On the 24th anniversary of the death of the great Johnny Thunders, we present this reflective and moving piece by his former manager BP Fallon. From the book ‘My Generation: Rock’n’Roll, An Imperfect History’ (Lilliput Press 1996).
Johnny Thunders in Dublin 1990 by & © BP Fallon
BYE BYE JOHNNY
by BP Fallon 1996
The New York Dolls, particularly their gutter peacock guitarist Johnny Thunders, they were gods to the whole of 1976 punk, and The Sex Pistols, The Clash, they carved themselves from the shadows of
Iggy And The Stooges, Lou Reed and The Velvets, Bolan and Bowie and The MC5 and a boy called Johnny.
You meet Johnny in 1972 in the after midnight of a dentist’s surgery in Harlem. He’s a flash peacock in rags of glitter, platform boots and a jet-black plumage of shoulder-length backcombed hair as if a buzzard has been nesting on his head. On-stage upstairs at Max’s his streetwise Italian face pouts as he poses, a cross between Keef Richard and an urban subterranean gutter glam outlaw. A punk. Plus of course Johnny plays the bestest, most exciting, powerful vicious guitar in town.
Come ’76 The Dolls have collapsed in a storm of too much drink and too many drugs, rejected at large for their Neanderthal rock’n’roll, and Johnny is in England fronting The Heartbreakers, he and The Dolls’ second drummer Jerry Nolan. The first, Billy Murcia, he accidently OD’d on Mandrax. Johnny and Jerry, they’re junkies and they celebrate their stupidity with songs like ‘Chinese Rocks’ and ‘Too Much Junkie Bizness’. The Heartbreakers collapse.
At a party for Patti Smith, Johnny Thunders asks you to be his manager. Listen, heroin is the horrors, the darkest of darknesses, a hole into which junkies pour their very life. If you wanted an ad against heroin, Johnny Thunders was it to a T. A rock’n’roll genius turned into shambolic mess. We managed some gigs at The Speakeasy, Steve Jones and Paul Cook from The Sex Pistols playing with their hero. Sid Vicious got up once. He idolized Johnny and wanted to form a group with him called The Junkies. One gig was billed as ‘The Living Dead’.
In interviews, Johnny has kindly said that I was responsible for putting together his best LP, the album ‘So Alone’. Loyal musicians who lent their support came from The Sex Pistols, The Only Ones, The Heartbreakers, even Traffic. Chrissie Hynde sang backing vocals. On the storming version of Derek Martin’s R&B classic ‘Daddy Rolling Stone’, first Johnny, then Phil Lynott, then Steve Marriott sing a verse. Phil, he was concerned at Johnny’s health. “He’s too out of it, knowarramean?” And then there was Johnny’s most beautiful, sensitive tragic song. It was titled ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ but Johnny, he always sang it “You can’t put your arm around a memory”. Christ, Johnny.
BP Fallon & Johnny Thunders 1990 by Paul Murphy
Sunday afternoon at the tail-end of April 1990 and Johnny is over at your house. He’s been in Ireland a week or so and the previous night appeared in Dublin at the New Inn. Naturally, it was chaotic. And sad. And brilliant sometimes, like when Johnny’s into a rambling blues and he’s saying “And there’s you kids, the reason, the reason why. I tell ya, if it wasn’t for the kids!” and the guitar, it cries, a flurry of notes weeping the blues. Johnny is playing his heart out.
Sunday afternoon, sunny, we sit here and play records and talk and Johnny plays a tape of some new stuff he’s recorded.
Heroin? Naw, he’s just on methadone now he says, gets it on prescription. Doesn’t do heroin, no not never. Well… hardly ever.
He’s hoping for a record deal somewhere. His wife Julie is back in Michigan with the kids, has been for years. He’d been living with his girlfriend Susanne in Sweden but that … well, that isn’t happening either.
And then you put on The Shangri-La’s song ‘Give Him a Great Big Kiss’ from Johnny’s So Alone album and Patti Palladin, her voice all Noo York sass like all of The Ronettes chewing gum, she teases “Well I hear she’s pretty bad” and Johnny, he responds “Well she’s good bad but she’s not evil”, and sitting here now Johnny’s lived-in face, the mouth grins lopsidedly and there’s a twinkle from under the drooping eyelids and for a moment he looks so happy and so vulnerable, the wounded artist touching the sunlight for a moment and you understand again why you love him.
Johnny’s leaving now, leaving for the airport. He has no home, no number. Says maybe he’ll go to New York after he’s played in London, maybe go back to Paris. Says he’d like maybe to live in New Orleans.
Johnny gathers his plastic bag of medications and in the street we hug. Once, he’d had a muscled torso like Iggy. Now underneath his pinstriped suit he seems suddenly frail. This battered artist who sings from the slums of his soul is on the home run.
Six days short of a year later, Johnny Thunders is in New Orleans. He’s just done a tour of Japan. Two days ago he’s recorded with the group Die Toten Hosen, recorded his Heartbreakers favourite ‘Born To Lose’. He’s thirty-eight years old. And he’s dead. The police find vials of methadone, and in the toilet a syringe. The coroner’s report says the cause of death may have been drug-related.
Bye bye Johnny.
– BP Fallon 1996
Johnny Thunders ~ So Alone (full album). Produced by Steve Lillywhite. Directed by BP Fallon
Johnny Thunders July 15th 1952 – April 23rd 1991
Billy Murcia October 9th 1951 – November 6th 1972
Jerry Nolan May 7th 1946 – January 14th 1992
Arthur Kane February 3rd 1949 – July 13th 2004
Chris Wood June 24th 1944 – July 12th 1983
Phil Lynott August 20th 1949 – January 4th 1986
Steve Marriott January 30th 1947 – April 20th 1991
John ‘Irish’ Earle 1944 – May 8th 2008
Billy Rath 1948 – Aug 2014