The world of Rock music is a tough one. Most bands don't make it past the school circuit.
It is rare that a band becomes a global influence and changes the course of rock and roll history.
That rare honor was bestowed upon The Ramones, whose last founding member, Tommy, passed away on Friday. He was an amazing talent, a true innovator, a virtuoso drummer and guitarist.
He was also a fellow Hungarian.
We were both born in Budapest, Hungary just about a mile apart, in a country that was
living its dark days of Stalinist dictatorship the time. Tamás Erdélyi's (his real name) family fled to the United States after the failed 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. Before they left for Queens, New York, Tommy had seen a short clip of the great new American musical language called rock and roll. As he told me years later: "I saw Bill Haley in an anti-American propaganda film in Budapest. I knew this was going to be my music. Period."
I was introduced to The Ramones' music late in life, as I had missed out almost totally on the punk-rock revolution. In the early seventies, temporarily, I went with the flow and chose to go soft in rock music. I did not get the revolutionary new sound then. It was my daughter Sonja, who opened my eyes to the amazing world of The Ramones. She was the one who suggested that I get in touch with Tommy. It was an honor to meet him and to become friends. Tommy showed up at my band, the Coalition of the Willing's gig at New York's Knitting Factory in 2004. It was a pinch me moment to see him in the crowd.
In the years that followed we met and talked a lot. He gave me a first hand explanation of The Ramones' music. He told me that he, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee had gotten real tired of the long, everlasting songs and the self serving solos by bands they had admired just a few years earlier.
"By the early seventies Rock became too baroque for us. Too much frill was added and it lost its original roughness, its appeal as the language of the young. We thought rock had gotten off track. We wanted to get it back to basics. We were searching for the sound that caught our imagination as kids. We wanted to sound like the Who when we heard "My generation" for the first time. Just a lot faster."
We both agreed, that rock and roll music changed our lives, whether you had escaped communism for the free world or you stayed behind, behind the Iron Curtain. It was our common voice. Louder than Soviet propaganda, louder than the U.S. government. it did not matter whether you were strumming your guitar or hitting the snare drum in the back-streets of New York or Budapest. It was our internet. it was our social media. It was our way of saying:
we belong together.
Tommy came to the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C. in November 2004. We decided to tell our story together to an American audience: the two roads we had traveled arriving to the one and same rock and roll music. The house was packed.We had a fantastic conversation. With a large Hungarian flag imprinted with the words "Hey-ho, let's go" hanging above us, Tommy agreed to join forces and play a few of the iconic Ramones songs: "Blitzkrieg Bob," "Beat on the Brat," and "Let's Dance." Chuck D. Young, the ultimate Ramones historian on bass, Ambassador Sandy Vershbow on drums and me on my Red Fender Strat. Can you imagine the joy that I, at the time the Hungarian ambassador to the U.S. felt: playing with Tommy Ramone at the Embassy of the Country he and his family had fled.
We spoke for the last time few months ago. I told him that I want him to come to Washington, to give a speech at Johns Hopkins University, to tell his story to a new generation, one that might never understand the thrill he must have felt back then in Budapest, stuck behind the Iron Curtain, hearing rock and roll music for the very first time. He told me that he would love to, but added that he is afraid, he might not make it to Washington again.
The world is a mess, it is time for a rock and roll band out there, maybe in Queens, to tear rock and roll conventions apart, and bring about the sound that will make a difference. Ramones Chapter Two, if that ever was possible.
Brother Tommy, I will miss you. Rest in peace.