Big Eyes

Clear and Bright:
Big Eyes’ Kait Eldridge Keeps It All In The Cretin Family

If any classic punk rocker that’s still going strong has lived their dream to the fullest, it’s C.J. Ramone. Born Christopher Joseph Ward, he went from the Marines to a coveted spot as the Ramones’ bassist back in 1989. Unfortunately, today’s 20 and 30-somethings can’t live that dream – joining a reunited punk band that’s past its prime wouldn’t be the same at all.

Today’s punks can’t really be C.J. as he was when he solidified his legacy, but they can become part of his still-active solo career. Big Eyes singer, guitarist, and songwriter Kait Eldridge is doing just that, opening for C.J. on the tour for his new album American Beauty. Pair that with a guest vocal appearance on the album, and Eldridge is living Ramones Mania as fully as a punk can in 2017.

The tour and her guest harmonies on album cut “Without You” offer Eldridge a chance to further her band’s audience. Since forming in 2010, Big Eyes has primarily been a D.I.Y. band, playing whenever and wherever opportunities arise, with small tours and house shows dispersed among bigger opportunities, such as a 2014 tour with Against Me! She’s also getting to pick the brain of a longtime member of one of her favorite bands and a hell of a storyteller.

When Eldridge’s interest in rock music and playing guitar first piqued in middle school, she caught wind of a band that understood her pre-teen angst. “I started raiding my dad’s CD collection and my mom’s record collection,” she says. “I remember asking them both if they had any Ramones. Neither of them did.” She wasn’t deprived for long, as perhaps her first life-changing record store score became 2002 compilation Loud, Fast Ramones: Their Toughest Hits. The CD includes 30 songs spanning the band’s career and a second disc that’s a 1985 live set from England. Two of the last three tracks on the first disc are perhaps the best-known Ramones songs sung by C.J., “Main Man” and “Strength to Endure.” Young Kait had no idea that the tough, direct-sounding replacement for the charmingly cartoonish Dee Dee (who, notably, co-wrote both songs with Daniel Rey) would someday intersect her own journey as a musician.

Eldridge went on to further explore the Ramones discography, finding gems across the band’s entire career and developing an affinity for 1985’s Animal Boy. “It’s all hard and heavy, but it’s also super poppy,” she says. “They’ve always been the number one influence on my band.”

It’s no surprise if you’ve followed Big Eyes since the beginning that its one common member across nearly seven years, and moves from New York to Seattle and back again, is a Ramones die-hard. That’s not to paint the band as the Queers or any number of “Ramonescore” bands that loudly and proudly emulates the brudders without bringing much else to the table. Eldridge has other influences, including Cheap Trick – her band is named after a cut from 1977’s In Color, another album that sadly wasn’t in her mom and dad’s collections. “It’s embarrassing to say, but my favorite band in middle school was that band Lit that had that song ‘My Own Worst Enemy’,” she adds. “What’s really funny is I found out about Cheap Trick through them by reading every single word in the liner notes.” The Lit/Cheap Trick connection was more than likely sound engineer Bill Kozy’s work with both bands. Also, to further this whole second-bass-player-hero-as peer-angle, Big Eyes should tour with Jon Brant next.

Eldridge isn’t afraid to shred, emulating deeper dad rock cuts from her part of town by crafting guitar solos that would’ve been polarizing at best around the Bowery in the mid-70s. “I’m from Long Island, so I’m a big Blue Oyster Cult fan,” she says. “That’s why a lot of my favorite guitar playing is kind of noodly, ’70s and’80s hard rock.”

Caring more about great music from the past than fitting into a current punk-subgenre makes for music that appeals to a wide audience within underground rock. Like Don Giovanni label-mates Screaming Females and a handful of other current acts, Big Eyes appeals to hardcore kids, powerpoppers, politically-minded D.I.Y. punks, garage rockers, metal heads, people who only show up for outdoor festival season, and others. Eldridge admits this wide-reaching approach has its trappings, perhaps keeping Big Eyes from ever being a buzz band for a specific audience.

C.J. Ramone was part of that broad audience before the current tour took shape. Eldridge almost joined C.J.’s East Coast backing band at one point, at the behest of Night Birds singer Brian Gorsegner. “Stuff with Big Eyes started picking up, so that never panned out,” she says.

What did pan out was mutual professional respect, strengthened by a chance encounter at a Punk Rock Karaoke event. “He’s texted photos from the road, saying, ‘Look at what we’re listening to! Everyone in the band loves this song’,” Eldridge says.

Eldridge’s interactions with C.J. have mostly been over the phone or the internet. She even emailed her vocal tracks for “Without You.” Rare one-on-one time with a Ramone further sweetens the tour. “I’ve only met him in person a handful of times, but we’ve talked on the phone and emailed about the record and going on tour and that kind of stuff,” she says. “He’s already told me some really cool stories. I’m sure we’ll hear some cooler ones when we’re spending time with him every night.”

C.J. can tell a great story over the phone. When I interviewed him a couple of years ago for Creative Loafing, he talked about an amazing moment involving Nirvana. At an overseas festival, he walked into the catering area to find that the Ramones place card was on a table that was noticeably larger than other artists’ tables. He later found out that the big table was for Nirvana, but Kurt Cobain switched place cards so his heroes could have their rightful seating arrangement.

As for his legacy, C.J. shouldn’t be dismissed as a replacement or a second-tier Ramone. He was with the band for the final third of its run, so it’s not like he was just a hired hand for a few tours. He was a capable musician and an underrated vocalist who did a great job replacing the irreplaceable. Filling Dee Dee’s shoes was a big deal and likely a source of tremendous pressure, but C.J. really did have the “Strength to Endure.” Becoming a Ramone was a golden opportunity, but C.J. had to bust his ass to earn even a modicum of the respect still enjoyed by his late predecessor. He faced the challenge of replacing a Brian Jones, and he proved to have the longevity of a Ron Wood, not a Mick Taylor. Plus, he played on some underrated albums beginning with 1992’s Mondo Bizarro and was part of some of the Ramones’ most ambitious and lucrative international tours.

Current and potential Big Eyes fans will get a taste of some new songs for the follow-up to last year’s Stake My Claim sprinkled into the band’s set. Songs old and new were written by Eldridge and taken to her revolving cast of bandmates for fine-tuning. “The majority of it is in my head already, and then I bring it to practice for the band to add their own spin on it,” she says. Just as Richie Ramone played Johnny, Joey, and Dee Dee’s songs faster than his predecessors, the varied skills and approaches of Eldridge’s supporting cast add new wrinkles to old songs.

The current Big Eyes lineup is a four-piece with a second guitarist, expanding the possibilities for Eldridge to write noodling, multi-part guitar solos. “Now we have added harmonies on pretty much every guitar solo,” she said. “It’s really fun, and it’s what I really wanted the band to always be. Once I moved back here, I said, ‘If I have to get new guys, this might as well be the time to (become a four-piece).’”

C.J.’s upcoming Atlanta show is at the EARL, a great-sounding room and an ideal place to watch a living legend. Too bad his teenage fans can’t attend. Those who can should see a damn good show, featuring solo material that purposefully sounds like an extension of the band that make C.J. famous. If you make it out, keep in mind when you’re smiling and singing along to a Ramones cover that his opening act’s lead singer and guitarist is having just as much fun, even if she gets to witness the next best thing to seeing a live Ramones set every night of her current tour.

Photo by Jen Cray.