As punk rock began to grow out of New York in the mid-1970s, there was one band that was constantly cited as being the major inspiration for the genre’s growth and evolution: The New York Dolls. While The Stooges were closer in sound and the MC5 were closer in attitude to what punk became, The Dolls were the only band in NYC who were playing aggressively unhinged music for outcasts and freaks. They might have looked like glam rockers, but no one would ever confuse them with T-Rex or David Bowie.
Behind a mountain of hair and a Fender Les Paul Junior was Johnny Thunders, the impossibly young guitarist who was the main stage foil to singer David Johansen. The razor-sharp harmonies that the two produced were ragged and unique, and their respectively outrageous styles belied a solid songwriting partnership that produced classic songs like ‘Personality Crisis’, ‘Subway Train’, and ‘Jet Boy’. When the band’s self-titled debut was released in the summer of 1973, Thunders had only just turned 21.
That also meant that when the Dolls eventually fractured, Thunders was able to jump into the next era of New York music without seeming like a has-been. He took Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan with him, and the pair formed a band that largely centred around their addictions to heroin. With guitarist/vocalist Walter Lure and former Television bassist Richard Hell, who was soon replaced by Billy Rath, The Heartbreakers took shape as New York’s most strung out band.
Thunders and the group never shied away from the reality of their group. Songs like ‘Born to Lose’ weren’t exaggerations, but if there was one song that forever tied the group to their addictions, it was ‘Chinese Rocks’. A stark and depraved tale of scoring dope and selling off all your possessions for drug money, ‘Chinese Rocks’ is the most startlingly honest song that the original punk rock scene ever produced. It also established a link between two of the scene’s most legendary groups: The Heartbreakers and the Ramones.
Early on in The Heartbreakers career, Hell befriended Dee Dee Ramone as both bands began playing clubs like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. Hell proclaimed to Ramone that he was going to write a song better than The Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’, and Ramone saw that as a challenge. What happened after that is somewhat disputed: Dee Dee recalls going back to artist Arturo Vega’s loft, where he and his fellow drug-addicted prostitute girlfriend Connie were living, and simply wrote about a time when Nolan called him up to score.
Hell claims that he wrote one of the two verses, although it’s in dispute which one. Ramone was the main writer, and according to him, he played the song for Nolan after another real-life binge and it was Nolan who brought the song to The Heartbreakers. Hell, meanwhile, claims that he carried the song and initially sang it before being ousted for trying to take over the band. In any case, the best known version of the track came from The Heartbreakers, and ‘Chinese Rocks’ became the centrepiece to their only studio album, L.A.M.F.
Dee Dee Ramone’s heroin addiction made him close friends with The Heartbreakers and left him on an island in The Ramones, who were either mostly straight or drinkers. Dee Dee probably would have liked to have been in The Heartbreakers over the Ramones, where Johnny’s regimented leadership required him to keep a bowl haircut and wear the standard uniform of leather jacket and jeans. Like The Heartbreakers all passed away due to drug-related illnesses, and Dee Dee would eventually succumb to addiction himself, having died of a heroin overdose in 2002. A song like ‘Chinese Rocks’ might be legendary, but that’s largely because remains unsettlingly true to life.