Tim Sommer salutes the Holy Ghost of New York City Punk Rock
Certain artists aren’t just heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. They are rock ‘n’ roll.
Walter Lure, Lemmy, Joe Ely, Joe Strummer, Dexter Romweber, Dylan, Lux and Ivy, Mark E. Smith, these folks are lineage holders. Lineage holders! They gave me their hummed and rasped knowledge of sacred scrolls, on cold nights in hot rooms, under lights bruised and golden, on stages made soft by spilt beer and stomped Docs. They said, “Our lives were changed forever by a scrap or a song and it was called rock ‘n’ roll! And we now give this to you.”
Walter Lure wasn’t a hero of rock ‘n’ roll. He was rock ‘n’ roll.
I saw them, these lineage holders. I saw the way they clenched their jaw, wrapped their lips around sacred words, widened their eyes and narrowed their eyes. The way they tilted their head up to the hot red rights and down into the smoky blue unknown where I sat. And they said, each one of them: The mission and meaning, prayer and burlesque of this ancient beat, juba made electric, electric made profane, profane made sacred, it lives in my heart, hands, hips, and tongues. Disenfranchised men and women join me under this electric flag. Those who saw this flag raised for the first time once looked me in the eye, now I look you in the eye. I give you the sign and the sound of the disenfranchised of seven continents, plugged in. And now we stand under the same blue moon and tattered but clean flag, together.
(I explain now, sadly, that there is only one woman on the above list not because such sages do not exist, because they certainly do; but due to the fact that I am limiting this inventory to people I saw with my own eyes, who stood under the same cracking, faded mosque-domes of moldy old vaudeville theatres at the same time that I stood under them. I am sure, quite sure, quite goddamn sure, that Lorrie Collins, or Sister Rosetta, or Norma Tanega, or especially the holy Delmonas, the greatest of all beat groups, belong on this list; but, alas and alack and Alex Harvey, too, I did not see them with my own eyes.)
These bodhisattvas of beat–ripped, torn, chewed, spat out and sucked in but always pure–I say again, are lineage holders. Each and every one heard a scrap of music long ago. Maybe it was Johnny Burnette on a border blaster radio station. Or holiest Bo Diddley heard in the middle of a moon-filled winter night in a suburban bedroom on a clear channel from Memphis. Perhaps it was the twisted meat-racket of the Pretty Things scratched from a pirate ship, or the Marcels inhaled in the back seat on the way home from school (the ba ba dang a dang dang, is that the unspoken name of God, you wondered?). Or maybe it was a scrap of Big Joe playing in the kitchen (when they thought no one was listening), and you heard those words that frightened you with the terror unknown of sex, I can’t believe my eyes all that mess belongs to you.
The job of the lineage holder is to pass on the terror and joy of hearing, for the first time, I can’t believe my eyes all that mess belongs to you.
And every night, every night these lineage holders stepped on stage and sought to reproduce this sacred magic and confusion; or they wanted to impart onto you the sense of alien adventure, reefer bound or mars bound but pure, that was first felt when the Rivingtons made no sense at all but made all the sense you ever needed to know. Every night they said, I felt this, now you must feel how I felt. And each one of these sages, these lineage holders, said, I am the witness, and now, I stand here attempting to make you feel what I felt that night long, long ago in Hibbing, in Manchester, in the Grand Concourse, in low, horny and hot Amarillo.
VIDEO: Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers live at Max’s Kansas City in NYC, April 1979
I saw Walter Lure, again and again, and each night he said, I am rock ‘n’ roll. I am not a hero of rock ‘n’ roll, though I am that, too; I am also rock ‘n’ roll.
Because everything you needed to know about rock ‘n’ roll lived in Walter Lure’s fingers. Rock ‘n’ roll lived in the little spit of reverb on his Fender Twin while he played perfect boogie and jangle; in the absolutely unique one-an’-a-half steps to the left (lean left), one-an’-a-half steps to the right (lean right) jig that he did between vocal lines and chord runs; in the way he used his fringe of hair and bowler as a character in his songs, and an extension of his body; in the sass of the thrift store tie knotted around his throat, a style I suspect he invented; in the vocals, always dead on, and sounding like truth.
And so help me, and this is the truth, too, I never saw Walter Lure play an “off” show, not once in thirty-five years. It reminded me, yes, of the Treniers, and here’s what I mean by that (and this is relevant, plus it’s the Treniers, so we honor their memory, as we always should). In the 1990s I would visit Las Vegas not infrequently. Each and every time, the first thing I would do is scan the local papers and the free tourist magazines and find what crappy little lounge the Treniers were playing in. See, these founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll were still out there playing in the 1990s. And it was usually one of those heavily curtained places the size of a large living room off of the main casino, no admission but two drink minimum. And the Treniers — by this time three of the original brothers were still alive, all in their mid and late ‘70s – would be playing between three and five shows a night, running from 9PM to 4 AM. And the Treniers would step out on stage, and each and every goddamn set these beautiful old men played as if they were going to freaking lose their houses if they didn’t play the set of their lives.
VIDEO: The Treniers in Don’t Knock the Rock (1956)
And that’s the way Walter Lure played.
Thanks to the horrifying but seductive mistress, the Internet, who will distract us while others kill us but whom we cannot live without, I know the date: October 2, 1979. On that night, my friend Jim and I, mates from Weinstein Dormitory, walked the dozen blocks uptown, then up that dim blue/gray narrow flight of stairs, and into the magic black and silver shoebox that was Max’s Kansas City. We wedged ourselves in the front.
It was the right night. Walter, Johnny, Jerry, and Billy were perfect, they were freaking on. They were lit by the spirit of Basin Street, Beale Street, The Bowery, and Grosse Freiheit, they were toasting themselves without pause on the fires of Rocket 88 and the 100 Club, they were Jerry Lee at the Star Club and the first time you heard “You Really Got Me” and the first time you clutched “Pretty Vacant” in teenage fingers. They were a master class in the purest boogie and the rudest rock ‘n’ roll, and everything was a little too fast, but it was tight but loose and it was punk but also golden oldie, and it was damn near perfect.
I have seen a handful of transcendent rock shows, I mean truly transcendent, the ones that you wish you could present to someone who had never even heard of rock ‘n’ roll and say, “This, friend, is rock ‘n’ roll.” You imagine a visitor from another planet, another culture, or even a precocious niece or godchild, and you want to explain to them, this, this is it! Watch this, this is the skeleton, the gristle, the spirit, the churn, the beat, the smirk, the flop sweat, the rock ‘n’ roll that was promised us by Dipper Mouth Louis in low ceilinged Rampart Street taverns (I was never there, but it must have been like this!), Louis Jordan, King Elvis, Sweet Gene Vincent, oh man the Collins Kids! These people who made rock ‘n’ roll inseparable from their mortal souls, who looked down from the peak of Mount Meru, 288,888 miles high and made of gold, lapis lazuli, crystal, ruby, and the old guitar strings of Hardrock Gunter and mouthpieces of Louis Prima, and who breathed fire, rust, whiskey, and rhythm; we stand in the shadow of that mountain tonight and breathe it’s clean and foul air! This is it, this is it, THIS is it!!!!
You have seen shows like that, haven’t you?
And I have only seen a few, but the ones that stick out are Hanoi Rocks at Danceteria in ‘83; the Fall at White Columns in May of ‘83; the Gits at Jabberjaw in ‘93; the Cramps at the Pep (I think) in ’86; and perhaps top on the list, that night at Max’s with the Heartbreakers on October 2, 1979.
VIDEO: The Heartbreakers at Max’s Kansas City in New York City again in 1979
I often wonder if I saw the last great Heartbreakers show. Because here’s the thing: I saw Johnny Thunders again and again after that night – sometimes with Walter, mostly without (though 10/2/79 is the only time I saw the full Lure / Thunders / Nolan / Rath Heartbreakers) – and never again did I see Thunders perform at a fraction of the level he performed at that evening. The other Thunders shows I saw certainly had their moments, but not one of them sustained the electricity, the heat, the testifying, winding, serpentine, churning, screaming boogie hysteria that was presented as gospel that night at Max’s.
But every single time I saw Walter Lure again – with the Heroes, with the Waldos, as a guest with other bands, as a part of Heartbreakers’ tributes – he had the same spirit with him. The very same. And I say this, unequivocally: With the Heartbreakers, you might come for Johnny, but you stayed for Walter. Without any doubt, Johnny Thunders was touched with an extremely rare genius, an ability to translate woe, mystery, and history into the squeal of a fretboard. But when I think of the Heartbreakers, I think of it as Walter’s band. He was the frame, the style, the anchor, and the absolutely unyielding charm of the group.
It is also essential to note this: I have never heard anyone say a bad word about Walter. How many life-sentence rock ‘n’ rollers can you say that about?
Oh, and listen to Spilt Milk by The Last Ditches, the wonderful project (released in 2016) from Walter Lure, the amazing Binky Phillips, Randy Pratt, and Bobby Rondinelli. A delicious and pure rock ‘n’ roll album that virtually defies description, it sounds a bit like what would have happened if the Heartbreakers and Secret Treaties-era Blue Öyster Cult had a baby while the Byrds, Loney-era Groovies, and Mob Rules-era Sabbath hovered around the waiting room. It’s a rare, delicious, and gristle-tough collaboration, and shows that well into his sixties, Lure was still vital and seeking new outlets for his magic.
I don’t say goodbye to Walter Lure. I say thank you. Sir, you were not a hero of rock ‘n’ roll. You were rock ‘n’ roll.
AUDIO: The Last Ditches Spilt Milk (full album)