Who can walk into a music shop, look around at the guitars and drums and keyboards and basses, and not feel their hands tingle with possibility? The old and new electrics, the gleaming acoustics, the amps waiting to growl power chords or hum diminished sevenths — there's something in a quiet instrument that calls to the soul, and that's why Mountain Music Shoppe in Shawnee is a palace of torture.
Loads of lovely instruments line the walls, from inexpensive retro-cool Danelectros to $3,000 boutique acoustics. Some people — usually teenage boys or older men in shorts and sandals — pick up these instruments and begin jamming without pause, as if the place were a petting zoo. Me, I step lightly through the aisles, my fingers touching only the price tags. When I find the right instrument — a hollow-body D'Angelico, say, that I'd have to sell my ass on the street to buy — my hair becomes slicked back, I grow a mustache, a pinstriped suit unfurls down my body, and, voilà, I'm Django Fucking Reinhardt.
There must have been a similar epiphany for the guy I've come to see, some moment when he looked at a mandolin, heard plinking strings and went, Yeah. Or maybe not. After all, Tom Erdelyi didn't make a name as a mandolin troubadour from Phoenicia, New York.
Erdelyi is otherwise known as Tommy Ramone, the New York studio engineer who founded and drummed for the deified and now mostly dead Ramones. He has come to Mt. Music on a Tuesday afternoon to meet his fans and sign autographs as one Tommy and play old-time music as the other Tommy, the one in acoustic duo Uncle Monk, in which he's partnered with guitarist Claudia Tienan.
People are waiting in line for autographs. In front of me are a couple of tattooed, guffawing dudes in their 30s who used to be in a local punk band called the Sex Offenders. Behind me, a blond soccer mom waits with her three blond sons, one of whom, no joke, sings along to the Ramones' "Mama's Boy" on the speakers.
Watching over the small crowd and selling signable drumsticks for a dollar apiece is shop owner Jim Curley. Bearded, bespectacled and in his late 40s with a long ponytail, Curley, like Tommy Ramone, got his start in punk bands and has since moved to folk and bluegrass. In addition to operating his 12-year-old store, he plays bass in the classic country cover band Tater and the Gravy Train every Wednesday night at Harry's Country Club.
In the back room that doubles as a music venue, Tommy sits at a table, Sharpie in hand. He is small and slightly sunken in a denim jacket. He has a large, pockmarked nose and a scruffy white beard. His gray hair is pulled into a ponytail. I give him my booklet from the Ramones' Warner Archives Hey Ho Let's Go anthology. He signs his name across the exposed belly of his younger self, smiling in a cutoff shirt on the cover alongside Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee.
Two hours later, Tommy and Claudia take up their instruments.
"I'm Tom. I'm originally from Budapest, Hungary," he says in his Eastern Europe-via-New York accent. "But I've been around."
Uncle Monk's music is simple, heartfelt and steady rolling. Tom faces Claudia during his mandolin solos and spins around, his back to her, when he twangs into the microphone, his mouth a good 16 inches from the mic but his voice loud and plain. When Claudia sings lead, she seems nervous. They do Carter Family covers; traditional tunes; their own sunny, '70s-sounding folk ballads; and even a Wilders cover. Between the two sets, Tommy signs more autographs and sells a few Uncle Monk CDs. I ask him what the connection, for him, is between punk and old-time music.
"They're very similar structurally, lyrically and emotionally," he quickly answers. "I used to listen to old-time music, even before I was ... " he trails off as I get out of the next person's way.
At the start of Uncle Monk's second set, Tommy picks up his mandolin, looks ready to play, then stops. "Is there someone here by the name of Joel?" he asks. Joel who? I think. Some famous New York punk promoter who now lives in Kansas?
"I hear it's Joel's 16th birthday," Tommy says, looking at a kid in the front row sitting next to his mom. Joel twitches and raises his hand. We all clap for Joel.
"Holy crap," Joel says in his honking, pubescent voice, "Tommy Ramone wished me a happy birthday!"
I hope that kid's mom bought him a guitar.