How the Ramones’ ‘Commando’ tackled WWII – The Forward
Inspired in part by all the Jewish artists on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs list, The Forward decided it was time to rank the best Jewish pop songs of all time. You can find the full list and accompanying essays here.
Like the Beatles, the Ramones were four distinct personalities. There was the monster (Joey), the calm (Tommy), the angry (Johnny) and the cracked (Dee Dee). Sometimes the muffler was seen as the runt of the litter, the one who didn’t belong, while the crackpot was variously seen as a holy lunatic and a psychotic, but the footage was real enough to capture something of the dynamic in the group and were embodied in their songs.
This has perhaps never been more true than on “Commando”, a track from their second album, “Leave Home”. Although it’s ostensibly about American soldiers fighting the Cold War, it’s really just the refrain everyone remembers, a refrain that describes four distinct rules:
The first rule is — the laws of Germany
The second rule is – be nice to mom
The third rule is – don’t talk to commies
The fourth rule is – eat kosher salamis
Here, in a nutshell, is the spirit of the Ramones. Two Jewish guys and two non-Jewish guys, clashing in a never-ending conflict that eventually forced Tommy to quit for fear of losing his mind and for Joey not talking to Johnny for most of their career.
The Ramones are known for being dysfunctional, an apt description for a group that was also synonymous with neurosis and monsters. Many attributed these qualities to the nature of their hometown – New York – citing its urban character and then crumbling infrastructure while disregarding its history and the makeup of its people.
According to many of those who made up the original punk scene centered around CBGB (the club founded by Hillel “Hilly” Kristal and located a stone’s throw from the Lower East Side), it was not uncommon during their childhood to see numbers tattooed on the arms of adults in their neighborhood, just as it was typical to be glued to your television with your family, watching the Eichmann trial of 1961, broadcast for weeks like a nightmarish soap opera in which the characters were transformed into a soap opera. This trial led to a national struggle against the Holocaust and the question of Jewishness in general. “Portnoy’s Complaint”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Sophie’s Choice”, the TV series “Holocaust”. It was in the air.
With the Ramones, it was deeper, rooted in their very genetic makeup. Their origin story goes straight back to horror, their founder a traumatized Jew hiding in plain sight. Born in Budapest to parents who barely survived the Holocaust, it was Tamás Erdélyi (Tommy Ramone) who brought the band together and gave them their edgy drum sound.
He recruited childhood friends John Cummings (Johnny), an angry son of Irish and Lithuanian parents whom Tommy had always considered extremely dangerous, and Douglas Colvin (Dee Dee), an unstable child who had spent part of his childhood in Germany and was always obsessed with the darker side of that country’s history, regularly going Nazi memorabilia shopping with Johnny later on while the band was on tour.
Yet it was Jeffrey Hyman (Joey) who was Tommy’s most inspired choice, the one he insisted on being the lead singer for despite the protests of the other members. Tommy felt that Joey – kinda walking Der Stürmer caricature – was the perfect leader for the psychological shadow play he called his “concept art”.
For a time, Tommy found catharsis. Joey didn’t just look like a caricature of Der Stürmer; he was paralyzed by neurosis (obsessive-compulsive disorder), as alienated as Kafka (“He barely left the house”, says his brother), originally as thin as a concentration camp inmate (1m80 and 120 pounds) and possessed an unmistakable hooked nose in his origins. At the same time, this patron saint of punk was both funny and kind, a mensch as his intimates described him, and, later in the band’s career, its most visible liberal, donating his time to various causes and writing a song lambasting Reagan for visiting a cemetery honoring members of the SS (” Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”).
They should have been huge, but they weren’t. The mainstream could not accept them. And Tommy should have been hailed as his comrades once the public came, but he had been erased from history, having left the group after their first three albums, hounded by Johnny in particular, who belittled him with anti-Semitic insults. Johnny’s insults were then directed at Joey and contributed to a rift in the band that never healed. The Ramones continued, but they were divided, a shadow of themselves. The tensions that had fueled the inspiration, the tensions that Tommy had sought to exploit to exorcise the demons of his past, submerged.
But for a while everything was good and pure in the country Tommy had built, the rules followed to perfection, from German law to kosher salamis, tensions made comical, the insider joke and the last word from those who ‘they’d oppressed. During that brief shining moment, when punk was new and some thought it would change the world, Tamás Erdélyi’s rock ‘n’ roll commandos ruled the Lower East Side, gave New York a voice and pushed a frightened retired Jew out of the house onto the biggest stage possible, raising the Kleine Menschele to the Übermensch role. Focus on mensch.
Steven Lee Beeber is the author of “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk”. He teaches literature and creative writing at Lesley University and GrubStreet and once played sax for Atlanta-based gospel-punk band The Chowder Shouters.