Saturday, January 17, 2009

Johnny Thunders: Featured Evolutionist 1-09

Johnny Thunders "Sad Vacation" from Live in Cold Blood (1982)

Johnny Thunders "Born To Lose"

"Music shouldn't be competitive. You like this music and I like that music. I love the Sex Pistols, they're a great band, I loved touring with them."

-- Johnny Thunders

Johnny Thunders obituary on MTV

New York Dolls "Chatterbox"
1973 at Club 82, New York

As we continue the Foundation's research project entitled "Therapeutic Value of Punk Rock", one name popped into mind. Johnny Thunders. While you may not consider Johnny Thunders a success story, one thing that keeps arising in the discussion of punk and underground music is: how it helps young people gain self esteem and courage. And Mr. Thunders and his New York Dolls and Heartbreakers did a lot in that field.

Sure the New York Dolls sang some gay theme tunes. More importantly though, they were rebels. While they proudly paraded their campy satirical routine, the message young outcasts got was this: "It's Okay to Be You, Fuck the Judgmental Jerks".

To feel like you're an abnormal human mistake is horrible. But when you hear a song that smirks about being "different", that's happy to be weird, that's boasts about how oddness is the spice of life, suddenly you don't feel like it's you against the entire world.

Someone else feels the same! Someone else is getting kicked around by society! Someone else is angry at the fascist governments of the world. Someone else is doing something about it, through music and poetry!

Now to this month's Featured Evolutionist: Johnny Thunders.

Speaking of oddness, even this pick is strange.

He hated the word "punk" and boldly claimed "I never made punk music".

Definitions aside, Johnny Thunders has had one of the biggest influences in rock and punk music, in his old band the New York Dolls and later in his band The Heartbreakers. He carved out a path for what you might call "art punk", trash rock, or dirt pop.

A theatrical style, when done with imagination, exaggeration, or absurdity, can add great excitement and differentiation for a band. Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls changed their look and stage routines often, always in stark and vivid contrast to the blase plaid shirt and farmer bluejeans all the other bands were wearing.

They were almost a parody of the Rolling Stones, like their poorer but angrier step-cousins.

Glamor. Shock. Controversy. Raves. Misunderstandings. Under-valuations. Promotional negligence. Isolation. Self-destruction. The historic trend of many innovative musical groups in all genres.

As Nina Antonia remarked in 'Dead End Kid", discussing her Johnny Thunders bio to Chris Parcellin:

The early 1970s were an abysmal time for rock'n'roll. The radio airwaves were dominated by limp folkies like James Taylor and progressive rock phoneys like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes.

With only The Rolling Stones and a few cult groups like The Stooges and The MC5 pumping-out great hard rock sounds the stage was set for a revolution.

It came in the form of The New York Dolls. Blasting out of the gutters of NYC with more attitude and snarling aggression than had been seen before, the Dolls personified rock'n'roll decadence. Unfortunately, due to industry indifference, bad management and a lack of promotion--the Dolls went over like a stinkbomb at the senior prom.

But their charismatic lead guitarist, Johnny Thunders, stood out in a band that included snot-voiced lead singer David Johansen and talented songwriter Sylvain Sylvain.

When Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan quit the band due to drugs and ego problems, Thunders was free to front The Heartbreakers and record solo albums like the stunning "So Alone" (1978).

Johnny Thunders Interview Pt. Nighthawks

Johnny Thunders "Joey"

From "Memories of Johnny Thunders" by Kris Needs.

Johnny Thunders had a tattoo on his right upper arm. A big heart and dagger, emblazoned with the words 'Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die'. Even
when he covered his lower arms with cut off t-shirt sleeves to hide his erm, track marks, the tat was still given breathing space.


First time I clapped eyes on Johnny Thunders in the flesh was in early '74. The New York Dolls were opening a place called the Rainbow Room restaurant, which was situated on the top floor of Biba's department store in Kensington High Street.

Biba's was ultra-hip, very expensive - like a Harrods for the glam era. There were a lot of sequins. Obviously such an extravagant venture didn't last long but, if nothing else, it'll be remembered for that Dolls gig.

Bear in mind that in '74 most 'serious' groups, apart from glam-rockers like Slade, wore denim and plaid shirts. They were not only boring to look at but astoundingly tedious to listen to. You really had to dig for gold in those days - which is exactly why punk rock needed to come along in full force the following year.

But here were the Dolls with every member a larger-than-life personality - Jagger-preening vamped-up caterwauler David Johannsen; archetypal inscrutable bass mountain Arthur Kane; livewire hoodlum rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain [with cowboy holster]; powerhouse drum-demolishing hitman Jerry Nolan...and Johnny Thunders, the lead guitarist.

At the time he was described as a cartoon Keef, with his hair an exploding exaggeration of the patented Richards rooster coiffure. But his look was more a startling hybrid of street-gang cool and street-tart back-room.

What's more, it looked like half his outfit had been nicked during the Dolls' little shopping trip around Biba's ladies department that afternoon. [It had!]

The next time I saw Mr Thunders, he was fronting a different band – the Heartbreakers. This band had come over to play on the Sex Pistols' ill-fated 'Anarchy' tour in '76 - and stayed.

They'd been booked for the tour by Malcolm McLaren, who'd managed the Dolls for a stint the previous year, just before they split up. The Heartbreakers bowled everyone over in the first few months of '77, including myself.

The punk movement had been going strong for barely six months. I was totally immersed in the escalating momentum around The Clash, the controversy about the Pistols and the new bands that kept springing up.

But the Heartbreakers were different and special. They were from New York - the place that had spawned the original punk rock attitude [and I'd been into it since the Velvet Underground ten years earlier, anyway].

In Spring '77, the Heartbreakers were a joy to catch as they played everywhere in London - the Music Machine, Vortex, Roxy, Marquee and Speakeasy. They had the same New York attitude as the Ramones – play anywhere if people wanted to see you, make some dosh and blow them away in the process.

For a few months it worked and I managed to catch them at this peak.

Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers "Chinese Rock"

Johnny Thunders "Do You Love Me?"
(old Dave Clark 5 hit single)

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