John Anthony Genzale Jr., better known as Johnny Thunders was born the 15th of June 1952 in New York, and died the 23rd of April 1991 in New Orleans. In between, his way of playing guitar (something that can be qualified as howling noise, with licks lifted from Chuck Berry’s songbook) made him one of the fathers of punk. It’s not surprising that the father of rock could see the similarities between the first punk groups (Ramones, Sex Pistols, or The Clash) and his music, they were all influenced by one of his most renowned students.
Genzale’s first love was the girl bands from the early 60s, the Shangri-La’s in particular, his big sister’s favourite band. As he grew into adolescence his tastes broadened with 50s rock and roll and British bands like The Who and The Small Faces. Of course his role models were The Rolling Stones and their guitarist Keith Richards in particular. At 16 his sister started combing his hair like Richard’s and a year later you can see him in the documentary Gimme Shelter looking spellbound at his hero.
By this time he was already playing bass with the handle Johnny Volume. He quickly turned to the guitar after hearing two Detroit bands which became his new passion, MC5 and the Stooges. In 1970 he began to show up on Bleecker Street dressed in outfits borrowed from his girlfriend and high-heeled boots. He soon caught the attention of Arthur Kane and joined his band, Actress, adopting his definitive stage name Johnny Thunders. Then Billy Murcia replaced the drummer and after throwing himself into the guitar, they got David Johansen as singer. The group was finally formed with the addition of Sylvain Sylvain on rhythm guitar.
The New York Dolls were born and they based their sound on Thunders’ powerful guitar. It’s simplified touch and led to its bare-boned feel, between riffs, licks and sharp simple solos, his interaction with Sylvain is perfect and fits like a glove with the speed-addicted music and the catchy songs they wrote. He has his own style, along the lines of Berry and Richards, but much dirtier. Probably the best description of his sound is offered by Kane: “It was lecherous, unpleasant, rough, raw and wild".
Before long, his name would attract people such as Lou Reed, Bowie, Alice Cooper and Rod Stewart to the Mercer Arts Center. It was Stewart who invited them to Wembley Pool Arena in London, to back up the Faces. The gigs went from 200 fans to 8000. As often happened during his career, his performance brought differences of opinion. Some jeered and threw things, whereas others adored him. Among the adoring was Steve Jones, future guitarist of the Sex Pistols, and Kit Lambert, manager of The Who, who wanted to ink them to Track Records. If it didn’t work out, it was because in November 1972, Murcia drowned in a bathtub while they tried to wake him from a drunken coma.
Once back in New York, Jerry Nolan replaced Murcia, and Thunders saw in his new mate a type of father figure that would be with him to the end. Unfortunately, Nolan was also a heroin addict. A few months later the band would sign a recording contract with Mercury Records and went to the studio with Todd Rundgren as producer.
The record begins with Personality Crisis: a cymbal chimes and Thunders plays a basic but 100% effective riff , then the piano comes in with the rest of the band while David Johansen lets loose a maniacal scream. What’s amazing is that after such a devastating start, the album keeps its intensity. His love for girl bands (Shangri-La’s) and 50s rock & roll, together with his raw and basic technique made them the precursors to punk, his taste for make-up, high-heeled platform shoes made them glam contemporaries, and the interplay between Thunders & Johansen is reminiscent of Jagger and Richards, but the group is pure rock that goes for the jugular. In addition, Johansen and Thunders were the main composers, and left a trail of classics like, Looking for a Kiss, Subway Train and Jet Boy.
They were a clear example of both beloved and hated, with no middle term, as best described by the legendary magazine Creem as the best and worst group according to readers in 1973. They were supposedly going to be a big hit, but, who in their right mind would think that a teenager from Nebraska or Arkansas was going to buy a record whose cover portrayed 5 dudes done up as transvestites looking like the roughest whores in New Orleans?. So, despite their brilliant songs, the record never took off. The only venues they got a solid following were on the coasts. In their case, their eruption led to the stage at CBGB and to the birth of punk with bands such as the Ramones and Television, in L.A. they sold out 4 nights running at the legendary Whiskey-a-go-go, and a decade later, their influence, both musical and stylistic gave way to glam-metal with bands like Mötley Crüe and Guns and Roses.
The rest of the country remained outside their influence but on the other side of the Atlantic, where glam was really in, there was a legion of young fans awaiting them. Their performance at the Old Grey Whistle Test was one of those moments that many British punks remember as the beginning of the movement in the U.K.. Bowie had just killed Ziggy Stardust and Bolan was beginning his decadence, the Dolls became the new model to copy. Thunders didn’t wait a wink and in place of his emblematic Les Paul he appeared instead on the air with a White Vox Teardrop from the 60s, a guitar made popular by Brian Jones.
They appeared at the prestigious Musikladen in Germany, and this time Thunders was gripping a 1950s Les Paul TV. However, despite everything, the seeds of the band’s self destruction were already present. Thunders threw up in a Paris airport in front of a group of journalists, and the gig ended in the French capital with him smashing his Les Paul over the head of a fan who spat on him. Genzale got more and more possessed by Thunders and the character ended up eating away at the music.
The second Dolls record didn’t take long arriving. The first pick on producers was Leiber and Stoller, but they recommended instead Shadow Morton, the Shangri-Las’ producer. It was the perfect choice, even so, Too Much Too Soon didn’t reach the numbers of the first album, mainly because the drugs, parties, and the touring hadn’t stopped being a source of inspiration for their new material. There are various versions of the record, with special focus on the 50s, although Thunders and Johansen still left their mark on classics like Babylon and Human Being, possibly the band’s best song, in which Thunders performs masterful licks and would wind up having very different covers , as those by Guns and Roses or Morrissey.
But once again, the record failed to make the charts, and things started looking bad for the Dolls. Thunders and Nolan were junkies, Kane, an alcoholic, and it didn’t help that Malcolm McLaren, who became the manager, dressed in red leather suits and made them play under the Chinese flag ( the experimental provocation that would go much better the following year with the Sex Pistols). During the Florida tour in 1975, Thunders and Nolan quit the band. Soon they would form the Heartbreakers together with Richard Hell and Walter Lure. When Hell left to play with the Voidoids, he was replaced by Billy Rath. Their big chance came through McLaren when the Sex Pistols called them up to take part in the polemic Anarchy Tour of the U.K.. Most of the shows were cancelled after the Pistols appeared on the BBC cursing oaths, but in England, Thunders was worshipped by the new punk generation. So much so, that his bad habits were as influential as his music, Sid Vicious can vouch for this...
The Heartbreakers were signed by Track Records. As a result they released L.A.M.F. an acronym of Like A Mother-Fucker, and was poorly received due to the disastrous mix. Still, you can find some mythic songs like Born to Lose and Chinese Rocks, written by Dee Dee Ramone. The sound troubles on the record led to the departure of Nolan and the disintegration of the band. Thunders stayed in England where he recorded his first solo record So Alone. It’s about his last great record and the first in which he showed other sides of himself, starting with the immortal You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory, and don’t forget (She’s so) Touchable. Here we can see him getting into more Springsteen territory than that of the Stooges, or a version of Daddy Rollin’ Stone where he shares the mike with Phyl Lynott of Thin Lizzy, Steve Marriott, ex Small Faces and Humble Pie. They weren’t the only ones who lived the legendary recording sessions though. The main band accompanying him was Lynott on bass, Steve Jones guitar, and Paul Cook on drums, 2 members of the Sex Pistols who appear on London Boys, the stunning answer by Thunders to the attack by the Dolls to the Sex Pistols in New York.
Everything seemed ready for success now that the new generation carried their music to the charts, but success didn’t happen. The 80s saw him hit rock bottom, living in the streets, hocking his guitars to keep up his dosis of 2 grams of heroin a day. By the middle of the decade things started looking up with methadone replacing the heroin for a while. For the live shows Johnny pretended to be as high as a kite. The people wanted to see the junkie, not the musician. His own character had devoured him.
Just when it looked like rehabilitation was possible, he was diagnosed with leukemia, and didn’t hesitate in returning to his old habits. After recording a version of his Born to Lose ( destiny does have its irony) together with Die Toten Hosen, he travelled back to New orleans for a treat, and to make a record with local players, and begin feeling like a musician again. But once again, his other self came back and ended with the death everyone saw coming, found on the floor with a needle beside him. Whether Johnny Thunders was born to lose, or decided it himself with his lifestyle is debatable, what is clear is that his legacy is fundamental for those who love the simplest and most aggressive rock & roll.