Johnny Thunders and Tom Petty would seem to have little in common other than the names of their bands. However, a recent Facebook debate about the origin of that name pulled singer songwriter Roxanne Fontana back into her own past, and her personal experiences with both of these rock ‘n’ rollers. She picks up the tale for PKM.
Recently, on a Facebook ‘group’ dedicated to Johnny Thunders, an interesting debate broke out, concerning Tom Petty. The homage ‘group’ LAMF – its moniker re-imagined from ‘Like a Motherfucker’ to ‘Let’s All Make Friends’ – is run by Brooke Delarco. The well-respected Delarco is a producer, formerly the sound-girl and right-hand-woman for Terry Ork at the legendary 1970s New York City Ork Records. The online crowd for this conversation was really onto something, and it kicked off an interesting debate. It all began with a question as to who ‘stole’ the ‘Heartbreakers’ name from whom, and inevitably led to passionate comparisons of the two artists, Johnny Thunders and Tom Petty.
Both of these artists hold a very dear place in my heart (excuse the pun), and my own personal history. As a New York-borough-born-and-bred Italian-American singer songwriter and music fanatic, it is to be expected that I am a huge Johnny Thunders fan. I was lucky enough to have the bravery, wanderlust and antenna to go out into big, bad New York City in the mid-1970s. Underage, and as a guest of Long Islander ‘Wild’ Bill Thompson, guitarist for The Senders, I got to basically sneak-in to the Max’s Kansas City scene a good one to two years before I was legally allowed to be there. ‘Wild’ Bill had dubbed me, to my face and anyone else, as the ‘weirdest kid in Elmont’. Elmont is the Long Island town I was raised in after my childhood in Brooklyn, and it is a weird place itself. The ‘Gateway to Nassau,’ which my young rebel self renamed, the ‘Gateway to Nowhere,’ with its aspirations to middle-class suburbia, lie just on the right side of the tracks, beyond Queens. A strange town with lots of cemeteries and a little teenage birdie, me, that ran an international fan club for Rolling Stone Brian Jones.
I never met Johnny Thunders, or was introduced to him, despite seeing him play many times at Max’s and in the years that followed at other clubs in and around New York City. Watching him onstage at Max’s with Brooklyn’s Patti Palladin from Avenue P, and taking in their sloppy junkie versions of Queens’ Shangrilas (who were from just the other side of the Elmont line in Cambria) songs, are memories I cherish in a file in my heart labeled ‘Home.’ One night after a show, as Johnny was making his way through the club as one had to, to get backstage, we were locked in a stare. The stare said, ‘Hey, cutie, I’m looking at you’ – ‘Hey junkie genius, I’m looking at you.’ That’s it.
In contrast, I lost my sexual innocence to Tom Petty, in July 1978, in a Long Island hotel. After seeing Tom the year before at the Bottom Line in NYC, I became a mega-fan. High on amphetamine, and still underage with fake ID to enter the club, I watched him slay the New York scene at that show the winter before. There, on my home turf of Long Island, I awaited his appearance in the back parking lot at the Calderone Theatre in Hempstead. Holy Ground as well: a mere hop, skip and jump from Shadow Morton’s studios where he recorded those Shangrilas. Tom was not yet a star, and had opened for the J Geils Band at the smallish theater. I was waiting to meet him to ask him if I could run his fan club. I thought he fit the bill, being a blond like Brian Jones, and I knew he was going to be a huge star, I believed in it, as much as he did. Upon seeing me, he cast me in a groupie role, which I was not.
Fast forward, lifetimes later, we are in the instantaneous internet conversation which seems science-fiction by comparison with that earlier era. On to the question that was posed about the band name, The Heartbreakers: who had it first? The stimulating conversation inevitably led to my own input.
I can clearly remember the discussion I had with Walter Lure, in his compromising position of ‘tying up’ in front of me, to fix up heroin in his Floral Park, Long Island kitchen. His local shooting partner was my best friend, Lisa, the daughter of one of the biggest record executives in New York City. This is what Walter said:
“Johnny stole the name from Petty. He said he saw it on some Marquee in Florida, at a Holiday Inn. He thought they were a wedding band.” Walter said Johnny was down there when the Dolls broke up. Indeed the Dolls did break up in Florida. I always believed this story, as this was Walter, one of the band members, and he would know.
I thought he fit the bill, being a blond like Brian Jones, and I knew he was going to be a huge star, I believed in it, as much as he did. Upon seeing me, he cast me in a groupie role, which I was not.
However, another fan in the current discussion stated that New York’s Heartbreakers played their first show in 1976; they had flyers with the name on it.
Delarco herself was at the infamous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers CBGB show during the Winter of 1976-1977. That show went down in New York history as a show where audience members harassed Petty. One audience member told me that things were thrown at the band onstage, because of this band name situation. Rumor had it that Petty was supposed to play Max’s shortly thereafter and ‘played sick,’ to cancel the show and avoid dealing with the New York scene.
“Johnny couldn’t have seen the name on a Marquee when the Dolls broke up, because Petty was still Mudcrutch, and no longer in Florida when Johnny came up with the new band name,” another fan, of both artists, offered.
Hmmm. The conversation went on in many different directions:
“They were both junkies.”
“One hid it, the other flaunted it.”
All of this intrigued me, the name, the backgrounds… My imagination led me down a path to writing about it, and doing some research as well.
The first Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers show was in July of 1976 at Max’s Kansas City. Intriguingly, the first Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers show was in March of 1976, just a few months before, in the Valley in Los Angeles. Therefore, Tom Petty had the name first, but Walter’s story is simply not true as told. However, that story came from somewhere; maybe Johnny himself made up the tale? Possible. The appearance of the record release by TP in November of 1976, obviously led to a bit of a mini-war. It was also perfect for the good-ole New York vs. Los Angeles rivalry, which, of course, is historic in rock ‘n’ roll mythology. I started to think about the similarities and differences of these two artists, and found I stumbled upon a fascinating set of circumstances.
Born two years apart, one was raised in a city environment as a proud and cultured Italian-American, and the other was raised in a suburban one, with a shamed identity as being part Cherokee. Both men found salvation in rock n roll, and became guitarists and songwriters, and singers – who both sang through their noses in a nasal whine! Thunders, born under the sign of Cancer, indicates a maternal man; what’s important for Cancer is nurturing. An emotional man run on almost baby-ish sensitivities, but with a keen intelligence. Petty, as a Libra, is more protected and distant; analysis brings no decision but is constantly undertaken. However, it was Thunders who harshly and insensitively blew his mega stardom potential, many times.
I remember a story I heard about a soldout show at the Heat club in downtown New York City, circa 1980. The major record labels once again decided to visit the site of New York’s favorite Doll to talk ‘business’. Johnny, yes quite insensitively, shot up heroin backstage in front of all of them. The record company suits walked out. Petty became a star (ironically also in 1980), but would eventually dismantle himself in private, letting on years afterward that he was driven to heroin.
Into the Facebook group’s conversation I injected the observation that both of these artists wrecked their health and that “one was stupid enough to make it rich.” Both of them died before their time, before it was expected that they would. And both deaths are cloaked in tragedy. Mystery still surrounds Johnny’s death. And in a way, there is a mystery about Petty’s death as well. Similarly, both died immediately after a final performance tour.
Johnny went on a quick jaunt holiday to New Orleans after playing Japan. No one really knows what the hell happened to him, but the ‘stories’ are horrific. He was drugged, unknowingly (?) with LSD, robbed, given strong dope by some strange dealers, and beat up and left for dead in a hotel. Yet his autopsy revealed that he was actually dying of leukemia and lymphoma. Natural causes, as it were. Petty, by contrast, has nearly the opposite demise. We were told he had broken hip bones, emphysema, and that his heart (cringe) gave out. Months later that autopsy revealed a drug list 2 – 3 times longer than Elvis’ including street fentanyl, multiple anti-depressants and various other sundry. Surely he could have had his broken bones fixed. The official statement that he was planning to do so, after a break from the tour is ludicrous considering that no one is relaxing or enjoying one minute of anything with that kind of physical pain, and amount of drugs in their system. Johnny, surprisingly, died of natural causes, Tom of drug overdose. But at the end of the day, both Heartbreakers died nonsensical deaths that were surprising to their legends, and also similarly, the stage on which they set themselves.
In a sense, rock ‘n’ roll kept its promise for the both of them. Nothing made them happier in their lives than making music. Both were great romantics: Thunders had beautiful women in his life and many children; Petty, by contrast and despite riches, was not surrounded by trophy wives, and only had a couple of kids but his musical source at its best was pure, indisputable romantic lament.
As for me, when TP died, I cried for months. Yet, tears were replaced by disrespect after reading the autopsy report. And my dream was over. I always ‘dreamed’ he would help me into the big time with my own music. Over the decades, every once in a while I would send him my demos, once in the 1980s to his Valley house where he sat on his throne at the height of his stardom. My note to him was removed, the package re-stapled and sent back to me as a Return to Sender. Lost in the star machine, I doubt he remembered me and our intimacy.
After his death, for catharsis, I set out to re-create his Heartbreakers style and released a cover version of Leon Russell’s ‘Groupie Superstar’, playing the role Petty cast me in. I got in touch with his management looking for footage from backstage in Los Angeles on New Years Eve of 1978. We had also seen each other the night before in San Francisco, a few months after our initial tryst. I clearly remember cameras were rolling when the then-beautiful young Tom Petty deliberately shimmied up to me, the way he used to shimmy, to make me the first person he wished Happy New Year on that eve of his superstardom. We then stood there grinning at each other before he made his way through the rest of his celebrant guests. I wanted that footage for my video for the song – how wonderful and perfect it would be!
which is the better song or record? You try: ‘Born to Lose’, or ‘Even the Losers’? Impossible. The song comparison and its theme is significant: one of these artists is a very famous success, one an underground phenomenon who died more than two decades earlier than his famous counterpart.
But the moneyed superstar machine folks, his management, did not have the interest to look or to reply to me at all. I did my video alone sitting in front of my country house in England. I tried to get the song on Tom Petty Radio, a non-stop radio station dedicated to him, and was rebuffed. I sent my record to his keyboardist, as I successfully recreated their sound complete with moody Hammonds. Nothing, no response.
Months later, I ‘went home’: I recorded a cover version of Thunders’ ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ – I was really feeling it. I did my video in New York. Upon sending it for a listen to Sylvain Sylvain, it took him less than a week to praise me as having done a great job. Therein the contrast of the people left behind is quite clear. As I said, “one was stupid enough to make it rich.”
“You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”-Roxanne Fontana:
Ultimately, we are left with the great music. The autobiographical irony of two of their best tunes, says everything about them. Johnny once again betrays his true sensitive self, and declares with accepting abandon: ‘Baby, I’m born to lose…’ And cocksure Petty steps down from his high place, and admits, ‘even the losers get lucky sometimes.’ Finally, and this is the most fascinating, and fun, and rock n roll, of it all: I can’t pick a favorite as to which song I like more. I also threw the question to Spanish filmmaker Danny Garcia, who made a fantastic documentary about Thunders, and whom I worked with on his recent Brian Jones smash documentary. Garcia instantly agreed.
Stepping outside of opinion and into analysis, which is the better song or record? You try: ‘Born to Lose’, or ‘Even the Losers’? Impossible. The song comparison and its theme is significant: one of these artists is a very famous success, one an underground phenomenon who died more than two decades earlier than his famous counterpart. The defining autobiographical nature of the songs in light of this, and their strange deaths, are both fantastic and usher them into the mythological Palace of rock n’ roll, together.
“Born to Lose”-Johnny Thunders, from L.A.M.F.
“Even the Losers”-Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers:
Maybe rock n’ roll is all about losing beautifully – as heartbreaking as that is. We thank them both, and equally, for the great records and songs they left, and the memories, and their legends.