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 shadowsof 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 poutsas 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 andThe 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 againstheroin, 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.
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.
Photography: Johnny Thunders at the New Inn, Dublin in April 1990 by BP Fallon | BPF and Johnny Thunders by Paul Murphy
Excerpt from My Generation: Rock ‘n’ Roll, An Imperfect History
by and ©BP Fallon
Edited by Antony Farrell, Vivienne Guinness and Julian Lloyd.
Published by The Lilliput Press 1996