Hey ho, let’s mellow
You know you want to be sedated by Tommy Ramone’s acoustic duo, Uncle Monk
Punk rock, as defined and perfected in the mid-1970s by the Ramones, is driven by rigid, four-on-the-floor rhythm. It’s the beat that can’t be stopped, and many people credit the original punk wave with inventing that lockstep bop. But long before the Ramones or the New York Dolls or even the Sonics, bluegrass cats like Bill Monroe were putting piston-driven foursquare rhythms into the music—as far back as the 1940s.
Now, it’s sometimes observed that, as a vintage punk rocker mellows with age, he or she will pick up an acoustic guitar, learn how to play it and dial into rock’s rich heritage of folk and blues. The Avengers’ Penelope Houston made the shift, as did New York Dolls frontman David Johansen. You can’t play fast, loud and hard forever.
Another acoustic convert is Tom Erdélyi, better known as Tommy Ramone, whose current duo Uncle Monk plays original music in what might best be described as an old-timey, Americana style. What Uncle Monk plays isn’t straight-up bluegrass, though; it’s more like the consonant musical analogue to a well-broken saddle.
Erdélyi, a native of Hungary whose family emigrated to America during his home country’s revolution in 1956, grew up around New York City—first in the south Bronx, then Brooklyn, then in the Ramones’ home borough, Queens—and discovered folk and string-band music early on, when his brother would bring records home from the library to tape on a home machine. “I grew up listening to those tapes,” Erdélyi said over the phone from Phoenicia, a hamlet 20 miles west of Woodstock in upstate New York. “I’ve always been a fan. I just never really had a chance to play that music.”
Which is to say that his musical career took a different arc. It began with the Tangerine Puppets, a garage-rock band he’d formed with schoolmate John Cummings in the mid-1960s. “That era was when the Nuggets compilation came from,” Erdélyi said, “and we sounded like that.” After a stint working as an intern in New York’s Record Plant Studios, on such projects as Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, Erdélyi was inspired by the New York Dolls to put together a new band with Cummings, Jeffry Hyman and Douglas Colvin. Erdélyi, the band’s manager, got drafted to play drums, because Hyman couldn’t sing and keep a solid beat at the same time. Thus Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy became the Ramones, and music was never the same.
Erdélyi lasted through the Ramones’ first three classic albums, Ramones, Leave Home and Rocket to Russia, which he and engineer Ed Stasium had co-produced, and then he was replaced on drums by Marc Bell, a.k.a. Marky Ramone. Stasium and Erdélyi co-produced the band’s fourth album, Road to Ruin, along with album No. 8, Too Tough to Die. Of the original four Ramones, Erdélyi is the sole surviving member. He also produced one of alternative rock’s finest moments, the Replacements’ 1985 album Tim.
But over time, Erdélyi’s love of acoustic music came to the surface. “I had an act called Uncle Monk that was basically a rock trio, a jam-band type thing,” he explained. “I really got into it. I bought a banjo, and then a mandolin. And slowly we started dropping the electric instruments, and we ended up a duo, all acoustic.”
The “we” refers to himself and Claudia Tienan, his partner, who once performed with a band called the Simplistics; she plays guitar and sings. Tienan’s mother owned some property upstate, and the move out of New York City brought about a shift in the duo’s style.
“The music kinda grew along with country living,” Erdélyi said, adding, “We write basically modern songs, but I love the sound of the mandolin and all the other stringed instruments, and I love the structure of old-time music—bluegrass and stuff like that.”
So the man allegedly responsible for the Ramones’ classic “Blitzkrieg Bop” has eased back a bit. But the music’s still pretty head-banging—in its own comfortable way.