Rockbrat Remembers: Johnny Thunders (1952 – 1991)

Born John Anthony Genzale on July 15, 1952, Johnny spent his early years on the streets of Queens NY, pursuing the dream of every American teenager, to become like his hero Micky Mantle, a professional baseball player. An introduction to music at an early age intercepted his promising baseball career as young Johnny was by now becoming an accomplished guitar player. Elder sister Marion introduced Johnny to the sounds of The Shangri-Las, The Crystals, and The Angels, and from here Johnny drew inspiration to form his first band in the late 60’s – Johnny and The Jaywalkers. In 1969 after a sojourn to London to check out the hedonistic and heady music scene there, Johnny returned to New York with a renewed determination to fulfill his rock n roll star aspirations. Johnny Genzale became Johnny Volume, who soon evolved into Johnny Thunders. Thunders was recruited into a small time outfit called Actress, by a friend and frontman David Johansen. Actress at the time featured alcoholic bass player Arthur Harold Kane, Columbian drummer Billy Murcia, and Cairo born Sylvain Sylvain on rhythm guitar. It was Sylvain who suggested they should re-name themselves The Dolls, and Thunders who tacked on the New York prefix – thus The New York Dolls were born. It was towards the end of ’71 that the Dolls began their rock n roll journey, that would eventually last another four or so years, but a legacy that is still in evidence today. 
 Much has been written about the Dolls, and a popular concept was that they were just a bunch of transsexual junkies. They were in fact a great band, who came across with stray cat guitar riffs, slutty girl group harmonies and bronx cheer lyrics. The glitter sound of Bowie, Mott The Hoople, Slade, Alice Cooper,  Iggy, T-Rex and the Dolls was essentially a post-psychedelic return to the straight ahead garage guitar chords of classic Stones and The Who – with a heavy dose of 70’s camp thrown in. The Dolls were stars simply because they said they were. However by early ’75 the creative wheels of the Dolls had quickly ground to a halt, yet Thunders’ work with the Dolls had quickly established him in the pantheon of great American rock n roll guitarists. The Heartbreakers was a name adopted almost simultaneously around mid ’75 by two groups based on opposite coasts of the United States. The more famous ultimately was Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, but for a while there it was a close thing when the New York band, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers moved to the UK at the time of the original punk explosion. Formed by Thunders and the Dolls most celebrated drummer Jerry Nolan, The Heartbreakers’ original line-up included Richard Hell before he went off to form The Voidoids. Former Demon, Walter Lure came in on second guitar while Hell’s bass role went to Billy Rath. Even before Britain had seen or heard the band, the Heartbreakers were near legends. They were included as part of the first ever punk package tour, which featured the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned. 1977 saw the band play every major rock venue in London, before releasing their debut LP on Track Records. ‘L.A.M.F’ (supposedly an acronym for ‘like a mother f##ker’) stands the test of time as the finest punk record ever released. Thunders’ guitar sound has jagged edges, and rips and tears like barbed wire, whilst his rangy voice wraps itself around a lyric like an undernourished boa constrictor. But more so, this album is full of heart and soul, of powerful catchy songs – the anthemic ‘Chinese Rocks’, ‘One Track Mind’ and the complete punk rocker ‘Born To Lose’. From go to whoa, every track a winner. Yet after their record label went bust, and with the band developing a reputation for unreliability due to ever increasing ‘health problems’, the group fell into disarray. In 1978 Thunders cut a seriously brilliant solo album ‘So Alone’, with help from members of the Heartbreakers, Pistols Cook and Jones, and even Phil Lynott, Chrissie Hynde and Steve Marriott. Thunders pursued a solo career, and an ever increasing heroin habit that he would maintain for the next decade. The Heartbreakers reformed in 1984, and from this tour resulted in various live albums and bootlegs. 1983’s solo outing ‘Hurt Me’, an album full of blissful acoustic tunes, and 1985’s ‘Que Sera Sera’, stand as probably his two finest releases, representing the strength and diversity in his unique playing, songwriting and singing abilities. Thunders continued to gig throughout the 1980’s, including an Australian tour in September of 1986, and occasionally reformed the Heartbreakers for a re-union gig. Thunders attained major cult status, and his reputation as a rock n roll junkie meant that some fans turned up at his shows just to see if it would be his last. Still, the rewards that enduring such abuse brought were immeasurable. His originality and creativity were truly unique. Johnny Thunders was the stuff of a million rock n roll teenage bedroom mirror fantasies, the ideal rock guitar player. Skinny as a rail, pawn shop Gibson slung at crotch level, ciggie dangling from lips puckered with contempt, and decked out in black. Once he struck his Gibson all hell broke loose. Whoever invented the electric guitar surely had Thunders in mind when he was at the drawing board. Yet after so many years of treating his body like a toxic waste dump, the grim reaper finally caught up with Thunders, and on 23 April 1991, he was found dead in his New Orleans hotel room. Thunders was in New Orleans finalising long discussed plans for his new blues band, The Oddballs, and at the time of his death was attempting to fight his heroin addiction. It is important to mention that Thunders became a rock legend in spite of this addiction, rather than because of it. In 1995, as punk makes a resurgence to a whole new generation, jumping to the sounds of modern day punk heroes Green Day, Offspring and the like, I draw a wry smile, put on one of my old Heartbreakers albums and pay homage to my departed rock n roll hero. Rest in peace Johnny. 

Note: Article originally appeared in Vicious Kitten Fanzine – 1995

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