The Thunders Conundrum…

Two-fisted, to the very end

….is an affliction that doesn’t seem to be suffered by many, but I’ve got it bad. It goes a little something like this. Given Johnny Thunders’ fame and reputed influence on so much of the music I love, I’m pretty much obliged to address his role at some point or another. But how exactly to do this…The image people pushed was certainly appealing: double-fisted rock n’ roll on legs. But the reality always seemed like something else; something fragile, sweet even, and ultimately lost.

Perhaps it’s one of music’s ultimate “you had to be there” situations. How else to explain not just the gap between image and reality regarding the man himself, but the paucity of evidence of post-New York Dolls musical direction, vision…hell, even quality. I’ve been listening and looking for a while now and I have yet to find the single performance that makes me go “wow!” the way you’d hope something from the great Johnny Thunders might. Sometimes he could play and the band was awful, sometimes the other way around. Often the material or its overall performance just sounded tired.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- 1979. Johnny Thunders. Thunders was performing at the VFW Post in Ann Arbor, Michigan. At that time he was collaborating with Wayne Kramer of the MC5. The two lead guitarists called their band Gang War. (Photo by Thomas Good - NLN)
And yet almost everyone whose music I love name-checks him somehow or another. So who am I to doubt? Many of them were there. I wasn’t.

So here’s to the late, great Johnny Thunders! Long may he reign!

HISTORY: Thunders recorded two albums with the New York Dolls, ‘New York Dolls’ and ‘Too Much Too Soon.’ They were managed by Marty Thau and then unofficially managed for several months by Malcolm McLaren. Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan left the Dolls in 1975, though David Johansen and Syl Sylvain continued the band until 1977.

He formed the Heartbreakers with Nolan and Television bassist Richard Hell. After Hell both tried to replace Thunders as lead vocalist and claim ownership of the band’s crowning musical glory, ‘Chinese Rocks,’ he was pushed from the band and formed Richard Hell and the Voidoids. [NOTE: That ‘Chinese Rocks’ would inspire such furor only supports arguments regarding the general thinness of the material at hand.]

The Heartbreakers relocated to the UK briefly in 1977, where they had a significantly higher profile, to perform as support on the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated Anarchy Tour. Thunders, however, had an increasingly hard time maintaining any degree of sobriety, sometimes disappearing from the band without notice to score heroin.

Thunders released his first solo album ‘So Alone’ in 1978 (featuring a studio line-up of Phil Lynott, Paul Cook, and Steve Jones, with guests including Chrissie Hynde and Steve Marriott) and following a series of reunion dates in New York at Max’s Kansas City in 1979 the Heartbreakers hung it up, reforming only occasionally (and haphazardly) for one-off shows or short tours featuring whatever line-up could be assembled until 1985.

This video shows a clearly fucked up Thunders performing the title track to ‘So Alone’ in NYC during the year of its release.

Thunders relocated to London again during the late 1980s, but by 1991 had become sober and moved to New Orleans to reinvigorate his musical life, pursuing a more singer-songwriter course. He was found dead that April in Room 37 at the St. Peter’s Guest House. The police never investigated Thunders’ death, determining it to be drug-related, but others close to him suggested he had instead been murdered by people he’d fallen in with who stole his methadone supply, passport, clothes, and other belongings.

The book “Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon” by Pamela Des Barres says the subsequent autopsy confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, citing Thunders’ sister. The autopsy is also said to have found only non-lethal levels of drugs in Thunders’ system.

[ENDNOTE: Two other bands also got their start around 1975, playing music not a million miles removed from what Thunders’ was trying to do, one in New York, one in the UK. These bands are KISS and Motorhead.

Both were already writing and performing better versions of the music at the time. KISS became one of the biggest rock bands to ever grace this planet. Motorhead’s influence on the course of heavy rock music simply cannot be overstated. And yet the critics sneer, continuing to fuel the cult of Thunders and the Dolls. An argument can be made for the New York Dolls’ eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But if Thunders goes in as a solo artist at all, or the Dolls go in before Kiss or Motorhead, we really should just burn the place down. It’s a pretty ridiculous idea anyway.]

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