Paris is no place for punks. So what Johnny Thunders was doing there is anyone’s guess. In the city of love, luminosity and four macaroons for a mortgageable fee he must have looked like a Kangaroo in the Arctic. And just like that misplaced marsupial, his being there raises some unanswerable questions, but it also spawned an underrated masterpiece that might just be his most defining record, in a perfectly weird way.
To begin, we start with a little-known condition called Kalopsia, which is the delusion of things appearing more beautiful than they actually are. It is commonly induced in Asian tourists when visiting Paris owing to a sizeable mind-wallop curtesy of the hefty fist of a Parisian culture shock. That is not to say that Kalopsia sufferers overrate the beauty of the Sine or marvel a little too much at the Eiffel Tower, but that they sport such rose-tinted eyes that coughed out phlegm on the pavement is transfigured into a tramp’s oyster that somehow represents an abstraction of civility. When Johnny Thunders arrived on the rock scene, he seemed to be suffering a nuclear reversal of this condition.
The sanguine sixties had barely left the room and already he was calling it rude names. When the simplicity of flower power waned in favour of a more complex kaleidoscopic blur, Johnny Thunder’s reclaimed the original tenets of rock ‘n’ roll with more atmosphere and attitude than a packed-out Wembley Stadium’s worth of tantrum toddlers. In the process, his band New York Dolls, along with the Stooges, achieved the Promethean feat of thrusting punk upon a world that was barely ready for it. “The Dolls were an attitude,” he said, “If nothing else, they were a great attitude.”
It wasn’t that the New York Dolls were without their heroes from eras that seemed to be bygone almost overnight. In the strange mix of their output was the glam of David Bowie and T.Rex, the grimy fucklessness of The Rolling Stones, girl-group pop and a bit of inherent New York art scene anarchy; all hurled into a sort of DIY shaker and propagated in electrically shambolic drug-fuelled performances.
And that drug-fuelled note was the flipside to it all. If all the nihilism, swaying bluebells and new age philosophy of psychedelia said nothing to Thunders about his life, then the zeitgeist he was seizing was the increasingly dystopian reality of gritty tumult and grimy turmoil. He carelessly relished in that mire. Central to this was the conquest of opulent excesses by opiates.
This made it very hard for the Dolls to sustain and, by 1975, Thunders had left. He revelled in the New York punk epicentre that his seismic guitar playing had helped to create for a few years. Then all of a sudden as the 1980s came around Thunders found himself strung out in Paris, France. There is so little known about this period that it’s hard to separate the fact from the fiction.
However, what remains, like some bonafide relic that has archaeologists scratching their heads, is his acoustic album Hurt Me. While acoustic and Thunders might form a dichotomy akin to Ray Charles behind the wheel of a Ferrari, the record is a perfect paradigm of his output and, in turn, punk as a whole.
Much like his time in Paris, little is known about the album save for the fact that it seems to have been recorded in a single day simply to pay for rent or the mephedrone he was buying to try and wean his way off of heroin. In short; if punk was a DIY middle finger to helpless circumstances, then you can’t get more punk than Hurt Me — and by turns, it has never seemed more heartfelt.
With a slew of covers and reimaging’s of his own work including the definitive version of ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’, undoubtedly one of the greatest punk songs, he produced a record as immediately transportive as a bad smell. With chilled-out tones, he whisks you into the studio and strums away like a one-man orchestra backed by a wave of hard-earned experience.
When the record was done as though presented from the ether, Thunders drifted back into the murk of the obscure life he was living. Some months after the recording of the album he travelled to Brighton, England, for a few low key shows and ironically many people at the massively over-sold gigs ended up going home before Thunders even took the stage at around 3am, believing that the DJ spinning the test pressing of the record had actually been his live set.
In the end, Johnny Thunders was an almost mystic enigma. As he said himself, “No one really knows me, People think they know me.” That may be true but Hurt Me is the closest glimpse you’ll get.