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Punk and poison: The trailblazing life and sad legacy of Johnny Thunders


In 1983, a whacked-out Johnny Thunders pulled up the jeans that he had slept in, hobbled out of his abode and through the cobbled streets of Paris where a punk of his persuasiveness surely had no place, and he entered Studios WW. Therein, he pulled up a chair, swung his dogeared guitar off of his back and delivered perhaps the finest one-sitting acoustic punk performance that there has ever been. He did all of this for a few thousand bucks from his label so he could get more smack. 

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.”

This tragic end and the hodgepodge way he went about his musical collaborations in his final years have led to him almost becoming the forgotten frontier of punk in mainstream circles. However, before the poison took over, he was punk all the way. He recognised the central tenet of youthful music that needed to be reclaimed from stilted prog right away, “Rock ‘n’ roll is simply an attitude. You don’t have to play the greatest guitar.”

Johnny Thunders: Down and out in Paris and ‘Hurt Me’

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When Thunders plugged in with the New York Dolls he tapped into a future that he was almost fated to herald and fall away from. The band hurled all of their old heroes into a sort of DIY shaker, with a bit of inherent New York art scene anarchy and poured it out in a glug of electrically shambolic drug-fuelled performances. As their leader and spokesman Thunders once retrospectively declared: “The Dolls were an attitude, if nothing else, they were a great attitude.”

Along with that attitude, they had the complexion of Alaskan vampires, clothes ordered at random for the big catalogue of the bad taste store, and an overall oeuvre that sits in the dictionary under the word punk. Most importantly, however, they seemed to find themselves in the right place and time to seize the zeitgeist, usurp the sixties and spawn something entirely new. Musically they were no more important than any of the other sages on punk’s journey, but it was the scene that was stirred up from their sonic stew that gives credence to their patent for punk.

Heralding from Queens, a bit of attitude was always going to be in his makeup. However, like a numen who wandered in from the wilderness with rogue tidings, not much is known of his early life. It is until 1967 that he pops up in any musical sense after his first performance with The Reign. With his proto-punk ways already underway, he wasn’t likely to just strum away in the background for long when his power chords and crunching tones had you looking for the other 999 guitarists surely hiding behind a curtain. 

Thus, he quickly became Johnny Volume and formed his own band, Johnny and the Jaywalkers. But volume wasn’t loud enough and simply crossing the street in an improper fashion wasn’t very rock ‘n’ roll either, so this too was merely a draft of what would later never be finished. In an on-brand move he took up a job in a leather shop and in a slightly less on-brand move, his sister started styling his hair like Keith Richards.

Then one day, this leather-clad vagabond was practising when future Dolls bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane, had his ear twisted by Thunders’ singular sound. “I heard someone playing a guitar riff that I myself didn’t know how to play. It was raunchy, nasty, rough, raw, and untamed. I thought it was truly inspired. […] His sound was rich and fat and beautiful, like a voice.” He might not have been the most accomplished guitarist, but who needed to be when you had a testimony like that. 

The Dolls didn’t take long to form after that, but they were fated to embrace tragedy fairly soon. In 1972, a year on from their formation, they were on tour in England when their drummer Billy Murcia passed out following an accidental overdose. He was force-fed coffee in an attempt to revive him, but it only led to asphyxiation, and he was found dead the following morning at the age of 21. This darkness would hang over the band even as they moved on, found a new drummer and managed to secure a record deal. 

(Credit: AVRO)

Thus, New York Dolls’ blaze of glory careened off track by 1975 and Thunders began looking elsewhere amid the CBGB punk scene that he had helped to spawn. He formed The Heartbreakers with Jerry Nolan and former Television songwriter and bassist Richard Hell. This roster once more would be a legendary one that went off like a firecracker and fizzled out just as quickly. By 1977, The Heartbreakers had broken. 

The title of his next record said it all, So Alone. That might have been how he was feeling at the time, but the studio roster said anything but. For the album, Thunders was joined by Phil Lynott, Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Marriott, Walter Lure, Billy Rath and Peter Perrett. And yet perhaps this period was the biggest paradigm for what would become the posthumous motif of his life: “No one really knows me. People think they know me.”

Because after that album, he almost wanders into the wilderness that first wandered out of. He pops up sporadically with albums like Hurt Me and in bands like The Oddballs, but everything is short-lived and shrouded in drug-addled obscurity. His final track was titled ‘Born to Lose’, and while it would be poetic to say it was fitting, that only adds to the false legacy that has befallen him. He was a forebearer of a movement that the world can be grateful for and the reverberating hum of his guitar will never truly be quelled in that sense. 

He wanted to change. As he once said, “I’m gonna try to be cured. I’ve been on heroin eight years, and I want to try a different style of life. It made me split up from my wife. It ruined a lot of things for me.” Sadly, he ran out of time. But in the window he had with us, he was always an illuminating force.

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