You might say Tommy Erdelyi’s career has come full circle. He literally made a name for himself — Tommy Ramone — as a member of The Ramones. These days, though, he is back playing the sort of acoustic roots music that hooked him in the first place. What happened in between, of course, is legend.
Born in Budapest, Tommy emigrated with his family to the United States at what he calls an opportune time. Chuck Berry, Little Richard and other rock ’n’ roll forefathers were still on the radio, he told LEO in an interview, and “in retrospect, my childhood exposure to that scene was quite providential.”
But traditional music is what first caught Ramone’s ear as a player. To teach himself the songs on the folk albums his brother checked out from the library, he bought an acoustic guitar when he was 14. Ramone only got sidetracked when the British Invasion swept the States.
“After the Beatles and the Stones, I really got into rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “And I promptly switched to electric guitar.”
He played in an assortment of garage-rock bands during adolescence and also apprenticed as a studio engineer. At age 18, he was a studio intern while Jimi Hendrix’ recorded his much-lauded album Band of Gypsys.
“I started working in the industry, but as the years progressed, probably not long after Cream and Hendrix, everything had gotten kinda stale for me,” Ramone said. “Then one night I saw the New York Dolls. Those guys could barely play their instruments, and they were so raw and full of energy. They had stripped things down to the very essence of rock ’n’ roll. This gave me an idea for a band.”
Hence, The Ramones.
Tommy originally envisioned himself as a manager and producer, but says “these colorful characters that I had in mind for the project couldn’t seem to find a drummer that was a good enough fit. So, having never touched a drum kit, I ended up in that role.”
This arrangement, however, was not fated for permanence.
“What made those guys great,” he says, “being so high-strung, etc., also made them difficult to be around 24/7, so eventually I eased myself out of playing in the band and re-focused myself on songwriting and production duties.”
Still, Ramone’s drumming is featured throughout the band’s quintessential releases, including Rocket To Russia, Leave Home, It’s Alive, and their classic self-titled debut.
Under his birth name, Tommy Erdelyi also produced records by the Talking Heads and the Replacements. He re-discovered his love of acoustic music after picking up a banjo about 15 years ago, and soon thereafter, a mandolin.
“They are not particularly easy instruments to learn,” he said, “but I just always loved those sounds. At that point, I was in a group called Uncle Monk that had initially been an electric jam band, but as I continued to re-immerse myself in folk music, the band gradually and very naturally evolved into a bluegrass duo. What we do now as Uncle Monk is take ideas from the history of music, mostly early 20th century stuff, and try to modernize them with 21st century post-punk sensibilities.”
In the end, then, his varied adventures have all brought Ramone right back to playing for the sake of playing.
“If I’ve learned anything at all, it’s that music is meant to be fun. Play what you like. Have a good time. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
Uncle Monk performs at Uncle Pleasant’s (2126 S. Preston St., 634-4147) next Wednesday, May 9. More info is at www.unclemonk.com.
There are hints and allegations that the Roland brothers have once again come out of hiding. Collective Soul, who dominated the charts in the 1990s with songs such as “Shine,” will play a free show at Fourth Street Live this very evening. For all you visitors, just follow the sounds of public intoxication to the heart of downtown. You can’t miss it.
Also tonight, Citizen Cope arrives from Brooklyn for a gig at Headliners Music Hall (1386 Lexington Road). Known for his groovy mixture of folk, soul, rock and hip-hop, Cope is a perennial crowd pleaser. For the full scoop, call 584-8088.
Accordion genius and first-rate songbird Brigid Kaelin shares the night (so to speak) with Danny Flanigan on Thursday at the Rudyard Kipling (422 W. Oak St., 636-1311). Visit www.brigidkaelin.com for more details.
Wax Fang has been a busy bunch of rockers, recently taking their strange and beautiful sounds from coast to coast. On Thursday night, they come home for an intimate performance at the Pour Haus (1481 S. Shelby St., 637-9611). The Slow Break opens. Music starts at 9 p.m. $7.
Falling somewhere between the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Shangri-Las, The Ladybirds are one of the coolest acts to ever appear on the river city music scene. In a live setting, Sarah Teeple’s seductive vocals know no mercy. See for yourself when the ’birds take to the stage at Jim Porter’s Good Time Emporium (2345 Lexington Road) Thursday night. Tickets are $12, and the action starts at 8 p.m. Psychobilly icon Unknown Hinson also performs.
Semi-legendary Kansas City jazz vocalist Kevin Mahogany graces the Jazz Factory (815 W. Market St.) for two sets this Thursday and two more on Friday (7:30 and 9:30 p.m. both nights). Tickets are $25 per night and are good for both sets. For reservations or more info, call 992-3242 or visit www.jazzfactory.us.
New Yorker Alice Smith visits our fair city again Friday, this time for a “secret” small-scale Derby Eve concert at, get this, the Monkey Wrench (1025 Barret Ave.). Her sexy-smart pop is catching on worldwide, and for good reason. Tix ($12) are only available at the door. Visit www.productionsimple.com for more details.
If it isn’t already taken, The Villebillies should probably change their name to the Road Warriors after this current tour. The group will be on the road for more than two months, criss-crossing the United States so many times they’ll probably know every rest stop, Cracker Barrel and Taco Bell by heart. They stop Friday for the Mother of all Derby parties at Phoenix Hill Tavern (644 Baxter Ave., 589-4957), sharing the bill with Crossfade. The doors open at 7 p.m., and the cost varies.
Contact the writer at [email protected]
Derby Madness ensues Friday night at Bearno’s by the Bridge (131 W. Main St.). Paradigm, Bloom Street, Moon Taxi and more rock the joint. Showtime is 10 p.m. Cover is $5.
Five for Fighting
John Ondrasik (right) and Five for Fighting play at Fourth Street Live tonight.