It’s Been 30 Years Since Johnny Thunders Died

Few men defined Rock ‘n’ Roll as defiantly as the troubled genius guitarist of The Heartbreakers and The New York Dolls

Rock ‘n’ Roll has its share of tattered legends, self-destructive stars – or anti-stars – who burned the candle at both ends and, not unexpectedly, left the planet early.

That was Johnny Thunders–born John Anthony Genzale–who overdosed and died 30 years ago April 23, at 38. The guitarist-songwriter was a key cog in the glam-rock/punk progenitors the New York Dolls and, following the the band’s smashup at the end of 1976, he led Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers and then became a solo artist. 

Yeah, I knew Johnny Thunders. Scrawny lil bastard tried to steal my black leather jacket back in 1981, backstage at a great, long defunct club in Cambridge, Mass. called Jonathan Swift’s. I was reviewing the concert for the Boston Globe and doing an interview of sorts and when my attention was diverted – well, he liked what he saw and tried to nick it. Reminding me of that SMH maxim:  What do junkies do? Junkies lie and junkies steal. I confronted him. “What the fuck?” He sheepishly handed it over.

This is the kind of night that was, some of this culled from the Boston Globe review/feature I wrote:  “Shut up!” Johnny Thunders yelled, greeting the crowd at Swift’s about an hour after his set was scheduled to start. “You guys ready for a real education? You sure ain’t gonna get one in this set.” 

“You fucking burnout!” a member of the crowd yelled, welcoming Johnny Thunders to Cambridge. 

As such, the stage was properly set. Into the fray. Thunders was schizophrenia personified. He teetered about and grinned like a dazed Ed Norton – of the Honeymooners, not the modern-day actor – during the dead spots and jerked to life in the best wasted-guitar-hero form during the songs. After two numbers the cry came from the crowd: “Johnny, get off the stuff!” 

“I got off the stuff,” Thunders shot back. “Can’t you tell?” 

Thunders cut the set off after a half hour, causing more than a bit of crowd hostility. A roadie came out to explain, “He’s taking a quick breather.” Twenty minutes later Thunders came back for 20 more minutes of music. 

Though their time was limited, Thunders and friends (he was joined by Blondie’s Frank Infante on bass and ex-Doll Jerry Nolan on drums) raced through a rough, raw, ragged set of impolite rock ‘n’ roll. Johansen took the drama, wit and profundity with him. At his best, Thunders took the devil-may-care attitude and the abrasion. 


VIDEO: Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers perform “I Love You” Live at the Marquee 1984

When he sang “I love you . . . I really do, no one like you” in “I Love You,” he tossed it off haphazardly. But the man could be honest. “I don’t have one of those voices that can, uh, sing,” Thunders said at one point. Like the Stones’ Keith Richards, Thunders had a reedy voice that slurred and slid along as the guitar blasts away. Thunders’ songs are not often exceptional – lots of frayed ends and tattered seams – but the fragments are driven by hot-wired leads. 

Thunders spent much of his life shooting heroin or battling his addiction and became infamous for the two. It was no private struggle. You write what you know, right? Thunders sang about it in “Chinese Rock” – the co-write with Dee Dee Ramone which is also on Ramones’ End of the Century album – and “Too Much Junkie Business,” a little twist on the Chuck Berry song. He sang a pained lament for his late pal and fellow junkie Sid Vicious in “Sad Vacation.” 

But Thunders came up with a killer song with a great, truthful title in “You Can’t Your Arms a Around a Memory.” The song lived up to the the title’s promise – everyone wants to put their arms around a memory, yet, we all know it’s illusory. He also sang about beating his head against the wall to knock some sense into his balls. It’s still something of a tearjerker.


VIDEO: Johnny Thunders “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory”

Thunders was cut from Keef’s, ragged-but-right cloth. He loved Chuck Berry guitar riffs and surf rock. He indulged in the bratty antagonism of punk rock — taunting the Sex Pistols in “London Boys,” himself in “Born Too Loose” aka “Born To Lose.” In “London Boys,” a rocker and a response song to the Sex Pistols’ “New York,” he suggested the Pistols were puppets who needed help in using restroom facilities. (The late-period Dolls shared a manager with the young Sex Pistols in Malcolm McLaren.) When Thunders launched into that pile of bile, it made crude, snotty sense.

Thunders was a proud member of the walking wounded, the human car wreck waiting to happen; the audience was waiting to see happen, and some of them – yes – were hoping it would happen on their watch. A couple of years later, I swore off seeing Thunders ever again, a result of the gleeful malevolence of his “fans” and his own fuck-you attitude. I felt like I’d be participating in a macabre spectacle. 

Sometimes, during a great concert, you’ll ponder big questions brought up in song. Thunders’ ex-mate in the Dolls, singer David Johansen, had been doing just that with his post-Dolls concerts and songs from his solo debut album: You might think: Does love liberate or must it confine? With Thunders the questions were more like will he be able to get the guitar strap up over his shoulder? Will he make it through the set? I remember one Thunders gig where he kept taunting Johansen with a sneering, “David Jo … David Jo …” implying the commercial success Johansen had was indicative of a sellout. 

As it happened, I wrote Thunders’ appreciation/obit for the Boston Globe and rang up some pals and peers. “I remember I made a comment many years ago,” Hilly Krystal told me. Krystal, since deceased, was the owner of New York punk rock club CBGB. “They were wondering how long he was gonna last and I thought he might last forever. Nothing seemed to phase him. But, you get caught up in drugs and there’s no solution except to stop. You never know when your heart’s going to give out, your lungs, your liver.” 

“He was like a big kid that never grew up,” said Walter Lure, a former bandmate and friend. (He, too, is deceased.) “You loved him and you hated him. He was spoiled and selfish, but talented.” 

“I think John was an amazing guy,” said Johansen. “His was a total genius invention of himself, of a working-class kid. He was one of the sweetest guys you’d ever wanna meet. The problem boils down to when you first invent yourself as an artist, you’re totally free. Then, intimacy has a way of creeping in on your life and some people are too sensitive.” 

“He had an emotional quality — you believed him,” added Kristal. “Some people are gifted technically, but what he did, even if it was sloppy, it was right.” 


VIDEO: Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers “Chinese Rocks”

Thunders joined the re-formed Heartbreakers for a gig in New York’s Marquee club in 1990. It began with “Glory Glory” and “Leave Me Alone” and ended with “You Can Walk My Dog” and Berry’s “Little Queenie.” Lure told me it was a great show. “We were surprised we pulled it off. We hadn’t rehearsed in seven years, except twice before the gig. I figured somebody would be unconscious or we’d forget the songs, but it was all right. Johnny was in fairly good shape. He threw one of his temper tantrums, but it wouldn’t be Johnny without that.” 

Was Thunders’ end all but inevitable? 

“You’re always hoping against hope that somebody’s gonna get it together and prove the naysayers wrong,” said Johansen. “There’s a lot of ways to live life and that’s one of them. He lived a free existence. He was a definite journeyman, a have- guitar-will-travel kind of a guy. And there’s something to be said about that.” 

Thunders and the Heartbreakers released their opening salvo, L.A.M.F., on The Who’s Track label in 1977 and while the songs rock, the mix was terrible. When Track went down, manager Leee Black Childers burgled the office and found everything except the masters.

There were remixes and out-takes on subsequent re-releases but not until former Track Records director Daniel Secunda discovered this un-named, but dated, tape in his archives and lo and behold: It was a “crystal clear” version, according to a Jungle Records release which has put out on CD and LP.


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Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

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