“Rock ‘n’ roll is simply an attitude. You don’t have to play the greatest guitar.” – Johnny Thunders (1952-1991)
It is a mark of Johnny Thunders’ artistic output that arguably his best work came when he rolled off of some Parisian sofa to quickly lay down a one-take acoustic album for junk money with the soul-exposed album Hurt Me.
His style was defined by his decree that “the only technical things I know are treble, volume and reverb, that’s all.” His swagger was defined by his recollection that “The Dolls were an attitude. If nothing else, they were a great attitude.” And his mystique was defined by the notion, “No one really knows me. People think they know me.”
That last point is one that has persisted in the legacy of what he left behind. One point largely missed is that he was always looking for salvation as opposed to relishing in his own demise. “I’m gonna try to be cured,” he said shortly before his death. “I’ve been on heroin for eight years, and I want to try a different style of life. It made me split from my wife. It ruined a lot of things for me.”
Sadly, Thunders ran out of time on that pursuit, but his music will forever remain a mark of reconciliation. Borne from his troubles, the way that the tracks brace fallibility and echo with the linger of hope has brought a lot of deliverance to those who have listened, not to mention has vast influence over modern music.
And perhaps the most important point of all on that front – one often forgotten – is that he kept going with that music until the very end. Eight years on from that fabled recording of Hurt Me, Thunders would be found dead at the Inn on St. Peter hotel. Although other theories have come in since, thanks to Dee Dee Ramone saying, “they told me Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards,” the official cause of death was drug-related causes.
In fact, as singer Willy DeVille who lived next door to Thunders explained, when he went to see them take out the body, “rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U shape.” Adding: “when the body bag came out, it was in a U. It was pretty awful.”
The day before that sad end, Thunders was in Germany recording a track poetically titled ‘Born to Lose’ with a Berlin punk band he helped to spawn called Die Toten Hosen [The Dead Trousers]. Mark Reeder – the man who used to smuggle punk records across Checkpoint Charlie to ensure rock ‘n’ roll reverberated with liberation on both sides of the divided city – worked extensively with the band, so I reached out to him for the details of that final day.
He spoke to frontman Andreas ‘Campino’ Frege who was with Thunders recording ‘Born to Lose’ 36 hours before his death and told him: “Yes that’s true! The last photo of him was taken in the studio standing next to me. After the session, he took the plane back to the USA, went to his hotel and was found dead the next morning.”
However, 36 hours before that, his sole focus was on the music even despite his ailing health. “He wanted to record his guitar in the bathroom because he thought it had a great sound,” Campino recalled. “He didn’t look well and needed loads of breaks when singing ‘Born To Lose’. But he was in good spirits and kept on joking about himself and his drug addiction…”
Mark Reeder is fresh from his recent stirring collaboration with Alanas Chosnau with ‘Why?’ which continues to look at music’s ability to bridge political boundaries and aid liberation. You can find out more about the stellar project by clicking here. And you can check out the profound ‘Born to Lose’ below.