The First Punk: Johnny Thunders

Johnny Thunders and Nina Antonia. Photography by John Tiberi

The First Punk: Johnny Thunders

Nina AntoniaMOJO, March 2005

FOR THE GENERATION of kids who became punks, the New York Dolls’ appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test in November 1973 was an epiphany.

Considered by many critics to be drug-addled transvestites that couldn’t play a note, The Dolls’ inclusion on the programme which usually favoured safer fare, was nothing short of a miracle. Chortling at The Dolls’ unruly performance, Bob Harris, the show’s normally benign host infamously declared them to be “Mock Rock”.

In dishing The Dolls, Harris helped to establish the ‘them and us’ divisions that would flourish between rock’s old guard and punk’s new guns. That night in 1973, the New York Dolls’ fired the starting pistol. Louche, loud and loaded, they flailed their way through cacophonous renditions of ‘Jet Boy’ and ‘Lookin’ For A Kiss’ moving like overwrought, inebriated automatons in a blur of backcombed hair, girly clothes, lascivious lips and platform boots. Watching the communal television in a student union bar in Wales, Joe Strummer couldn’t believe his eyes. Down in London Mick Jones was similarly galvanised, as was Sex Pistol to be Glen Matlock.

But as memorable as The Dolls were – singer David Johansen posturing coquettishly, rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain coming on like a seedier Bolan, not forgetting drummer Jerry “Only tough guys wear rouge” Nolan and the wonderfully unsteady Arthur Kane on bass – it was Johnny Thunders’ punk attitude that was truly iconic. Clad in a black leather motorcycle jacket with a skull and crossbones painted on the back and playing a white Vox teardrop guitar whilst attempting a mutation of the Chuck Berry duck walk, Johnny Thunders exuded maximum cool. The illegitimate heir of Keith Richards with a Presley sneer and the slim hipped swagger of every bad boy from ’50s Americana, Thunders possessed a death wish as potent as James Dean’s had been, combined with the snotty finesse of a classic street punk. Johnny Thunders didn’t give a fuck better than anyone else. Ultimately however, his charismatically calamitous reputation was consolidated in the immediate aftermath of the Dolls’ English television performance.

The high jinks began with the bands’ arrival at Orly Airport in France, where a trashed Thunders had forcefully thrown up in dangerously close proximity to an international press contingent that was waiting for the Dolls. Johnny’s nausea, a symptom of his growing dalliance with heroin, was perceived by the assembled journalists as an outward manifestation of the band’s sickness. As Sylvain Sylvain noted: “It was all over the press. The Dolls arrive in France and they are degenerate, drug-addicted faggots.” Meanwhile, King’s Road couturier Malcolm McLaren, who had fallen in love with the band and followed them over from London, keenly observed their antics: “They were like the worst strip-tease rock act you can imagine. I loved their awkward, trashy vibe. I became a part of their entourage and like a groupie followed them to Paris.”

Aside from the Dolls’ usual capers which included pissing off their record company, Mercury, with extreme lateness and drunkenness, the zenith of the band’s European jaunt was a sell out gig at the Bataclan in Paris which could be conceived as the bloody birth of punk. Chief Doll’s roadie Peter Jordan sets the scene: “For some reason all the bouncers in the Bataclan were either Samoan or Haitian and the whole audience was male. The audience started doing this thing were they all linked arms and began doing this kind of runaround dance, it was like an early form of moshing. They were all running round in circles, knocking each other over and yelling, ‘Fuck you. Fuck you.’…The bouncers started bopping the guys in the audience on the head with sticks. I didn’t see exactly what happened from where I was but somehow Johnny gets involved in it and somebody got smacked in the head. It was a typical punk rock show.”

On stage, Sylvain Sylvain kept a wary eye on the situation: “A couple of the guys in front of Johnny started to spit at him. Johnny, of course, spat right back, then it escalated from spitting to kicking and then they threw something at him, so he picked up the microphone stand, you know how they have a heavy round bases, like a weight, and he threw it right in their faces. After that, this guy and all his buddies went for us and we had to run off. Of course, everyone remembers that as ‘Wow, the Dolls start a riot’ but it was bad. Somebody could have got killed. If they’d have caught up with Johnny, who was the first one to put down his guitar and spit, I don’t think they would have let him go.” The gig was abandoned and the Dolls’ fled. All those dreams they’d had about being mobbed like The Beatles or The Stones by fans evaporating as they beat a hasty exit. Apparently Johnny was the first Doll out of the building. Despite his budding habit, he was still capable of showing the athletic prowess that had made him a star baseball player in his early teens. Hadn’t he wielded the microphone stand just like a baseball bat?

Before he’d pledged his soul to rock n’ roll Johnny Thunders had been Johnny Genzale, a shy if spirited kid of Italian heritage. Raised in Queens on the outskirts of New York, he’d gone to church, loved his mom, hated school and excelled at baseball until legend had it he’d got thrown off the team for refusing to get his long black hair cut. For someone who hated authority the only other avenues open to him were delinquency and rock n’ roll. He chose both and never looked back, dying under suspicious circumstances in a New Orleans boarding house on April 23, 1991 aged 38. Romantics like to say to he was found holding his guitar, cynics that he was murdered for his drugs and cash. The first time Johnny Thunders received attention from MTV was the day they covered his obituary.

By 1991, Thunders’ influence was all-pervasive in rock circles but rarely acknowledged by his more successful peers or the mainstream. He was the exiled king of the punks, a unique guitarist, the junkie’s junkie, and the guy that launched the rock ‘n’ roll look that has since become standard issue. He’d never intended to become a drug fiend or to make rock music a blood sport all he’d ever wanted was to be in a band, a wish that was granted to him in 1971 when he began rehearsing with Arthur Kane, guitarist Rick Rivets and drummer Billy Murcia. Initially Johnny had started off on bass, lured by the fewer strings less hassle premise, but he always had a hankering to play guitar and practiced whenever he could. His mentor in musical metamorphoses was Arthur Kane: “I was the one that promoted him from bass player to guitar player and put myself on bass because I knew that if I played bass with what he was playing on guitar, we would have something.”

You’d have thought Kane had handed over Excalibur the way Johnny took to his new position as lead guitarist. However, as serious as he was about the music, Johnny was equally aware of image which camouflaged his shyness and insecurity. Like a declaration of intent he sought out a new name befitting his ideal of a dream guitarist, a hybrid of sight and sound that was loud, flashy and electrifying. Briefly he toyed with calling himself Johnny Volume before settling on Johnny Thunders. There was something quaint about the adoption of a moniker that harked back to the days of Billy Fury and Rory Storm but it was also a form of liberation and it made Thunders the precursor to every Vicious, Strummer and Styrene that punk would spawn.

Joined by singer David Johansen, the New York Dolls brought Babylon to the Bowery when they made their live debut playing a Christmas show for the city’s homeless. Shortly after the gig, Rick Rivets was bounced out of the band and replaced by Billy Murcia’s best friend, rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain. By early 1972 the Dolls were taking their first precarious steps to starry infamy, playing rent parties and any place brave enough to book them which included a two night stand at a gay bath house as Arthur Kane remembers: ” We did these very weird shows with Jackie Curtis at these baths. It was like there was no audience because all these guys stayed in their cubicles having sex with someone so we didn’t know what to do. Everyone in the group had taken MDA, I think I was selling it at the time. It was kind of like LSD without the heavy thinking but it makes you stumble around, hallucinating. We weren’t sure how to dress for the bath house, so the first night we went feminine, I wore hot pants. They didn’t seem to appreciate the femme look, although we had a lot of fun on the MDA. The next night we came back in leather and chains and got more interest, everyone came out of their little cubicles to watch us.”

The band’s breakthrough came when they landed a 17-week residency in the Mercer Arts Centre which housed several different sized theatres named after authors and playwrights. Holding court in the Oscar Wilde room, the New York Dolls gave free licence for everyone to be themselves. Sylvain: “It wasn’t quite a circus but it was definitely freaky. There was one guy, me and Johnny named him ‘Clothes Tits’ ‘cos he’d always wear an open, shiny black vest and he’d have clothes pins on his nipples. There were a couple of Tibetan girls covered in all kinds of tribal tattoos, one of whom became Billy’s girlfriend. All the drag queens had glitter in their beards and wore lipstick. The umbrella man dressed up in nothing but discarded umbrellas that he’d found on the street and there was ‘Flop Top’ who covered himself with the ring-pulls of soda and beer cans.”

By the summer of 1972 the Dolls were the hottest band in town, Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine declaring: “The Dolls have been getting a lot of people in New York up off their decadent asses and making them dance.” Taking collective inspiration from Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, T.Rex, and those queens of teen tragedy, the Shangri-Las, the New York Dolls developed their own raucous brand of dirty bubblegum blues. The Dolls were truly punks for they cared not a jot for propriety as long as they and the audience had a good time. Of the entire band, rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain was the most musically accomplished, making him the perfect foil for Johnny Thunders’ exhilaratingly traumatised Berry/Richards power chord distortions. The New York Dolls managed to conquer their home turf hands down, drawing the likes of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper to their gigs, whilst spearheading a scene that included Suicide and Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth and inspiring countless other bands to get out there and do it, such as Kiss who took their moniker from The Doll’s tune ‘Lookin’ For A Kiss.’ However, despite garnering local notoriety and snaring a top team of managers as far as the record industry was concerned, the New York Dolls were of loose morals and dubious sexuality, capable of corrupting the youth of America. With not a soul stepping forward to sign them, The Doll’s managers hit on the idea of sending the band to England, a country where rock outrage was better tolerated, in the hope of finding a deal.

In the winter of 1972, the New York Dolls arrived in London with an exciting itinerary ahead of them that included a short English tour. However the highlight of their trip was a support slot to Rod Stewart and the Faces at the 8,000 capacity Wembley Pool. Neither cowed by the size of the venue nor daunted by wolf whistles The Dolls whipped up a raw storm of sound at Wembley. For Sex Pistol to be Glen Matlock, Johnny’s performance was especially memorable: “I realised that he had a bit of an attitude because they played a few numbers and then Johnny broke a guitar string. But he didn’t have a spare guitar. Can you imagine playing Wembley without an extra guitar? So 8,000 people had to wait while one of the roadies borrowed a guitar string from The Faces, then we had to wait while Johnny put it on and then he tuned up at full volume. Then they started the number again, and he broke the string again and we had to go through it all again. People started booing and yelling at them to get off but they didn’t give a shit.”

Immediately after the show, Kit Lambert, the Who’s manager and the boss of Track Records, took the New York Dolls out to dinner. Lambert wasn’t the only one seriously courting the band; Virgin impresario Richard Branson and Tony Stratton Smith who owned Charisma Records were also making overtures. While their managers weighed up the offers, the New York Dolls sampled the local delicacies, drummer Billy Murcia getting turned on to “Mandies” [Mandrax], a powerful form of barbiturate especially when mixed with alcohol.

At a time when taking drugs was practically mandatory for any self respecting band, the New York Dolls were no worse than their peers despite rumours to the contrary. However, they were far more reckless and naïve not to mention unlucky, a combination that was to prove fatal for Billy Murcia. On the evening of November 7, he bid adieu to his fellow Dolls and went to a party in Kensington. Meanwhile on the other side of London, the New York Dolls’ managers sat down to a business meeting with Kit Lambert and his Track associates, who were offering a cool £100,000 for the band. As the course of the band’s future was being discussed, 21-year old Billy Murcia drowned. Having passed out whilst under the influence of Mandrax and alcohol, Murcia’s hosts had attempted to revive him in a bath of cold water with tragic consequences. Billy’s dreadful demise sent the New York Dolls spinning like skittles and they never really regained their balance.

Devastated, The Dolls returned to the States too bereft to even contemplate the future, as David Johansen recounts: “When we came back I didn’t have a clue about what we were going to do. It wasn’t like what are we going to do? It was, well we aren’t going to do anything. We were like brothers in a way. It was pretty heavy.” Briefly they considered disbanding but to have done so would have been akin to a second death for Billy Murcia. By staying together they could at least keep the spirit of the band intact. But things could never go back to the way they had been. Robbed of their innocence, the New York Dolls entered their second more hardcore phase particularly as far as Johnny Thunders is concerned.

Crucially, Murcia’s replacement – the tough talking hard hitting former gang member Jerry Nolan – was to exert considerable influence over Johnny. A no-frills drummer of Herculean strength who’d played with Suzi Quatro and Wayne County, Nolan’s seasoned aptitude brought the Dolls up to fighting strength musically at least. Unexpectedly, Billy Murcia’s death generated considerable sympathy from fellow bands and the music press. The same could not be said of the record industry, which remained resolutely frosty with the sole exception of Paul Nelson, the lone champion of the New York Doll’s cause. Nelson, a former journalist who worked in A&R at Mercury Records, mounted a concerted campaign to get the New York Dolls signed, eventually beseeching the company into submission. In March 1973, Mercury made an honest band out of the New York Dolls, when they proposed a two-album record deal.

Produced by Todd Rundgren, the Dolls’ eponymously-titled debut album was released in the summer of 1973. Reviewing it for the NME Nick Kent noted: ” The New York Dolls are trash, they play rock ‘n’ roll like sluts and they’ve just released a record that can stand beside Iggy and the Stooges’ stupendous Raw Power as the only album so far to fully define just exactly where 1970s rock should be coming from.” High praise indeed, but not everyone would have agreed with Kent. Indeed some faint hearts didn’t get any further than the record’s controversial Dolls in drag front cover.

The New York Dolls’ creative vision was one of magnificent recklessness coupled with an irreverent sense of humour. Who cared about what people thought as long as one was dressed up to the nines and wearing more slap than Macy’s make up counter? Never in a thousand years would Johnny Thunders have backed down on what he considered a point of honour, to do exactly what he wanted and dress exactly as he pleased. In fact it was beginning to seem that the only person able to influence the guitarist was Jerry Nolan. Seven years older than Johnny Thunders and more streetwise, Nolan had pulled rank at the commencement of the Dolls’ first major US tour: “We got into a big fist fight in the back of the limousine and I kicked the shit out of him. Ever since that day Johnny was like my son. He loved me for it. Every once in a while he would push and I would let it get so far then I’d say ‘No more, boy, no more.” For some reason I happened to know Johnny real well; I knew his type. Maybe it was the neighbourhood I grew up in. I taught Johnny everything he knows, he got the blame for it all, but I actually did it all.”

And so the New York Dolls own delinquent duo was forged. Pity was they also shared a growing taste for heroin. Although they’d begun using independently of one another, Thunders and Nolan aligned in both friendship and drug dependency. Much like misery, heroin loves company. In 1973, very little was known about the long term effects of smack. It still had the alluring qualities of the semi-obscure whilst providing a vicarious connection between the street and rock stardom, Keith Richards being the patron Saint of all those musicians who took the vows of nod.

Johnny Thunders: ” I was very young when I started using heroin. Young and innocent and I thought I knew it all, right? But I didn’t know it all, and I’d never have conformed to it even I did. I had nobody to warn me off, to tell me it wasn’t right. I guess I was about eighteen when I started using heroin. I tried it and I liked it, and in some ways I don’t regret ever having used it. I…I loved taking drugs, right? I thought I was having a real good time, taking drugs and playing rock ‘n’ roll.”

By the time the New York Dolls embarked on their second tour of England, Johnny Thunders was primed for self-destruction. While the Dolls’ return trip to the UK further stoked their nefarious reputation and ensured a dedicated follower in Malcolm McLaren, it was merely a glittering respite as they hurtled inexorably towards decimation, Johnny valiantly leading the charge to the void, as he ignited the collective pre-punk imagination.

With a teasing irony, the New York Doll’s called their second album Too Much, Too SoonProduced by the Shangri-Las’ mentor George “Shadow” Morton and released in the early spring of 1974 Too Much, Too Soon stung, jabbed and parried like a tipsy swarm of wasps. Despite being delightfully fractious, it sold marginally less than their debut album. Under normal circumstances most other bands probably could have pulled back from the brink but The Dolls were no ordinary group. Aside from their increasingly excessive predilections for liquor and narcotics, the group’s main song writing team, David Johansen and Johnny Thunders had become irreconcilably distanced when the guitarist shifted loyalties to Jerry Nolan.

Always the peacemaker in the band, Sylvain Sylvain became resigned to the situation: “There was nothing wrong with the Dolls that couldn’t be fixed but everybody stood their own ground, Johansen blamed Johnny and Johnny was like, ‘Fuck you, you’ve got a huge ego,’ and Jerry was behind the lines but yelling Johnny on ‘Yeah, you tell him’.” As well as the in-fighting, the New York Dolls also had to contend with a less than sympathetic record company who unceremoniously dropped the band and managers who chose to concentrate on their pet project, the up and coming Aerosmith, who have being drawing from the New York Dolls bag of tricks ever since.

Through their follies the Dolls were to influence countless bands but they couldn’t save themselves. Making a last minute rescue bid, Malcolm McLaren attempted to revive the Dolls’ career with a communist makeover in early 1975. Dressing the band in red patent leather and hoisting the communist flag behind them, the new direction was a political and sartorial disaster. Unabashed, McLaren and the band set off on a backwater tour of Florida that resembled a rock ‘n’ roll version of Deliverance.

Malcolm McLaren: “We were travelling by car and it was still pretty redneck down there in the South. It was KKK land and we’d hit a town and get stopped by a group of guys who’d threaten to call the sheriff if we didn’t get out of the car. Clearly you did not want to step out of the car you just pushed your foot right down on the accelerator and sped out of town and on to the freeway as fast as you could, without stopping. These people were crazy. You didn’t know what was going to happen. You could get the shit beaten out of you or end up in a swamp, ten feet under.” With not a stitch to wear but army fatigues and red leather, nowhere to stay but a godforsaken trailer park, not enough love left between the band and no more drugs, Nolan was the first to quit swiftly followed by Johnny Thunders. There was nothing left to say but goodbye according to Arthur Kane: “I was shocked when Johnny and Jerry cut out but to tell the truth, if I had been more interested in heroin, I would have gone with them.”

Drag Queens, Communists and Junkies. When it came to image changes, Johnny Thunders didn’t pull any punches. Unfortunately, the junkie stance was no pose but the beginning of a life time spent in hock to a heroin habit. Returning to New York, Johnny and Jerry recruited former Television bass player Richard Hell, for their new band, The Heartbreakers. It was as easy as that. In punk’s bitter first season, Thunders and Nolan’s credentials were impeccable and so were The Heartbreakers. Joined by guitarist Walter Lure, they worked up a set of furiously paced songs about girls and drugs including the heroin anthem ‘Chinese Rocks.’ The defining moment of the Hell line-up was captured by photographer Roberta Bayley who did a session with the band where they all appear to have gushing gun shot wounds. The accompanying caption which advertised their gigs – “Catch Them While They’re Still Alive!” – was dreamed up by their new manager, the legendary Leee Black Childers, who had served time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

Unexpectedly, Hell then attempted a foolhardy takeover coup but he hadn’t bargained on Jerry “Needles”‘ Nolan’s fierce opposition: ” Richard wanted to do all the singing himself, and he figured he’d get rid of Johnny, but little did he know – we got rid of him.” Hell’s replacement was Boston-born Billy Rath, yet in spite of the new blood, the Heartbreakers soon reached a dead end. Although heroes to some, there was a contingent who simplistically blamed Johnny Thunders for the break up of the Dolls and didn’t want to see him get a second chance whilst the Heartbreakers’ love affair with heroin and destructive tendencies not unsurprisingly frightened off any potential record company interest.

Leee Black Childers on managing the unmanageable: “I didn’t really have much argument for American record companies, because it was before The Sex Pistols. I couldn’t very well say ‘Oh, but that’s good that Johnny calls the audience ‘Motherfuckers’ and they spit at the audience and walk off stage after two songs and curse’, because there was no precedent to prove to anyone that anyone would want to buy records from someone that horrible. I was just stonewalled…..particularly with Johnny. He had the real bad-boy reputation. He had taken, I think, not entirely deservedly, most of the bad publicity from the Dolls.”

For over a year The Heartbreakers worked the gig circuit from CBGBs to Max’s Kansas City and back again till they were dizzy from chasing their own tails in ever decreasing circles. Just as the weather began to turn colder and they had to face the bleak prospect of another New York winter without a record deal, Malcolm McLaren phoned offering the Heartbreakers the opportunity to join the Anarchy Tour alongside The Sex Pistols, Clash and The Damned. They hadn’t heard of any of the bands but they didn’t care. As Leee Black Childers quipped: “We would have toured with anybody, even Barry Manilow!” But would Barry have toured with The Heartbreakers?

Johnny Thunders arrived in London as punk’s first superstar and he didn’t disappoint. Charismatic and attractive, Thunders possessed a cinematic quality. In 1976, the majority of English people, punks included, were still enamoured with the U.S.A and the iconography of a million movies; motorbikes, jukeboxes, knife fights, and leather jackets. Johnny Thunders was the all American anti-hero in the bruised and track marked flesh. Drawling about street gangs and smack, zip guns and scoring the Heartbreakers wooed the bands and music press with tall tales of low life.

The first time Glen Matlock met the Heartbreakers was at the Anarchy Tour rehearsals: “They looked very New York, dressed up like Italian spivs. Musically they blew us away with how tight they were and everyone was gob smacked by the guitars. Afterwards I remember saying to Jerry Nolan, ‘I really liked your set, what’s that song ‘Chinese Rocks’ about? And he said ‘Heroin, boy’ like I was an idiot. But heroin hadn’t really been around at that stage. Johnny’s arrival was a mixed blessing in terms of that. I firmly believe there hadn’t been heroin on the punk scene until The Heartbreakers turned up.”

Although most of the dates on the Anarchy Tour were cancelled, the Heartbreakers decided to stay on in England and take their chances at getting a record deal. Their first gig in London was a sell out show at Dingwalls, as Leee Black Childers recalls: “It was magnificent. You couldn’t have got another person in there with a crowbar! It was so packed. I thought, oh boy we’re going to be the next Beatles; we’re going to be soooo rich. Of course the last Beatles weren’t wildly self-destructive junkies which sort of created a bit of a problem in terms of our success.” Meanwhile, the Sex Pistols were busily following the Johnny Thunders’ guidebook to punk etiquette, spitting swearing and vomiting at Heathrow airport en route to a gig in Holland. It worked an absolute treat, ensuring the Pistols plenty of outraged newspaper headlines. But while there may well have been an element of play-acting with the Sex Pistols, Johnny Thunders was the real deal.

Nonetheless, as Glen Matlock discovered, Thunders always had a heart: ” Johnny was a really sweet person, he was very shy and all those problems with drugs was a way of covering up his shyness.” It was a high price to pay. In the end when his habit began to alienate people, Johnny the punk king stood accused of being… well…….a punk. That very first Christmas the Heartbreakers spent in London, they’d attended a party thrown by journalists Jonh Ingham and Caroline Coon. Afterwards the band had been reproached for running up the phone bill, stealing and using drugs. Well, wasn’t that what bad boys were supposed to do? Why would anyone have expected anything less from Johnny Thunders? After all, they’d been warned.

© Nina Antonia, 2005