Johnny Thunders - Biography

John Anthony Genzale was born in 1952 in Florida, and grew up in Jackson Heights, NY. He formed his first band, Johnny and the Jaywalkers, while in high school, adopting the pseudonym “Johnny Volume.” Around 1968 he visited London with a girlfriend; there he spent a few months seeing a large number of bands and returning to New York inspired to make rock n roll his avocation. He joined a band called Actress, which also counted future New York Dolls Arthur Kane and Billy Murcia as members. Actress was then joined by David Johansen and Rick Rivets, and became the New York Dolls. Taking his cue from a Kinks song, Johnny Volume became Johnny Thunders.

The Dolls played their first show in the last weeks of 1971, a time of confusion and transition in popular music. The 60’s-era hippy bands had turned inward for inspiration, as the idealism of the era faded into political assassinations and a world bogged down in war and a failing economy. The British invasion bands either retooled their image for stadium and sports-arena shows that only emphasized the growing gulf between performer and audience, or, like the Beatles, simply broke up.

Drawing their musical influences from rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, and their sense of style from the emerging gay culture of New York City as well as the outrageous camp performances of West Coast troupe the Cockettes, the Dolls made a virtue out of their limitations. Singer David Johansen, a rubber-lipped Jagger clone, used an actor’s approach in his singing to hide his rather limited vocal range. He performed with a self-conscious sense of rock n roll history. Thunders was a sawed-off Keith Richards, all sneer and curled lip, a huge teased up head of hair covering his eyes, and with a streamlined fuzz tone guitar attack that drew equally from 60s garage punk classics like the Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction” and Keith Richard’s fuzz-tone lead on the Stones’ “Satisfaction.” Dressing in thrift store castaways, and wearing heavy makeup and eyeliner, the Dolls were a camp performance troupe whose music was sometimes an afterthought to their theatrical presentation and “shocking” lyrical content (e.g., “Vietnamese Baby.”). Thunders’ only solo vocal performance from the two albums was “Chatterbox” on Too Much Too Soon (1974 Mercury).

The Dolls generated some serious industry buzz quickly and were signed to Mercury Records. Rick Rivets had been replaced within weeks of their formation by Sylvain Sylvain. Original drummer Billy Murcia overdosed in a hotel bathtub in London during the Dolls first European tour. Replaced by Dolls fan and drummer Jerry Nolan, The Dolls released two albums, New York Dolls (1973 Mercury) and the prophetically titled Too Much Too Soon (1974 Mercury). Witty originals mixed with an entertaining array of obscure cover songs brought the Dolls to a larger audience, including a performance on the American TV show “The Midnight Special.” Despite this, the Dolls suffered condemnation from much of the rock press at the time; rock n’ roll had become Serious Music and most of the straight, white male rock press failed to “get” the Dolls.            

After being dropped by Mercury in 1975, future Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren became their manager. Dressing the band up in red patent leather outfits and hanging communist flags behind them for their live shows, his attempts to retool the band for fresh outrage and attention fell flat, leaving the band with few options. The Dolls fell apart, and Johnny and Jerry, both heroin addicts by this point, drifted back to New York City.

The early murmurings of what would come to be called punk and new wave rock were beginning to be heard in New York City by this time, with bands like the Dictators and Jayne County taking their cues from the Dolls and delivering hard, rough and fun rock n roll for people sick of the stadium extravaganzas of bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. Thunders and Nolan joined forces with bassist Richard Hell and formed The Heartbreakers. Hell and Thunders waged a short war of egos that ended with Hell’s departure from the band. He was replaced by Billy Rath, and the band's lineup was completed by the addition of Walter Lure, from local New York band The Demons, on second guitar. Summoned to England by McLaren to join what became known as the “Anarchy Tour,” The Heartbreakers went on the road with The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash in 1976, quickly earning a reputation for their tight and powerful live performances, as well as their heavy use of alcohol and narcotics. If the Heartbreakers played a music closer to R&B than any of their slightly younger punk contemporaries (you’d never catch the Sex Pistols using a walking bass line), their attitude and appearance was pure punk, and Thunders was a musical and stylistic inspiration to the guitar players in the British punk bands, especially Steve Jones of the Pistols, and both Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of the Clash.

Signed to Pete Townsend’s Track Records, the Heartbreakers recorded a studio album, L.A.M.F (Like A Mother Fucker) in 1977, and later a live set drawn largely from the studio album, “Live at Max’s Kansas City” (1979 Beggars Banquet). The studio album is a classic of the genre, and includes the junkie anthem “Chinese Rocks,” as well as Thunders’ prophetic “Born to Lose/Born Too Loose.“ However, the album suffered from a flat, uninspiring mix that failed to showcase the band’s power, and which led to the departure of Nolan from the band. The live album replaced Nolan with fill-in drummer “Thai Stix” and made little impact. A live document from the Anarchy Tour period, released on Jungle Records in 1982, D.T.K. (Down To Kill), is a much more potent collection of songs, with Thunders engaging in some entertaining and obscene banter with a lifeless crowd. Re-writing lyrics on the fly to express their dissatisfaction with the listless audience, the band delivers a powerful and compelling set.

Unable to garner any major label interest, and struggling under the addictions of its main members, the Heartbreakers went separate ways by 1978. They would regularly reform throughout the remainder of Thunders career, largely for New York City “rent party” shows and the occasional out of town gig, with the trio of Thunders, Lure and Nolan joined by an assortment of guest bassists but only occasionally by original bassist Rath.

In 1978, Thunders released what would become his best and best-known album, an essential and definitive punk rock document called So Alone (Real Music). Featuring the musical half of the Sex Pistols, drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones, with Thin Lizzy front man Phil Lynott on bass, the album also boasted a slew of guest performers, including Chrissie Hynde, Peter Perett of The Only Ones, and former Small Faces vocalist Steve Marriott. Reports of general drug and alcohol abuse, and descriptions of Thunders being nearly unconscious for the majority of the sessions notwithstanding, the record itself is instantly vital and utterly committed. The music a blend of old and new school punk as well as a few well-placed ballads and covers. Opening with a roaring take on the Torquay’s surf anthem “Pipeline,” the LP also features Thunders’ best song, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” as well as rollicking covers of the The Shangri-La’s “Great Big Kiss” and Otis Blackwell’s “Daddy Rollin' Stone,” previously recorded by The Who. Sex Pistols Cook and Jones willingly rock along on “London Boys,” Thunders’ sneering riposte to the Pistols’ “New York”, itself a putdown of the Dolls. The new recordings of Dolls songs “Chatterbox” (here retitled “Leave Me Alone”) and “Subway Train” both rock harder than the original versions. An incendiary non-LP 45, “Dead or Alive,” appears on the CD re-issue of the album.

Following the release of this album, Thunders returned to America and toured with various Heartbreakers, and occasionally appeared as guitarist for ex-Pistol Sid Vicious’ ensemble The Living Dead. Thunders would later go on to pen and record the sweet “Sad Vacation” in Sid’s memory, the song becoming a staple of his live sets.

Thunders’ creativity and production waned considerably in the 80s. Diary of a Lover (1983 PVC), an EP produced by Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller failed to gain much attention, nor did a re-release of the same material on a double album entitled In Cold Blood (1983 New Rose), coupled with an inept and uninspiring live set from Jonathan Swift’s pub in Cambridge, Mass. Thunders formed a short-lived band, Gang War, with the MC5’s Wayne Kramer and a Detroit rhythm section. The band lasted less than a year, its demise hastened by Kramer’s growing dislike and impatience with Thunders’ heroin addiction, and its negative effect on the band’s productivity and performances. Material recorded by the band has occasionally been released here and there on official and bootleg CDs.

Live performances from the 80s on were often a shambles, with an increasingly drug-addled Thunders often not caring, and meet-me-at-the-show pickup bands not knowing the material. When inspired and at least semi-sober, Thunders could still deliver an engaging performance, but these grew fewer and farther between as the decade progressed. He released an acoustic album of covers and a few originals in 1984, Hurt Me (New Rose). An album released in 1985, Que Sera Sera (Jungle), showed signs that Thunders could still write and rock convincingly. The album, on which Thunders is backed by all-black band The Black Cats, features the sadly prophetic “Short Lives” and studio versions of live-set staples “Little Bit of Whore” and “MIA.” His last studio album, Copycats (1988 Restless), was a collaborative effort with vocalist Patti Paladin, who had traded lines with Thunders on So Alone’s cover of “Great Big Kiss.” An all-covers album with Thunders contributing only vocals, the album is surprisingly fun and enjoyable, with Thunders and Palladin taking turns at lead vocals every other cut. Thunders’ love of early 60s girl groups and doo wop is evident throughout. He has great fun with Palladin on “She Wants to Mambo” and turns in a bravura vocal performance on Dion and the Belmonts’ “(I Was) Born to Cry.” Apart from a few scattered bootleg releases, this would be Thunders final LP. He continued to tour sporadically, playing several dates on the West Coast billed as “The Johnny Thunders Revue”, which featured two female backup singers as well as saxophone and piano and several new compositions. Thunders seemed sober on this tour and was rumored to have gotten clean again, but his reputation as an unreliable drug addict meant that no record company wanted to have anything to do with him, and record contracts were not forthcoming.

Thunders was invited by German punk joke band Die Toten Hosen (The Dead Trousers) to play on their cover of his classic “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” The next day he flew from Germany to New Orleans, LA, supposedly to assemble a new band of New Orleans musicians, an idea Thunders had often mentioned in interviews. Thunders found a hotel room and was discovered dead there the next day, at age 39, of a suspected overdose. Questions linger over whether he may have been murdered by thieves, but no one has ever come forth to verify or deny this. He had also reportedly been diagnosed with leukemia some time before his death, a disease that would take the life of his fellow New York Doll Arthur Kane in 2006. Thunders never had a hit record, but he remains, musically, visually and historically, a punk rock and glam rock icon, with his trademark look copied by countless LA hair bands, from Hanoi Rocks to Guns & Roses. His guitar sound — a buzz saw attack enlivened by Chuck Berry-ish double stops and full string slides (borrowed from Howlin’ Wolf’s guitar player Hubert Sumlin) — is so ingrained in the punk rock musical vocabulary as to be nearly ubiquitous: almost every punk rock guitar solo you’ll hear has something of Thunders in it.

The New York Dolls reformed in 2006; now down to two original members, Johansen and Sylvain, they perform “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” at their live shows as a tribute to their fallen comrade.

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