond Missionaries, which led to his soul cover band Fast Eddie & the Electric Japs. Johansen was dabbling in acting and club-hopping when he met future Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, who was looking for a singer for his band, Actress. Johansen joined in ’71, the band changed its name to New York Dolls, and, pulling influences from the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, the band released two albums, produced by Todd Rundgren and George “Shadow” Morton—both curious choices—and single-handedly started the breeding ground for NYC punk.

The Dolls were ahead of their time. Audiences weren’t ready for five androgynous men who fully incorporated drug use into their image. Like most punk bands, the Dolls lived fast and died even faster, leaving Johansen without a vehicle for his musical energy. He didn’t stay idle long. In 1978, Johansen recorded his self-titled solo debut, backed by the Staten Island Boys. He worked under his own name until 1984, when Buster Poindexter—Johansen’s lounge-singing, white collar, black bow-tie and pompadour-coiffed persona—was born. Performing as Poindexter, Johansen went on to front the big band Banshees of Blue and released several albums under the pseudonym. Poindexter was tossed into the limelight after the 1987 cover of “Hot Hot Hot” became a staple in wedding-reception and sweet-16 party DJ sets.

Johansen performed as Poindexter throughout the ’90s while acting in several TV shows and films on the side. He returned as himself in 2000 to sing the country blues with David Johansen and the Harry Smiths, releasing two albums with the group. He still lives on Staten Island, and now tours with a re-formed, reenergized version of the New York Dolls, who have just released Dancing Backward in High Heels (see page 25 for review).


What are you listening to right now?

Tommy Ramone: Old time music, bluegrass, a little jazz, roots music, guitar players. I concentrate on simple music, good stuff.

David Johansen: This bolero singer named Armando Garzón and opera singers—all kinds of music. I just like to listen to beautiful voices, whether they’re trained or really primitive.


New York Dolls and Uncle Monk albumsWhat was the first record you ever bought?

TR: I was about 12, and I bought Gassers for Submarine Race Watchers, a rock ‘n’ roll compilation by New York’s biggest disc jockey, Murray the K. He put this package together and gave an autograph signing, and I had an autographed copy. There was lots of doo wop. One of the records that I first brought home from the library was The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. I listened to it all the time, and I just loved Pete Seeger’s voice. It’s kind of similar to the way I love John Lennon. They both have a kind of creamy texture to their voice.

DJ: A 45 of “Tail Dragger” by Howlin’ Wolf. I was probably 12.


Where do you buy your music?

TR: Usually, I buy a CD and transfer it to an iPod, ’cause of its convenience. I listen on the computer and many devices, even though you lose audio quality.

DJ: If I see a record store, I love to go into it. Of course I get a lot of stuff from iTunes.


What was the first instrument you played?

TR: A snare drum, when I was ten, and I was banging on that thing all the time. At ten I was saying, “Mom, I want a snare drum.” But I always loved the guitar, so I got one when I was 14. From then on it never left my hand. I learned basic three-chord songs, like folk songs. My parents encouraged it and gave me instruments as presents, but I was just attracted to music. Music has always been a major part of what excites me, from a young age. One of my first memories was being unimaginably excited watching the record spin on the Victoria with the little RCA dog logo. I got a piano when I was 15, and started banging on that.

Soon after that, the Beatles came along and we started forming bands. We got cheap electric guitars and cheap amps and pretended that we were British pop bands. We were just at the right age to fantasize.

DJ: The harmonica. I bought it when I was 12. I got the harmonica because I didn’t really want to have to carry around drums or a guitar. I brought the harmonica home and showed it to my father, and he said “Give me that” and he started playing it…I was shocked what was coming out. Apparently he could play the hell out of that thing. He didn’t teach me. He just played and walked away.

I started playing in the Sonny Boy Williams style, as opposed to Little Walter. I still play that rock ‘n’ roll harmonica. I had this book, Tony Glover’s How to Play the Harmonica, with a flexi-record with it, and I learned a lot of stuff from that.


What brought you to the instrument you now play?

TR: When I started playing with the Ramones, I had not played drums since I was a kid. Once I started playing guitar, I didn’t really have a chance to play drums. We were auditioning drummers, but what they were playing didn’t make sense for the Ramones. I would sit down and show them what we were looking for, and finally the guys said, “Tommy, why don’t you play drums?” That’s how I ended up as their drummer.

DJ: I got a hold of a guitar one day and somebody taught me a couple of chords and from there I kind of picked up this and that. Same thing with the keyboard, really. I played very rudimentary. I can write stuff on the keyboard and on the guitar, but I wouldn’t say I was a performer on those instruments.


Who would you like to write with that you haven’t?

TR: I never thought of it that way. For some reason, a few months after I got the guitar, I started to want to write songs. In retrospect, I see that other people didn’t really do that. I was very fortunate to be able to work with people like the Ramones, who were very inspired, unusually creative people. It was actually a lot of fun writing songs with them. I hadn’t had much other experience co-writing until my partner Claudia Tienan in Uncle Monk. Uncle Monk songs are so very different in lyrical content and themes than the usual bluegrass or string-band genre. It’s hard for me to think about anybody who writes songs like we do.

DJ: I don’t have any yearning to do that. To me, it’s an awkward situation, especially if it’s like a professional songwriter, because I’m so primitive. It’s kind of like somebody in college working with someone in kindergarten.

I write with Sylvain, stuff for the Dolls. We have a really good chemistry. Then I write with [Harry Smith keyboardist] Brian Koonin and he’s like the really kind of schooled musician. He knows everything about music. Between those two and the occasional song by myself, I’m happy with that setup.


What musician influenced you most?

TR: John Lennon. The excitement of whatever he created got me. My main influences have been people like Lennon, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Pete Seeger. Also Bob Dylan, who changed everything, including me.

DJ: My early influences were Howlin’ Wolf and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and they’re very different from each other. As a teenager, I really started digging Wilson Pickett and Mitch Rider, who inspired me a lot about getting out there and dancing and putting on a show. In my early 20s I started getting turned on to a lot of jump blues, Amos Milburn and people like that, which I call pre-Hays Code rock ‘n’ roll. I really became obsessed, and I think that’s the music that inspired Buster [Poindexter] to start doing what he did. Look at me talking about him like he’s an alien. I have a tendency to do that with him. With the New York Dolls, also throw in the Shangri-Las. Some influences are all about the music, some are all about putting on a show.


What was the song or event that made you realize you wanted to be in music?

TR: It was a dream in the back of my head, but practicality said, You can’t do that. I had many garage bands, I always took it seriously, and encouraged us to write our own songs, hoping to make it a career.

I was never in a bar band, never into playing cover songs, I was more interested in writing songs, but that didn’t lend itself to making money. I had a day job up until we could make a living. I didn’t quit my day job until I had a recording contract.

DJ: I went to a Murray the K show, and Frank Zappa was at the Paramount. I was probably around 14 and I think that day I decided that was what I was going to do. I pretty much had my mind blown. They used to have about 15 acts who would all come on and do their hits. I was just in heaven that day. I don’t think I ever felt so good in my life.

Then me and my friends started a band and did battle of the bands, school dances on Staten Island, and this thing at the JCC called Hoot Night, like hootenanny, and it was all kids, like an open mic night. I used to get up there and do a Leadbelly or a Lightnin’ Hopkins song. There was a group of people, and they would sing a song like “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And then I would come up and sing “Black Betty.”

I remember playing the first song with my eyes closed. It’s like so embarrassing, and after the song ended, everybody started screaming and yelling and applauding, then I thought, Oh this is really good.

When you’re a kid you think, I’ve got to get signed, as if that’s some kind of plateau and then you can rest on your laurels, but that’s just the beginning. I don’t really want to stop and reflect too much. I might think, What the Hell was I thinking?


Who would you like in your rock ‘n’ roll heaven band?

TR: Hank Williams and Earl Scruggs. Ricky Skaggs is an amazing musician, and I just love the way he sings. Chet Atkins on guitar. He was unique, remarkable. I love the way Fats Domino played piano, that Louisiana style. Vocals: Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and the Stanley Brothers.

DJ: I don’t know if I would have a band. I’ve been around long enough that I can think so-and-so is just like the greatest thing in the world and then you meet them and you’re just like, Oh my God, and then you can hardly even listen to them anymore. When I was a kid and into Lightnin’ Hopkins, on one record of his the liner notes were written by the producer, who said what a vile creature, what a narcissistic alcoholic he thought Lightnin’ Hopkins was, and I’m thinking, I can’t believe they’re writing this on the record. So nobody. I don’t want to disturb my listening pleasure.

Sometimes Dave Keyes would have me come down and join him and I really enjoyed that. I did like playing with Hubert [Sumlin] a lot, because he’s such a cool guy, and it’s like this really great soul connection, and he also shows me a lot, just the way he goes about dealing with things. He is so genuine and beautiful that I could be with him anytime. That’s very important if you’re going to be playing music with somebody. To me that would be the first thing on the checklist.


What’s your desert island CD?

TR: Probably something like Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall!; Sgt. Pepper’s maybe.

DJ: Oh Jesus, I don’t know. I don’t even know what’s on a CD anymore what with all this iPod world. I’ve been listening to a lot of Balkan Gypsy music, and that Liliana Butler. Man! What a voice she’s got. I’ll listen ’til the rescue ship comes. e

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