A lot of you folks out there who already know me will be well aware I’m a bit of a Johnny Thunders fan! So I thought I’d write a bit about Johnny and his music on my blog. (After all…it’s the kinda thing blogs are for, right?!). Plus July 15th is the anniversary of Johnny’s birthday…so Happy Birthday fellow Cancerian!
For a time (my teenage years and early twenties) Johnny Thunders provided the soundtrack to my life – undoubtedly more than anyone else (…although Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Generation X and the Dead Boys provided a good deal of competition). But there was always something more about Johnny – his innate style, the unique sound of his guitar (“Yo! Yo! Mr Sound Man…turn the reverb UP!!”) and the fact he was that most rare of rare commodities – the real deal in a sea of hollow poseurs.
I still play Johnny’s music in 2010 – not least the Thunders classics: You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, It’s Not Enough, I Only Wrote This Song For You, Sad Vacation and Born To Lose. Some of it I even play on my own old beat-up electric guitar (no pick ups, body chipped and bashed…some day I’ll get a new one!) – You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, She’s So Untouchable, Sad Vacation, Hurt Me, Illegitimate Son Of Segovia.
‘Memory’ has always been there – easily the track I return to most…and currently top of my ‘Top 25 Most Played’ list on iTunes by some margin. ‘It’s Not Enough’ was there when I stared out of the window of a flat I once rented in a far-away land and knew, like it or not, that a relationship had to end. ‘I Only Wrote This Song For You’ was the track another former lover and I danced around the room to, having both drunk far too much red wine than we should! Like I said, some songs are the backdrop to your life and times. (Feel free to tell me yours amigos!)
Back here in 2010 Johnny’s songs (some of ‘em anyway!) are chapter titles in my novel, Rude Boy – thanks JT! (Oh and…check out my previous blog entry if you’d like to make yourself a Rude Boy playlist).
I saw Johnny Thunders live quite a few times in London. Most memorably (although, as we all know…you can’t put your arms around a memory!) I was there at the Lyceum in ’81 when Johnny recalled Waldo from Wall Street(!) and introduced ‘Little Patti Muppet’ onto the stage (and I still have the bootleg cassette tape I bought at the Kensington Market one week later). I was there again at the Lyceum in ’84 for the album they recorded when Johnny came out on stage and announced “I always wanted to come on stage wit’ a fuckin’ fire extinguisher and get you douche bags!” I was even there at the much-maligned Town & Country gig in Kentish Town – which I didn’t find half as poor as urban legend now records. Then, just the one time, when I was short of money and Johnny was due to play yet another London gig, I thought…I’ll catch him again next time around…’cos Johnny was always around, right? He loved playing London…and all roads on every tour itinerary for Johnny Thunders always led back to London eventually, right? Yet there was to be no next time. The year was 1990. One year later Johnny Thunders was dead.
Johnny’s tragic death in a New Orleans hotel was – and remains – darkly sinister and deeply mysterious. Consider this (culled from wikipedia):
Many rumors surround Thunders’ death at the St. Peter House in New Orleans, Louisiana in April 1991. He apparently died of drug-related causes, but it has been speculated that it was the result of foul play. According to the autobiography Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone took a call in New York the next day from Stevie Klasson, Johnny’s rhythm guitar player. “They told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards… who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him. He had gotten a pretty large supply of methadone in England, so he could travel and stay away from those creeps – the drug dealers, Thunders imitators, and losers like that.”
What is known for certain is that Johnny’s room (No. 37) was ransacked and most of his possessions were missing (passport, makeup, clothes). Rigor mortis had set in with his body positioned in an unnatural state, described by eyewitnesses as “like a pretzel”, underneath a coffee table. Friends and acquaintances acknowledge he had not been using heroin for some time, relying on his methadone prescriptions. The police did not open a criminal investigation.
An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, but served only to compound the mysteries. According to Thunders’ biographer Nina Antonia as posted on the Jungle Records website, the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. And according to the book “Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon” by Pamela Des Barres who interviewed Thunders’ sister Marion, the autopsy confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which would explain the decline in Thunders’ appearance in the final year of his life. This also sheds light on the interview in Lech Kowalski’s documentary “Born To Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie”, where Thunders’ sister Mary-Ann’s husband says, “Only Johnny knew how sick he really was.”
Later, eager to know more about JT than ‘just’ the figure I’d seen up on stage, I turned to the official biography written by Nina Antonia – a book I’d like to recommend to you now. Nina Antonia can really write. This is not just a cut ‘n’ paste hagiography – like so many rock ‘n’ roll biographies. Nina was there and knew Johnny well. Her book tells the full unexpurgated story of the man behind the music – from little fatherless John Anthony Genzale dreaming of Little League fame in Little Italy to the great rock ‘n’ roll survivor, riddled with leukemia and with the clock finally on its last countdown still riffing as defiantly as ever on that trademark Les Paul Junior while continuing to kick against the vicissitudes of fate. Nina’s book deserves to be better known. Here’s the link: