Que Sera, Sera Resurrected – Johnny Thunders

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Johnny Thunders was rooted in the essence of rock n’ roll, his influences including Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and the melodrama of The Shangri-La’s. Like them he was a master of lyrical vignettes and hooky riffs. However, in 1985, the year of ‘Que Sera, Sera’s’ inception the guitar had fallen from favour in the UK. Despite a thriving rock scene, riffs n’ licks were considered déclassé amongst new bands as faux-psychedelia and synth-pop gained chart eminence. A purist in his craft, Johnny was never swayed by fads but he was not always as present in his endeavours as he might have been. ‘Que Sera, Sera’s’ original production was a well-intentioned effort to keep Johnny Thunders current but it wasn’t the most accurate portrayal. As Alan Hauser, the man who signed Thunders to Jungle Records recalls: ‘The mood was not to let Johnny’s guitar be rampant.’ JT’s usual visceral riffery was subsequently downplayed. This newly remastered album now transcends the era in which it was recorded, returning the tracks to classic rock, the form in which Johnny excelled.

Despite a plethora of live material and bootlegs, it had been 7 years since ‘So Alone’, Johnny’s last true album. Experience had left him studio-wary and he made no secret of his disillusionment with Todd Rundgren’s production of the New York Dolls debut LP and the faulty mix debacle of the Heartbreaker’s album ‘L.A.M.F’ even though both now stand as classics. Furthermore, Johnny had hoped that demo’s, recorded in Tin Pan Alley in Denmark Street, in April, 1985, might have garnered major label interest but it was not to be. Thunders’ bad boy reputation had become an insurmountable obstacle to mainstream investment. Unafraid of burned bridges and canny to JT’s enduring charisma as well as a devoted international fan-base; Jungle Records had stepped in and offered him a deal. Negotiations had been overseen by Johnny’s suave German manager,   Christopher Giercke; an underground film maker and man of the world.

‘Que Sera, Sera’ should have been the triumphant encapsulation of Johnny’s European renaissance, following hard on the heels of nearly 12 months none stop touring. In 1984, he played 95 gigs spanning Russia, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Holland, Berlin and France, as well as Japan where he was always dearly loved. For English Thunders aficionado’s, a sold-out week long residency at the Marquee Club on Wardour Street, in the ridiculously hot summer of 1984, was a particularly memorable occasion. Accompanied by Heartbreakers comrades, Jerry Nolan and Billy Rath, the sets mainly comprised of material that the crowd would have been familiar with, plus Nolan’s composition, ‘Countdown Love’ a rock n’ rollercoaster of a ride. Due to his formidable heroin addiction, Johnny Thunders lived by his wits and was not a man one could often describe as happy. However, under the business wing of Christopher Giercke, and in the arms of his Swedish sweetheart, Susanne Blomquist, this was an unusually stable period for the guitarist. But it was not to last. When Johnny returned to London in the spring of 1985, to commence recording at Tin Pan Alley, Susanne and Christopher were still in tow but some of the optimism had dissipated like smoke from the many cigarettes and joints Thunders imbibed whilst in the studio. An attempt at detoxifying on a methadone plan had failed, whilst Johnny had been beaten up by the French police. Thunders was made of fragile fabric even if he gave the outward appearance of being an attitudinal punk. Despite these unfortunate set-backs, the show had to go on, for as Christopher Giercke realised, Johnny could not tour forever.

Although not a major league studio, Tin Pan Alley was nonetheless popular in part due to its location which recalled London’s rock n’ roll past, when Denmark Street had been at the hub of the burgeoning music business in the early 1960’s. Twenty years later, it was still a thriving rock n roll enclave, lined with record shops, rehearsal rooms and guitar stores. Tin Pan Alley was amongst the last of the recording studios and Thunders base for a little under a week. Accompanying Johnny was his latest touring band, ‘The Black Cats’ featuring bassist Keith Yon and drummer Tony St. Helene whilst guitarist Henri-Paul, a long time conscript was also in attendance. Although Johnny had a cold and was his typically restless self during the Tin Pan Alley sessions, it was a relatively productive jaunt as Henri-Paul recalls: ‘It was a great time and I think that I helped John quite a bit with my guitar. He was a huge guitarist and a great artist and when we used to play together, he didn’t need to play rhythm guitar, just lead so I guess he trusted me to lay on my guitar.’ As always, it was Johnny who called the shots and set the pace which was mainly flurries of activity broken up by as many distractions as he could find including a missing note book ‘full of lyrics’ which I was sent to retrieve from Susanne back at their hotel. ‘Full of lyrics’ was an overstatement as I discovered when I flicked though the mainly empty pages. What little content there was seemed mainly to be half- thoughts, JT’s strange phonetic scrawl oddly reminiscent of Marc Bolan’s arcane handwriting. It was however, the first time I’d seen a mention of ‘Billy Boy’ a song dedicated to Billy Murcia, the New York Doll’s first drummer who had met a tragic and untimely death during the band’s earliest sojourn to the UK, in 1972. The lyrics were barely realised: ‘Why did he take you away/And make our lives that way?’ as if Johnny couldn’t bear to delve deeper into a still painful subject. When I returned to the studio, it was to be greeted by former Dead Boy and current Lords of the New Church front man, Stiv Bators and Hanoi Rock’s lead singer, Mike Monroe.

Despite the evident camaraderie between Johnny, Stiv and Mike Monroe, there was sadness too. In December, ’84, Hanoi Rocks had lost their drummer, Razzle, in a dreadful auto accident. The sorrowful synchronicity of Billy and Razzle’s deaths was not missed by Thunders, who had toured with Hanoi, and at one point suggested forming a New New York Dolls, featuring Michael and Stiv, a reverie conjured up when Johnny had briefly stayed with them in London. Although ostensibly at Tin Pan Alley to contribute backing vocals, as well as sax in Monroe’s case, catching up with Johnny also had a therapeutic effect, as Michael explains: ‘Johnny Thunders and Stiv Bators reminded me of that essential point in this confusing situation. Sticking to my principles.’ As Thunders directed them, explaining what kind of backing vocals he was after: ‘Try for ‘Trash’, like the old Dolls’ song’, it was evident just how much he meant to both Stiv and Mike Monroe. The guitarist was their prototype; one of the reasons why they had dedicated themselves to rock n’ roll.  Now there is only Monroe left to recall the sessions and the underlying emotions: ‘Stiv Bators was one of the most important people in my life and was one of my dearest friends as well as a major influence. Stiv had been a big fan of the New York Dolls and apparently drove the band to a gig. When Johnny came to stay with us in Stiv’s apartment, Stiv was pleased to be able to present Johnny with his work. He’d written The Lords of The New Church track ‘Little Boys Play with Dolls’ as a tribute to the Dolls. He was happy to be able to show Johnny that he wasn’t ‘Just that little Dolls fan that drove them to a gig once.’ Johnny was very impressed with Stiv’s work. That was a very nice thing to witness.’

In turn, the presence and enthusiasm of Monroe and Bators, revived Thunders, despite the onset of a cold. Suddenly he was THE Johnny Thunders from the Badlands of American myth, again. The transformation from quiet, insular Johnny Genzale into Johnny ‘Trouble’ Thunders, guitar elemental, was something to behold. He lit another cigarette and ran a hand through his permanently awesome hair. The swagger was on and the guitar came to life, Johnny transforming Booker T and The MG’s superlative ‘Green Onions’ into ‘Talking Bout You’ rolling into ‘Avenue D.’ Direct, unadorned excitement. Both songs were excised from ‘Que Sera, Sera’ ‘85 and had it not been for Alan Hauser’s detective work, the tracks might have been lost. ‘Countdown Love’ another strong contender was also absent from the original album as Jerry Nolan hadn’t yet recorded it. ‘Cool Operator’ also made a showing, Henri-Paul recalling that ‘John used to like Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’, we developed ‘Cool Operator’ at sound-checks.’ The Tin Pan Alley sessions ended with a cautious commentary from Christopher Giercke: ‘To deliver what is expected is not enough. Johnny has the responsibility not to present a fucked up image to the world, it is a very selfish. There is a big different in heroin addiction and having a good time. In fact they have nothing in common at all. Liquor is the same kind of weird perversion, to drink until you fall over. I mean, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole are great actors, but it’s a similar kind of perversion in that everybody around them is made extremely unhappy to see it. They had a sense of accomplishment as Lenny Bruce had, but it would be nice to keep it lighter. Much lighter. If there is a responsibility to be donated from them, it is to learn from their tragic downfall. You know, it’s not really a management task at all, it’s a friend’s task to develop Johnny’s responsibilities to those around him.’

Immediately after recording, Thunders and The Black Cats had departed for New York where Johnny had a high profile gig awaiting, at Irving Plaza. To mark Johnny’s onstage home- coming, he was joined by former Dolls Sylvain Sylvain, David Johansen and Arthur Kane as well as Walter Lure from The Heartbreakers. It should have been one of those unforgettable nights and it was for all the wrong reasons as Johnny later concurred: ‘I went to New York to conquer it. I fucked up. I really fucked up.’ In the disappointment, Johnny’s life began to unravel. Under the influence of too many Valium, he had been obnoxious to Susanne’s family, whilst on a visit Sweden. Understandably upset, Susanne terminated the relationship. Simultaneously, Christopher, drained by set-backs, began distancing himself from the guitarist. It was under these unfortunate circumstances that Johnny Thunders returned to London to be begin recording ‘Que Sera, Sera.’ After the intimacy of Tin Pan Alley, the new studio ‘West 3’ in Acton, though comfortable, seemed rather too big and empty. But Johnny had requested a large room for recording and Jungle delivered. Thunders was in gypsy mode and not in particularly good shape, staying first at Stiv’s apartment, then at Patti Palladin’s place before moving in with Chief, drummer and rock and roll all-rounder, who Johnny elected as tour manager. At the offset of any new relationship, JT would play games, to see how much he could get away with but Chief soon got wise: ‘To start with, Johnny was my idol but it became clear that I had to take a firmer stand with him. Johnny could be arrogant, obnoxious and fantastic in the same hour.’  Recording commenced at West 3 on August 8thand stalled the following day when Johnny decided to run one of his ‘loyalty tests’ on an unsuspecting Alan Hauser.  Despite all of Johnny’s musical requirements having been taken care of, Jungle hiring a Fender Gibson, a hollow Gretsch, a 12 string Gibson, a Telecaster and a Les Paul Junior, Mr Thunders had become fixated by the custom made guitars of James Trussart. Conveniently for Johnny but not Alan Hauser, M. Trussart’s shop was in Paris. Thunders remained steadfast that the album couldn’t proceed without one of the ‘gotta have’ made of steel guitars.

Alan dutifully sped off to France, only to find that Trussart was absent from his place of business, leaving him to enjoy the fruits of Parisian night life with Henri-Paul. Meanwhile, in London, where the studio clock was ticking, Johnny got comfortable. Lounging on the sofa, he taught Keith and T how to roll perfect spliffs and watched television, relishing the freedom of truancy. The following morning, Alan Hauser returned to Trussart’s store, where one of the master guitar maker’s apprentices informed him that his boss was in the country and wouldn’t back until the next day. Alan was becoming increasingly frantic as unproductive days in the studio were pushing up recording costs. Aside from the familiar electro-jazz theme tune of ‘The Streets of San Francisco’ blaring from the studio’s television, West 3 was a hive of inactivity; Johnny laconically regaling the eternally patient Keith and T with his wit and wisdom. At least they were getting paid and there’s far worse ways to spend a day but they were professional and somewhat frustrated by the situation. Triumphant, Alan eventually returned from Paris with the unwieldly guitar that resembled something from the first Star Wars movie. Predictably, the novelty wore off quickly and the Trussart guitar was rarely used though it was quite the conversation piece for the many guests who started piling into the studio. Johnny Thunders ‘Endless Party’ had begun, summarising the mood in the sessions; ‘People come and people go…’. The song, a hold-over from the end period of The Dolls was a map of the guitarist’s vagabond life’ ‘Don’t you try to call me on the telephone, I ain’t gonna be there I ain’t ever home.’ Conversely a home in Sweden with Susanne was what Johnny was pinning for and rebuilding the relationship, rather than recording an album was of uppermost import as Chief recollects: ‘Johnny got fed up and frustrated with the album, it couldn’t hold his interest long enough. Susanne was always on his mind, all he wanted to do was get back to her. I think he thought we could do more recording at a later date but the budget didn’t allow for it.’ What else did Chief remember? ‘A lot of expense, a lot of egos and a not with it engineer. Keith and T were annoyed by JT’s antics, they just wanted to get on with the album but all the extra musicians were dropping into the studio. Wilko Johnson was the best part of the album for me and Mike Monroe and Stiv were great, they lifted the spirits.’

Like ‘Endless Party’, ‘Alone In a Crowd’ and ‘I Only Wrote this Song For you’ touch upon Johnny’s true feelings during ‘Que Sera, Sera’, although ‘Little Bit of Whore’ is a perfect sneer of a tune, a throwaway singalong full of mischief and quite outrageous whilst ‘Blame It On Mom’ has a louche charm. Unlike Tin Pan Alley, where visitors were few, West 3, according to Mike Monroe, was rather too convivial, as friends of friends began arriving, eventually out-numbering musicians: ‘it was packed with the worst kind of London ‘liggers’ and hangers-on. It was complete chaos and a whole bunch of drugged out jerks talking loudly and not giving a shit about the recording. I said to Johnny ‘Who are all these people? They’re totally distracting and disrupting the whole session! Get rid of them or I can’t work here’. So eventually the studio was emptied and there was only the two engineers, Johnny and me. Then we started to get stuff done.’ Johnny having made good on his promise to write a tune for Susanne, namely ‘I Only Wrote This Song For You’ left the ‘The Endless Party’ and returned to Sweden.

Had Johnny not been an eternally lost boy afflicted by destructive impulses, he might have been able to hold a steady relationship together. It was not for the want of trying and no one could have had more compassion for the guitarist than Susanne Blomquist, with whom he was to have a daughter, Jamie.  But Romeo and Juliet is a story just as ‘Short Lives’ was a book found at West 3, one long ago summer. Written by Katinka Mason, the morbid tome is an anthology of artists and authors who all died young. Featuring an image of the famed Wallis portrait of the poet Chatterton, dead at seventeen from arsenic poisoning, on the cover, Mason’s book inspired the song co-written by Johnny and Patti Palladin.  Fate unfortunately is all too easily tempted even if the track is as jaunty as a lace frill on a dandy’s cuff. Some months later, Johnny was booked into Matrix, a studio near the British Museum. That day, the only witnesses were myself and my five year old daughter. Thunders had managed to patch things up with Susanne and was better able to focus on the work in hand, a remix of ‘Short Lives’ with additional guitar over-dubs.

No one can predict the future; least of all Johnny who lived by the hour as most people with serious addictions tend to do. The Endless Party was slowly killing him. Mike Monroe visited Johnny at Christmas 1990 and they exchanged gifts. The guitarist was residing in New York, where he had just moved into a new apartment. Sadly, that Christmas was to be his last. Johnny and Susanne were history, although they maintained contact. The parting was another of Thunder’s unhealable wounds. But his legacy remains and in the inimitable snarl, swagger and sneer of his guitar you will find the essence of Mr Johnny Thunders.

I asked Mike how he felt about the change in perception of Johnny Thunders by the press. Although hailed as ‘The King of the rock n roll outlaws’ by his contemporaries, the mainstream media had little interest, unlike now. Michael sagely concluded: ‘There was a band in London around those times called the Babysitters, who had a song called ‘Everybody Loves You When You’re Dead’ that went something like this ‘Everybody loves to hate you and everybody loves to ignore you and everybody loves you when you’re dead.’

Que Sera, Sera.