Four out of five Rolling Stones who appeared on the band’s first album are still alive. Half of The Beatles, half of The Who, and half of The Velvet Underground are still with us. All of the Sex Pistols except Sid Vicious still walk the earth. And yet all four of the original Ramones have died. Last week Tommy Erdelyi — a native of Hungary who became the group’s first drummer after a short stint as its manager — died of bile duct cancer. Cancer took Tommy, Joey, and Johnny. Drugs got Dee Dee. Horrible, miserable demises for musicians whose work was so full of joy and crazy energy. All the Ramones who played on those first three albums — Ramones, Leave Home, and my favorite, Rocket to Russia; the four guys who gave the world songs like “Cretin Hop,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “We’re a Happy Family,” “Beat on the Brat” — all are gone. The Ramones are dead. Long live The Ramones!
I got to see them in person only once. That was back in July 1996 (nearly 20 years after Tommy had left the band and long after Dee Dee left as well). This was at a Lollapalooza festival, and they weren’t even the headliners. The Ramones sounded fine, but it was not a pleasant show. Brutal is too kind a word for the 107-degree Arizona heat that day. And worst of all, The Ramones’ set was cut short by a vicious windstorm. Joey Ramone had joked onstage about the venue — a horrible, dusty desert hellhole known as Compton Terrace — being built on an ancient pet cemetery. (This of course was right before the band launched into its song “Pet Sematary,” from the horror movie adapted from the Stephen King novel.) Soon after Joey’s little joke came the dark clouds and the blasting winds. The stage lights and sound monitors suspended above were swaying ominously. I wrote in my review of the festival, “While it might be the cool rock ’n’ roll way to die, being crushed by a giant speaker in front of a cheering mosh pit, that is not the way Joey planned to say adios, amigos.” According to the website setlist.fm, The Ramones made it through 16 songs that day in Arizona. At most other Lollapalooza shows they did 21. So maybe we were cheated out of only five songs. At least I got to see them do “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Teenage Lobotomy,” and their cover of the Spider-Man theme song, a latter-day Ramones favorite. That would be the group’s last tour. Joey died five years later. Johnny soon followed, as did Dee Dee. And now, Tommy.