Text by Bruce Paley, intro by Robert Barry Francos
Interview © 1980; RBF intro © 2010 by FFanzeen
Live photos © Robert Barry Francos
Other images from the Internet
The following article on musician icon Johnny Thunders was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #5, in 1980. It was written by Bruce Paley.
I’ve probably seen Johnny Thunders on stage more than any other musician. Seeing him play could be a range from a consummate performer and personality, to the one of the most debilitated person on a platform. When he was on fire, the guitar never stopped from the time he started until he stepped off. Then there was a time at Irving Plaza with the Heartbreakers where he was so out of it, he didn’t know which direction to find the audience; he was able to either strum or finger the chords, but could not manage them both together, until a band member gave him what I assume is cocaine right there on stage, and that fired him up enough to just barely stumble through. And yet, with all his occasional misogynist and racist banter between songs, he was never harder than on himself when performing.
I came up with a joke about Thunders, which his many fans will understand:
Q: Why cant’ Johnny read?
A: “I’m too fucked up, man!”
Luckily, the fiery moments were much more often the those stumbling ones, and if one played with him, they had to keep up. Often he was starting the next song before the one before ended. What made Johnny Thunders a wonder? Was it that he was such a great guitarist? Singer? No, he was neither of those, but man, the guy was fun to watch; not in a sick “is he gonna survive the gig?” kind of way, but in a shining personality and made all the rest fit in so well.
I went to his tribute, held in 1992, with Nancy Foster. It was a sad moment (and yes, I bought the tee-shirt), but seeing the line-up perform – from Cheetah Chrome and Spacely, to all his cohorts like Johansen and the soon to be gone Jerry Nolan, Patti Paladin, and Lenny Kaye, along with all the others, made it a night to show just how important Johnny was to all of us. – RBF, 2010
The book on Johnny Thunders reads that he’s on a dead-end, self-destruct crash course, living on the edge, liable to fall over at any moment. “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” reads a tattoo on his left arm, and “Let’s go’n see Johnny before he dies” was an oft heard remark in New York City rock’n’roll circles. It began during Johnny’s days as lead guitarist with the now-legendary New York Dolls, and they’re likely to go on saying it until he dies of old age in a Miami Beach rest home.
Truth is, though, that Thunders didn’t do much to shake the images of a rock’n’roll suicide. During the heyday of the on-again off-again Heartbreakers (the band he formed with Richard Hell, Walter Lure and fellow ex-Doll Jerry Nolan following the dissipation of the Dolls), there were numerous ODs and trips to the emergency ward, and the Heartbreakers were infamous as the rock’n’roll junkie band. Their celebration / lamentation of dope – both in and out of song – was notorious. “Tracks on my arms / Tracks on my face / Tracks on the walls / All over the place, “ sang Walter in “One Track Mind.” “Too much junk is killing me,” the boys cried out in the clever “Too Much Junkie Business,” with Walter vividly demonstrating how to “Tie it up / Bang it up / Shoot it up / Throw it up!” And of course there was “Chinese Rocks” (“Ya wanna take a walk / Ya wanna go cop…”). And Johnny himself took it all to the max, penning his own obituary (death by overdose, of course) in an obscure but excellent “solo” 45 entitled “Dead or Alive” (“It finally happened to me / Finally happened at l-l-l-last.”).
Yet for all the fuck-ups, there was something special there, that rare rock’n’roll magic that justified everything. On any given night at Max’s Kansas City, their home ground, the Heartbreakers treated their fans to a dose of the real thing – slam-bang exciting razor-sharp rock’n’roll, injected with elements of urgency, tension, static and desperation that made it all so extraordinary. Much of this was generated by the subtle love / hate interplay between Johnny and Walter, cemented by Billy Rath’s bass and the superb drumming of Jerry Nolan, who Thunders called the “essence” of rock’n’roll drumming.
And every so often, just as an extra treat, David Johansen would jump onstage and do “Personality Crisis,” and suddenly it was 1972 and the New York Dolls just one more time. What few people realize, however, was that in their time, the Heartbreakers were as good – and, arguably, even better – than the Dolls. Yet while volumes have been written about the Dolls, and hindsight has acknowledged them as the vanguard and inspiration for the whole punk / New Wave phenom, the Heartbreakers have gone unrecognized and unacknowledged. They never landed a major record deal (“Too Much Junkie Business” scared the majors in more ways than one), they never undertook an extensive American tour, and they barely got any real press to speak of.
They did, however, leave behind two exceptional LPs. The first, L.A.M.F. [Like a Mother-Fucker], was cut in England and released in the States in ’77 as an import on Track Records (which has since folded). As something of a portent, the album was overshadowed by the initial releases from the Sex Pistols, the Clash and others, and got lost in the shuffle as the whole punk thing exploded onto America’s consciousness. That, combined with an awful, fuzzy mix that nobody could get right, and just plain lousy luck, prevented an American release. L.A.M.F. came and went, virtually unnoticed.
Despite the production flaws, the title says it all. It’s an incredible album, every song a three minute masterpiece of classic, hard-edge, don’t-give-a-fuck rock’n’roll, with churning, wailing guitars, anxious, angry vocals, and superb lyrics. And that desperation - “Born to Lose” (pronounced “born too loose”), “Chinese Rocks,” the mournful “It’s Not Enough,” the frantic “Pirate Love” and “Let Go,” etc. There’s not a mediocre track to be heard.
Thunders wrote or co-write nine of the twelve songs, the others being Lure / Nolan compositions – and therein lay the seeds for the group’s eventual dissolution. Walter Lure is a star in his own right, an excellent, underrated singer / songwriter / guitarist / performer, more than capable of fronting his own band, let alone sharing the spotlight with Johnny Thunders. Yet Thunders insisted on calling all the shots. “He wanted complete control,” Walter told me, “Johnny wanted to do everything his way – sing all the songs, write all the songs. He wouldn’t put up with anyone else; didn’t want anyone in his way.”
Billy Rath (who replaced Richard Hell on bass early on) concurred. “Johnny’s hard to work with,” he said. “He doesn’t want to listen to anyone.”
And poor Jerry Nolan! Through his bond with Johnny, he seemed caught in the middle, helplessly pounding away on his pink drums as the in-fighting, ego conflicts and confrontations often occurred onstage (which made for some strange shows…).
The Heartbreakers’ disintegration was long and drawn out, and they all readily admit that in the end it was just the money that kept them together. Eventually, every gig came to be billed as their last, and one never really knew if there’d be another. “It wasn’t a band those last few years,” Walter recalled, “We never rehearsed, we’d just go onstage and do these gigs ‘cause we knew we could get money out of it. Johnny was fucked-up all the time, and Jerry – in his own way, Jerry was worse than John.” And Walter and Billy, it might be added, weren’t exactly angels themselves.
Yet, there was that magic, some of which was captured on the second Heartbreakers LP, Live at Max’s, on Max’s Kansas City label. The LP is raw, arrogant, mean, and sloppy, but by the time it was released, it contained only two new songs; and despite a bit of press, it got no airplay, and went nowhere.
A second Live at Max’s LP, with new material, is already in the can, presumably awaiting release.
As the Heartbreakers continued to atrophy, Johnny finally packed up and offed to Detroit, where Gang War was assembled. Before that, however, came one more peak, So Alone (Real Records), an absolutely brilliant solo album. It’s Thunders’ finest and most “mature” effort to date. As the title might suggest, So Alone uncovered something of the soft white underbelly of Johnny Thunders, spotlighting a sensitivity only glimpsed in the past. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” is perhaps Johnny’s finest ballad. It’s an eerie, moving piece, delicate and disturbing, and subliminally seductive:
It doesn’t pay to try
All the smart boys know why…
Feel so restless I am
Beat my head against a pole
Try to knock some sense
Down in my bones
And even though they don’t show
The scars are so old
And when they go
They let you know
You can’t put your arms around a memory [3x]
Johnny’s singing (or whining, actually – never was his strong suit) is perfect here, soulful and tender. The guitars are remarkably rich and haunting, the lyrics sublime and entrancing. [See video below – RBF]
It’s a magnificent song, but only the centerpiece of a magnificent album (“Memory” was released as a singe, with a non-LP B-Side, “Hurtin’,” another gem [“Why do all the rags always pick on me?”]).
Another of the standouts of So Alone are its three covers – a sizzling version of the Chantays' 1963 guitar rev-up “Pipeline” that cuts the original to pieces; an unusual “Daddy Was a Rollin’ Stone,” with an outrageous vocal by Steve Marriott (Small Face, Humble Pie); and a riotous “Great Big Kiss” (“Hey Johnny, what color are her eyes” / “I dunno, she’s always wearnin’ shades” / “Is she tall?” / “Well, I gotta look up” / “Yeah, well I hear she’s pretty bad” / “Well, she’s good-bad, but she ain’t evil”), the last Shangri-Las hit that the Dolls used to do and the Heartbreakers would massacre.
There are two superior reprisals of Dolls songs, “Subway Train” and “Leave Me Alone” (called “Chatterbox” on the second Dolls LP and “Milk Me” on the Live at Max’s - don’t ask me why) finally one done right. “Ask Me No Questions” and “Untouchable” are dark and moody, while, most interesting, “London Boys” is a stunning, no holds barred response to the Sex Pistols’ “New York” (“You need an escort to take a piss / He holds your hand and he shakes your dick… / You talk about faggots little momma’s boy / You’re still at home you need a chaperone”). Ironically, the track was cut with ex-Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook on guitar and drums, respectively, and even more surprising is the little known fact that at one point, Johnny Thunders was selected as the “replacement” for Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols. As one intimate recounted: “Johnny, Steve, and Paul were getting ready to form a group, (which was) to be called Johnny Thunders and the Living Dead. They played one gig at the Speakeasy, and the way it turned out, they made something like 400 pounds for the night, and Johnny ended up taking all the money for himself, giving Steve and Paul 10 pounds apiece and saying, ‘Thanks a lot guys.’”
“He does shit like that all the time,” Walter Lure concurred, “He always wants all the money for himself. Yet he’s never gonna have a dime, no matter how much he makes. He lives from day to day; he’s like totally at the moment, and he spends money like water.”
Like L.A.M.F., So Alone was never released in America, and as both LPs are becoming scarce, they’re well worth the time it might take to seek them out. In fact, So Alone was the best album of 1979, and no one even noticed.
And then came Gang War, which features ex-MC5er Wayne Kramer, sharing the occasional spotlight with Thunders. Yet, although Johnny’s introduced a wealth of great new material, and Kramer seems content being the #2 man to the flashier (and more egotistical) Thunders, the group isn’t everything it might have been. Thunders gets more room to strut his stuff (and he’s as exciting and charismatic onstage as ever), but it’s at the expense of the personal interaction that spurred his past groups onto greatness. More than anything, Johnny Thunders seems to need a peer, a strong personality to play off of and with, which Wayne Kramer doesn’t provide (through no fault of his own – Kramer’s a bright man and a talented musician, but the chemistry just isn’t there). Walter Lure took that role in the Heartbreakers, while David Johansen did the same in the Dolls. Imagine Keith without Mick (no need to imagine if you saw the dreadful New Barbarians), or Peter Townsend without Roger Daltry, and you get the idea.
And it seems to spill over offstage too. “The only thing John respects, “Lure said only half jokingly, “is someone who can beat the shit out of him.” But where Thunders seems to need a father figure, all he gets are lackeys. “He’s always surrounded by these clowns,” Lure continued, “who think they’re cool because they’re hanging out with Johnny Thunders, and John’s just using them for every penny they’ve got. At the same time, he abuses them. It’s like this masochistic relationship; he abuses them in public, he’d laugh in their faces, in front of everybody. And these things would only last a little while, until they ran out of money or whatever, and Johnny just splits.”
Yet his charm is undeniable (just look at those eyes!) and everyone I spoke to – from old mates to those recently trampled underfoot – spoke warmly and highly of him. There were gripes and complaints, and some spoke of the frustrations he’d caused, but there was no real hatred.
* * *
Johnny Thunders is a genius – not that he’s wont to discuss Einstein with you – but he’s an instinctual genius, much like the late, great Hank Williams. But Johnny’s more perplexing, more of a mystery. Where Hank let it all hang out for everyone to see, Johnny’s an iceberg, deliberately blurring the line between the end of the image and the beginning of the man. And don’t expect him to dispel that image. Like dope, it’s safe ground and easy to hide behind (“Why are you ‘Hurtin’?’” I asked him, “Tell me about it.” “Those songs aren’t about me,” he replies, sounding like Bob Dylan once did, “They’re about some other guy.”).
It’s easier, it seems, to play Johnny Thunders than to be Johnny Thunders. But don’t be fooled – while much of the Johnny Thunders legend is indeed based on fact (and he’s got a streak of self-destruction as big as a house), he’s aware of a lot more than he lets on, and is a lot more serious, intelligent and responsible than people generally give him credit for.
Consider the contradictions: legendary, tragic, burnt-out rock’n’roll junkie / seductive charmer, dedicated family man with a wife and three sons (though they’re recently separated) / tortured, sensitive soul / egoist, sadist, and hustler. Quadrophenia, indeed!
* * *
At the moment, Gang War seems an iffy proposition. If they stay together, and if they get a deal, then they can definitely make it. If not, well, not to worry. “Johnny always seems to find something to do,” said Walter, “He’s always gonna have someone supporting him.” And if Johnny Thunders chooses to burn out and kill himself at 28, then ain't nobody gonna stop him. But don’t bury him yet. What Johnny seems to want more than anything right now is a shot at another solo LP. The musicians are already lined up, and if his recent material is any indication, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as good as So Alone.
* * *
For the Dolls, it truly was a case of “Too Much Too Soon.” The Heartbreakers just skittered too close to the edge (though they still come together for an occasional – and incredible – farewell gig, usually around rent time). Gang War seems a breather, a transitory stage. And who knows what could be next? It could very well be the best yet (don’t be surprised if a record deal is announced around the time you’re reading this).
So hang in there, Johnny – there’s a lot of us in your corner.