by Billy Sedlmayr
‘Johnny Thunder lives on water, feeds on lightning.
Johnny Thunder don’t need no one, don’t want money.
And all the people of the town, They can’t get through to Johnny, they will never, ever break him down.
Johnny Thunder speaks for no one, goes on fighting.
And sweet Helena in bed prays for Johnny.’
“Johnny Thunder”—R. Davies
In the late summer of 1980, the remains of what was Giant Sandworms went in an exhaustive road trip to find our place in NYC’s post-punk rock whirlpool of unsigned bands. We were unprepared for this mythic belly flop into the catacombs of both the Lower East Side and the herculean task of day-to-day advancement of spinning our wheels just to play CBGB for 16 people, 15 of them being our friends.
New York City was a harsh, smelly, tinderbox of sorts when I was living there. The Hell’s Angels block on First Avenue and Third Street held an obit on the west side of the street, sprayed on the brick wall in memory of Big Vinny “When in doubt, knock ’em out.” I walked down Third from my job on Sixth Avenue every night to our tenement on Avenue B and Third. The building was like any other building in 1981, serving as Alphabet City’s 24/7 narcotics market and shooting galleries. It wasn’t always a pleasant interaction and even Johnny Thunders was just another mark.
Back then, everybody had a story about Johnny Thunders, everybody.
My story, I guess, is like the rest, except this happened. I’ll change a name or two and hope it might say something about the phenomenon of stardom and the hook that keeps a man or woman in debt — most can ill-afford, be it soul or skin, and last the failure on all fronts of continuing a drug war on our citizens and those of other countries, a cage to collect the steps of human beings at all cost.
But let’s back up.
Way back in the early ’70s, rock & rock had become listless. With a few exceptions, groups made the same record again and again, then a live album, to capture the flaccid sound with audience applause engineered to sound like panzer divisions. This inflated doctrine was universal. But the onset of change would begin in small camps, garages, and basements, by like-minded kids that didn’t fit. New York City was dangerous, abandoned and for the taking. Beneath the Brill building, Warhol’s Factory, Manny’s Music (“try it, you buy it”), record companies furnished with mahogany and leather and maybe a faint trace of Birdland and, more recently, The Fillmore, offered up stagnation. The industry and its product were stamped in Billboard Magazine, in self-congratulatory pages, while raw, young talent went unfostered. A continued exploitation sown first on the sleeve of black music and then prescribed to deceptively managed groups where everyone but the artists themselves got a piece of the pie. It became near impossible to break into the machinations of this music machine.
In 1973, one band—The New York Dolls—almost got through. They were representing their city with driving blues rock, and hard-luck tales of youth punching back at the disorder of war, technology, urban renewal and the luckless stars of a time where nothing was forbidden. It was unapologetic, dirty, loud, and fast. The cover of their debut album found the quintet in full drag and unwashed long hair with more swagger than the Rolling Stones could muster on their best night.
Wunderkind Todd Rundgren produced it and it sounded as they did—no whiteout on this term paper. David Johansen was a lead singer with the goods. Lead guitarist, Johnny Thunders’ sound was driven, mangy, loud, and original. “Trash,” “Vietnamese Baby,” and “Subway Train” were unforgettable titles. You would not find one gram of Dan Fogelberg on this record, and there would’ve been no Sex Pistols without them—and that’s just for starters. It was pure from-the-streets commentary on the times.
CREEM Readers Select the New York Dolls Best AND Worst Band – 1973
CREEM magazine awarded the Dolls the No. 1 best new band and No. 1 worst band in their yearly poll in 1973. Love ’em or hate ’em, they made a huge impression. The record peaked at paltry No. 119 on the Billboard album chart (the kids balked), and they toured in the U.S. supporting Mott The Hoople and went back to London for a short tour as well. They could inspire from an audience a chorus of boos, or offer truly compelling performances that left people gasping, saying it was the best rock show of their lives.
The band was schizophrenic and the media found them authentic if nothing else. Bowie had referenced Billy Murcia in song (“Time” from Alladin Sane), the original Dolls drummer who OD’d in a London bathtub in ’72 just before the band signed to Mercury. By ’74 the quintet made Too Much Too Soon with Shangri-Las’ producer Shadow Morton. It held “Babylon,” “Human Being,” and Thunders’ first lead vocal on “Chatterbox.” It was camp but cool, choosing mostly great covers like Philadelphia’s “Gamble and Huff” and Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Don’t Start Me Talking.” Record sales were even worse than the first outing, and the tours were hampered by bassist Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane’s alcoholism and the heroin habits of Thunders’ and drummer Jerry Nolan. Infighting and a lack of new material found them waning, then dropped by Mercury. In ’75, Thunders and Nolan quit the band. But along with the MC5, The Stooges, and The Dictators, the Dolls were the American precursor to a punk-rock movement that found its place in every city—just like Hank Williams, Ike Turner, Elvis, Motown, Muscle Shoals—young, reckless, and hungry.
Johnny Thunders Forms The Heartbreakers
Thunders might have been without a band or a steady gig for a week before he formed The Heartbreakers, which, for a downtown minute, included Richard Hell. But the group would be ex-Doll Jerry Nolan, guitarist Walter Lure, and Billy Rath on bass. They worked and developed a devil-may-care harder rock sound and, planned or not, they were synonymous with heroin. You wouldn’t find The Heartbreakers pictured with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” slogan above their heads. What I did see on every other pole and telephone booth after moving to New York City with a post-Heartbreakers pic of Johnny sideways in a hat, syringe sticking out of the brim, pimping his next show, trading street cred for self-parody by 1982.
The Heartbreakers played around New York and then overseas as be part of the historic Sex Pistols’ Anarchy Tour. Four dates in and things imploded. London was not used to a group like this, unafraid to play a guitar solo, yanks dressed big-city junkie cool with enough ego and stage presence to be long remembered. They stayed and recorded the record L.A.M.F. , a very good journal of a rock & roll band with antisocial bravado and American conceit and big dirt-sugar pop hooks. But the record was muddy and poorly mixed and has by now a remixed version or two, but you don’t get them when you need them and Nolan left the band because of it.
They became an apparition of sorts, who would through the years get back together for a payday, but in their time, they were the house band at Max’s Kansas City and took on all contenders. (Their swagger-y ’79 live album, Live at Max’s Kansas City, smokes).
Thunders stayed in London and the next year put out his debut record So Alone, one of ’78’s best by anyone. He had Paul Cook and Steve Jones hot to play from The Pistols’ demise and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott on bass, some Peter Perrett (Only Ones) on guitar, and it opens on a cover of The Chantays’ “Pipeline” and it don’t quit. The ultimate in blood-on-the-page ballads is “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and covers Otis Blackwell II’s “Daddy Rolling Stone” with Thunders on the first verse, Lynott emotive second, and Steve Marriott, the white blues-boogie screamer, who turns the final verse into sulfur, striking fire, holding nothing back.
The studio is said to have been an all-day and all-night den of vice and electricity, where all involved saw a success in its making and a fortune cookie that read “Your Time is Nigh.” So Alone was helmed by a young (pre-U2) Steve Lillywhite. It earned some good press on both continents, sold better than expected and is a rock ‘n’ roller’s album. Johnny’s vocals were as good as they got and his playing was tough, sincere and even tender. It has aged well. But and he never hit that high again. In fact, all three of the voices heard in “Daddy Rolling Stone,” would be dead within a decade.
After returning to the States, Thunders became more difficult, more undisciplined, and toured to survive and make his bones with mostly subpar bands, or worse. Back in New York in ’81, I happened to sit in a Lilliputian Manhattan bar, the A-7, and saw Thunders and Wayne Kramer in that storied, short-lived combo Gang War. The few songs I’d heard were reggae influenced, but with no real direction. The band was more like a ghetto timeshare for two very talented men. It was a project that brought no record deal and no new respect for the future rock ‘n’ roll legends. Lots of time-wasting though.
After losing my spot in Giant Sandworms due to my own habit and inconsistent work ethic, I followed a girlfriend out to Minneapolis on a one-way ticket. I was there two or three months before I could find a connection. Sure, there were those who’d drive to Chicago and score a few bundles, but Minneapolis was a clean town—cocaine was its main offender. Heroin addicts have an aptitude for seeking out people who’d know where to find relief—the working girls and the poor. The bottom line was to never separate yourself from your money because there were always two ways out and bigger cats than I could possibly take on.
That day I got lucky, gave her a $20 and met my new best friends upstairs. Marlene and Alex were a mother and son outfit who sold dope in a loft above a law office. I became a regular quickly and learned to wait for Marlene to pull out of a nod and weigh out the grains. She’d been a hairdresser for some famous types in San Francisco with this same part-time gig on the side. She’d told me she’d done three years in a women’s correctional facility, then moved away, as far as they could get. Alex must have been 25 or so, a decent guitar player, but every bit as hooked as his mother. We moved my drumset into their loft and we’d play at night between customers. He fancied himself a Ron Ashton/Aerosmith kinda guitarist with a nice Les Paul that no one touched but him. We never got as far as getting a bass player. It was busy. Besides, there were jobs to do now and getting Marlene to and from the airport. Unpack the stash, cut, and weigh the quarters and grains for small sales. Like I said, the town was no-junk town. Hell, they only had one methadone clinic and it was in neighboring St. Paul, so quick business trips to San Francisco were the M.O.
I was working on 494 and Lyndale at a record store the size of a Kmart—CDs had just come out at 19 bucks a pop. There was a lot of money in Minneapolis. I did manage to put a band together, sort of. My loyalty, however, was with Marlene and Alex, and I saw a devotion in their strange family, at the same time seeing the endgame, which I thought I knew up and down … but I was wrong.
They lived some blocks from Prince’s club First Avenue and 7th St. Entry and I don’t remember if Johnny Thunders played there or if it was another club, but he was giggin’, and with the careless favors rock ‘n’ roll stars are afforded by fans. Some chick took him to my friend’s place.
I was surprised Thunders didn’t send a runner, but no, he came late on a winter’s night with a fan. Alex called the next day making it a point not to say his first and last name together—one or the other (cops will never figure that out)— but they had no phone tap at that time and, truly, with how things are now, I figure, if the cops want you, they’ll easily have you in bracelets, and quick.
So, he came back the next night and I don’t pretend to know how Johnny with his Queens accent and lazy, almost teenage voice, took a chance, an opportunity with strangers—a mother and her son—who thought himself a rock star. But they got high, a slow agonizing process for two longtime users like them. They started talking and by four a.m., an unlikely plan began to emerge. Thunders’ dope supply could be managed as a tradeoff for taking Marlene’s son on the road, a pact where the main problem of heroin supply was assured and that awful anxiety, one that Johnny had in spades. The game had long since lost it’s appeal, this was simply business, too much junkie business.
Funny thing about junkies—you sell ’em shit that don’t even get ’em well—they’re back in 20 minutes, bitching, furious, telling the man they won’t never buy from them again. But when the re-up comes and it’s the same shit, they’ll buy it sight unseen. Once you’re strung out a few times, it’s all about staying well, normal. It sure ain’t getting high, just keeping the withdrawal at bay. It was, and will always be, a seller’s market and addicts, hell, they secretly have a portrait of their dealer in a Jesus robe smiling in the new car you helped ’em buy. It’s an age-old shell game, lonesome, ugly like old paint chippin’ and ain’t no brighter coat gonna change a man’s call.
Outside it may have begun to snow and Thunders had to be flying by the seat of his pants, putting details here and there like periods and commas. Alex coming in and out of a nod, saying, “but yeah man, I can watch your back, keep the tunes nailed down, so you can put those chops down….” Johnny must have snapped at the dumb kid’s heartfelt drugged-up bullshit. “Look Allen, ugh Alex, you worry ’bout staying up on speed, learn the list, two fucking sets worth on my call. Three days and unless you’re a mope, you ‘ll have ’em.
Alex had been playing a pretty fair “Pirate Love” for Thunders’ approval, but he scoffed and made clear that the kid get on it now. I ain’t throwing my name away for you to fuck it up.
Thunders must have felt hexed, all that shit to put him in this punk-ass position, but The Roadie who was loyal as hell to Thunders and had a big fish in Ohio with enough skag to finish 48 days had gotten a case of pancreatitis five days back and was flown home to Brooklyn. (Motherfucker always came through, but not this time.) The new connection would have nothing to do with the Johnny Thunders Review, so Thunders would use this old broad, make the son save him two grand or more and stay well. No SNAFUs. Marlene assured him she had enough to do the deal and keep working her clients. She was sharp. Thunders made it clear that Alex would be on the tour in four days, take care of their gear until, or if, his pal came back.
Thunders would fire his current guitar slinger in the morning. He’d tell him he’d finish up alone, pay him and it’d be done—fuck it—he played too much anyway. The new kid would learn the set lists plus a handful of covers. It was a temporary fix but fine.
So Thunders and Marlene sent Alex upstairs to start a run on bathtub speed and learn 15 numbers Thunders wrote down to start. Alex cranked his Marshall as Marlene and Thunders began to hammer out price, phone calls, P.O. boxes, and somewhere they found a respect for each other, at least Thunders played it that way.
Thunders was the guy nailed into the barrel, pushed slight into the current and down Niagara Falls to bash wildly against wood. The power of the descent hitting the bottom where you split apart or pop back up to the top. Applause—the winning hand— skill, fearless, in a thousand shitty clubs, where the hand turns the amplifier up further still, and the other half is only here to invite a room full of strangers to watch you destroy the attributes whose balance is self-consuming, drowned in the iconic orphan junkie. Fighting with his band, fighting with his roadies, and with the audience. Trolling the faces to call down: “hey douchebag, pussy, come suck me off!” as if he was waiting on something or someone to take the weight off, to just be John again, or someone else completely.
Marlene repeated the full proposition: Thirteen hundred dollars each half ounce, she’ll send one every 10 days. She’ll take $400 off each package. That’s $2,000 off five packs for 48 days, call it 50 days. “On arrival you cut Alex off four grams each package with him in the room when you open it. That’s one gram a day for you. It’s just under 70-percent pure, which I showed you on the test kit. Twice from anywhere in the kilo. You got the itinerary—which show, which city, which motel.”
Marlene promises she’ll send three-day mail packages to agreed locations, but no overnight, no FedEx, no emergencies—it offsets the odds and “I won’t do it—not once. It’s on you John. You so much as fuck my son out of his share, I won’t know you, and don’t play me for some street dealer, cuz I’m not, one call from Alex, I fly him home and you … well ….”
“We’re clear Marlene,” Thunders told her. “I’m just looking to get home, no drama, no bullshit. And I’ll pay Alex’s stipend of $15 a day for food and $200 a week.”
Marlene was quick and told Johnny to have Alex a plane ticket to Cinci in three days. Night flight. “Have your times, motels, cities in running order, you got a manager?”
“Yeah,” Thunders said sheepishly.
“Good,” Marlene said. “I don’t want him to know what, who, or where I am. Just cashier’s checks to an address in Sausalito that I’ll give you before you leave.”
Thunders pulled out a clip with some hundreds inside and put it on the table. “Ugh, just an eighth till Alex comes with the first package.”
Satisfied, Marlene went slowly into the kitchen, weighed out his dope on her electric scale. It was like Nestle Quick, peppered black in a Ziploc. He paid the mother full freight for the package.
The snow was sticking outside and they called a cab. Alex would fly our later that week and meet Thunders and the band in Cincinnati, two hours before a soundcheck that Thunders would avoid. (He left soundchecks to the band except the festivals where it might matter and the payoffs were fat.)
Marlene and her new partner walked over to her window, quiet. For an instant she felt sick with everything that could go wrong, especially with a rock & roll ghost whose reputation cold-trailed him, his notoriety putting him at a disadvantage. But he was up front and even disarming at times.
Alex walked Thunders downstairs to meet the taxi. It was still dark, the muffler blowing smoke in the freezing hour before dawn would avail its light and seep into blackened windows.
Thunders felt hunted much of the time, didn’t know exactly why. He called his manager to tell his story about the perfect guitar slinger he’d met. “Hell yes he’s a kid and he can sing back-up’s too.”
Yeah after putting that phone down with something in his pocket, he had to smile. Things most often went wrong somewhere and he, well, shit, he’d done all right. That was as good as it got anymore. The whole scene was so dead, fish eyes in the girls that came to make him care. Maybe once, but that was a long time gone; he was careless with hearts and even he knew the game was played out, and, hell, nothing lasts forever. He caught a plane and read Sports Illustrated all the way till the third paragraph about the Yankees before he fell out to that place, all by himself.
Alex would wear those sunglasses day or night, dragging his guitar and Johnny’s when he was asked. The shows might have been sloppy the first week, but you end up floating downstream letting a last power chord float when he didn’t know the bridge or when the band did one out of thin air he didn’t know. Thunders would look back, frown, turn up a notch before doing standards like “Can’t Kick,” “Chinese Rocks” or a cover he still found a friend in.
Alex called me that Sunday morning to say goodbye and ran the story down to me, excited and happy. I was skeptical, imagining Alex in some motel room, in some city, negotiating with Thunders for a wake-up, much less his four off the top, but things are never what they seem and I’d hoped the tour would move something in Alex about music. That you couldn’t do it for a payday, it was those minutes in a opening number when you could feel the entire generosity of people just there to be taken to a better place, a dreamlike world filled with chance and the P.A. calling, bouncing back from walls that now were unlocked and holy. Just fucking spirits picking up your pieces and placing them back togeather. Scars and wasted tissue now forged into a full man, the child rescued from whatever nightmare he’d been living most all his life. Music, man.
A couple years later, I’d left the Twin Cities with their rehabs, lakes and awful winters. I got a letter from my old roommate who wrote about Marlene and her son getting popped by an investigation started about a crooked lawyer downstairs. But they were watching the place and it may have taken one shift to figure out that upstairs, there was some serious vice taking place. The police found a few junkies-cum-informants and went in with a SWAT team and put ’em both on the ground. It took a while to figure, no father, just an older woman and her son selling heroin in midtown. He said Marlene had a huge bail and the news teams got a hold of the sordid tale and filmed her and Alex each time they went to court hearings, cuffed and in jumpsuits. My old roommate was fairly sure Marlene got 15-to-25 years and Alex seven-to-10. Christ, she must have just broke, going back inside to a whole new zoo where she would repeat the countless hours of keeping to herself, knowing her son might not stand up when he had to—and he’d have to the first day.
I never wrote back. He was a normal dude who just liked drugs. He liked Ratt and that hairband shit. That same year, I ran into two people who’d seen Thunders with a pickup band on tour. Excited, I asked if there was a younger guy, sunglasses, with light brown hair, playing rhythm. They both remembered him, nothing special or spectacular—just part of Johnny Thunders’ band.
“Man, he’d done it!” I laughed out loud—attention from girls, or the walk you do in an airport carrying your guitar like it held a machine gun. Coming back a bit taller and with some new dreams. They don’t always come true but without one, a person just don’t have no peace of mind.
Marlene had pretty much paid Thunders to take her kid on the tour. It was original if nothing else. I didn’t figure Thunders even asked for Alex’ name on the last night, but then he had an image to protect socially. He was no-good, another drugged-up parasite. He toured sick, with T-cell leukemia, abroad and ended up in a situation in New Orleans, where maybe 20 years back, he’d have talked his way out, but not this time. And when I hear The Dolls or The Heartbreakers, I remember them all, Alex, his Mother and even bands that I’d carried a prayer for. Strangers now, but rock ‘n’ rollers are like a joke my father told me: There was a monkey sunning on the railroad track, tail resting on the rail. When a train came speeding down and took that tail straight off. As a new train came down, blowin’ its stack, the engineer yelled down to the monkey, “It won’t be long now.”
This piece originally ran in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Tucson Weekly.