When she first saw Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls, Bebe Buell thought of him as a “charismatic ball of fire with the best hair in rock n’ roll”. She stayed in touch with him over the years, despite his well-documented decline into drug dependency, and even today covers his song, “Untouchable” in tribute to him at his best.
There were very few people who could command a room quite like John Anthony Genzale. Even when he was walking to the bathroom to take a leak, a train of women would follow in a neat and tidy line. It almost seemed like one of them was hoping he was going to pick them for a quick shag in the loo. Yes, this was before the drugs took his light and destroyed his innocence. This was the Johnny Thunders I met and observed with great curiosity. The charismatic ball of fire with the best hair in rock n’ roll. And, of course, the most essential rock boy accessory besides attention-getting arm candy, a huge bulge.
In 1972, I arrived in NYC, fresh out of high school in North Carolina where my Marine Corps stepfather was stationed. I was a girl from Virginia who came to town at the request of a top-notch modeling agent, Eileen Ford. It was a dream come true to be in the Big Apple but once I got a taste of the city’s nightlife modeling was not the most important thing to me. I quickly broke every rule put upon me at St. Mary’s Woman’s Residence, where I lived on East 72nd Street. My new home, and my wolf den, became Max’s Kansas City on East 17th Street, right on Park Avenue South.
In a nutshell, I quickly got pulled into the life I had envisioned in my head starting at the age of 10 when I first saw the Beatles and then the Rolling Stones on The Ed Sullivan Show. Those TV performances ignited my inner rebel heart, and my destiny began to be reflected in my fantasies and dreams. I was never a huntress but I knew how to follow my instincts and go where my inner voice sent me. And my urges were sending me downtown on the Second Ave. bus to 17th Street and into the arms of my soul tribe. My wolf pack. My people were in that room at Max’s. I just knew it!
After getting kicked out of St. Mary’s for breaking curfew too many times, I was suddenly living with Todd Rundgren on East 13th Street. Then, starting in 1973, we had moved to our Rock Star townhouse at 51 Horatio Street with Richie Havens as a next-door neighbor. Todd had become very successful as a producer and went to the studio almost daily, so I spent a lot of time going to Max’s with friends and the family I had created for myself in the infamous back room. I saw the New York Dolls before Todd saw them and spent quality time raving about them, only to have it fall on deaf ears. The Dolls were not Todd’s cup of tea but that didn’t stop me from singing their praises as often as I could. They had everything I loved about the Stones, and the banter between David Johansen and Thunders was very Mick and Keith… it also later reflected the aura between Joe Perry and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith who got their recording contract on the upstairs stage at Max’s. Clive Davis signed them on the spot!
The first time I saw the New York Dolls was exhilarating and exciting. They didn’t just play Max’s. They also played the Mercer Arts Center and other places I can’t remember, including loft parties galore. Everything about their live performance was fresh and raw. They dressed in women’s clothes, wore make-up and feathers but never once seemed feminine. They were sexy, over-the-top entertainers. My favorite local outfit for sure! Along with Wayne County, almost Jayne, I anticipated their shows with excitement. They had a cool posse and everyone got dressed up to the nines!
New York Dolls, live, 1973, “Personality Crisis”:
I quickly became friends with David Johansen, his then wife Cyrinda Foxe, Sylvain Sylvain, and Johnny. There were so many crazy, wild times that nailing it all down would be impossible. One thing is for sure—those early wild times did not include heroin or a death wish. Not yet, anyway.
One of my favorite memories is watching the Dolls play with David Bowie at my side. Bowie adored them! He had a very different reaction to their sound and delivery than Todd did. He loved the “trashy” aspect of their essence and was enchanted with “the Raven boy”, as he called Johnny Thunders. No one on earth could cock their head like Thunders or sneer like him either. When the band was meshing, it was pure magic… pure camp. Pure ROCK! Even when it was sloppy, it still forged forward with a cheeky thrust! Arthur Kane always looked like he might topple over at any given moment! He could lean LOW with the best of any Lower East Side junkie and never miss a beat! And in seven-inch platform boots to boot!
Mercury Records signed the New York Dolls and it seemed inevitable that Todd would produce the first record. I remember the night well when they performed a showcase for him at a rehearsal studio so he could hear the songs and see if he got a vibe. I was ecstatic and thought they were super ON- playing solid. Todd laughed a lot, finding their lyrics funny and clever. He wasn’t sure he was going to do it, but eventually he caved, and the rest is history.
The Dolls were more my buddies than his. When he was on the road, I even let David and Cyrinda stay on the sofa at Todd’s East 13th Street apartment when they were in between places to live. It was great having them there because Cyrinda cleaned the bathroom full-on, prison-duty style! She made the tub so white, it was blinding, hahaha!
Bowie adored them! He had a very different reaction to their sound and delivery than Todd did. He loved the “trashy” aspect of their essence and was enchanted with “the Raven boy”, as he called Johnny Thunders.
In April 1973, Todd began work on the Dolls’ debut album and it was a chaotic and crazy scene in the recording studio. It wasn’t the kind of environment he was used to. He often became frustrated and impatient with the antics of the “kids” he was TRYING to make an album with. But really, they were all kids because Todd was only 24 years old himself. His goal was to capture their live magic. Jack Douglas was the engineer on the project and was pretty much the middle-man between Rundgren and the band because Todd didn’t really talk to the guys that much. He was deep into his role.
In a recent Bob Lefsetz podcast, Douglas recounts the entire experience. At one point, Todd told the band to “take the glitter out of their asses and play!” He was very much the commander in chief, but it was still a challenge for someone who is as much of a perfectionist as Rundgren. He was the “musician” and the band was the “attitude,” so he tried to direct things as any good leader would.
In my opinion, the Dolls’ debut album is a great record. They mixed it in one day and there was a lot of interference during the process. However, in the end, I feel Todd did his job. It still stands as one of the greatest debut albums in rock music lore.
I was becoming good friends with Alice Cooper’s girlfriend at the time, Cindy Lang. The four of us hung out a lot and she and I would often go to Max’s and other haunts in the City while the guys were busy touring. As a matter of fact, when I first started seeing Todd, he flew me down to Florida where he was opening for Alice Cooper. They were tight. We stayed at the Playboy Plaza Hotel, which was a bit of a foreshadowing for me as I became a Playboy Playmate, Miss November 1974, two years later! Todd stayed there again when he produced the Grand Funk Railroad album, We’re An American Band, and I joined him again in the place that held the namesake of yet another glimpse of my destiny.
Alice didn’t know it, but Cindy had started an affair with Johnny Thunders. That’s when I really got to know him well. We would smoke a joint and talk for eons! I wondered if Cindy just liked the sex because she wasn’t very interested in chatting. She did, however, gift Johnny with some of her wardrobe and bought him some very expensive boots. We assumed it was with Alice’s money because Cindy didn’t work a regular job. Not many of us did in those days. We were “artists” and free spirits.
Cindy did a few modeling gigs and was known as a style icon. She was very chic but, really, she was often just bored. Bored and at that time in her life, she liked bad drugs—the scary kind that kill people. I know because she one time told me to snort a white powder that I thought was coke and it turned out to be elephant tranquilizer. I could have died. I stopped talking to her as much after that.
I sensed Cindy and her close sidekick were dangerous and if I kept hanging out with them, I might not survive. Her friend gave that same drug to Iggy Pop one time right before an important show in Washington D.C. and it was impossible for him to perform. You can imagine, if it had that effect on Iggy Pop, how powerful that stuff was! I felt horrible because Cindy had taken the train with me from New York for the DC show. I always felt responsible for her being there but later found out someone else had invited her. Still, I’ve carried the weight of that for years.
That’s also when I spotted Johnny’s survival instincts and sometimes even his physical abuse towards women. It freaked me out and I couldn’t believe it was the same teenage guy I had met originally. A new aura had taken over his body.
I think this may have been when Johnny got introduced to the dark side of taking substances because he changed a lot after he started running with Cindy. I’m not sure of the exact date but I did start to see a drift in the way Johnny spoke to people. He had always been so sweet, but that began to alter to snappy.
I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, and in January 2017 I got word that Cindy Lang had died at the age of 68 in her home state of Michigan. Something came over me when I saw the Facebook post that Ron Ross put up. I remember feeling very sad. I had long forgiven her for trying to kill me and only the fun times we had filled my mind. But I never forgave her or her friend for giving Iggy that drug before such an important show. Never.
I can’t sugarcoat this and as much as I adored John, I knew I could not hang with him as he was on a path of destruction. I’m glad I never crossed the line past friendship with him, too. That would have made all of it a lot harder.
He got married to a beautiful girl named Julie and had a couple of sons. He could still steal a heart and break a few. His liaisons became legendary especially when he paired up with baby groupie Sable Starr. He had love. He had adoration from fans, he had talent—tons of it! He proved that on what still stands as my favorite album of his, So Alone. The song “Untouchable” still moves me, and I have covered it in every band I’ve been in and recorded it on two of my albums, and I regularly performed it live.
The best part? It was Johnny’s idea for me to do it. He said to me, in that nasally tone, “You could just switch the genders and do it as ‘he’s’ so untouchable”… good idea!
The New York Dolls knew how to throw a party. One of the more memorable ones was held at the Waldorf Astoria on Halloween 1973. Cherry Vanilla played a set that night and she really owned the room! It was amazing… everyone was dressed in costumes and I went as a leopard in a custom-made Granny Takes A Trip, one-shoulder leopard dress with matching platform leopard boots. I wore a dog color around my neck and Todd led me into the party on a leash. I had cat make-up on my face. It still stands in my reflections as one of the top five parties I’ve ever gone to. The Dolls blew the roof off the very swanky ballroom and it resonated in the annals of infamy for many years to follow.
There were the Heartbreakers shows at Max’s that also stand out. In the summer of 1976, before I ran off with Steven Tyler that fall, the Heartbreakers did two nights in July. Johnny really delivered. That kind of focus didn’t last much longer so I was glad I got to see him perform when he still had the electricity bouncing off his skin!
I was in London for a quick two-day trip in February 1978 and saw that Johnny Thunders & The Living Dead (Thunders, Peter Perrett, Alan Mair, Mike Kellie) were going to be playing at The Speakeasy, one of the coolest night spots in the UK. The show was nothing short of brilliant and mind blowing. The combo of Thunders/Perrett had a true element of rock-star power I’ve seen on few stages. If the two of them had not gotten so deep into narcotics and just basked in their songwriting genius, they could have been HUGE! I’m still to this day a Peter Perrett fan and his new album shows that his talent is still illuminating.
Audio of Johnny Thunders and the Living Dead in London, 1978:
Over the next several years, I would run into Johnny. You’d see him wandering around the Lower East Side obviously copping somewhere. Once when Marcia Resnick was shooting me for the Soho Weekly News with my daughter Liv, he came to her loft, where she also did her photos, to see me. Marcia told me he had a crush on me and sort of implied I should date him and help straighten him out, that he needed someone like me in his life. Marcia took the only photograph I have of Johnny and me. She snapped it backstage at my show at Danceteria in the early ‘80s. All those times we were out and about together and there’s only one picture. But that’s the way it was then—we didn’t carry cameras and iPhones everywhere we went.
Sadly, that day at Marcia’s studio, when he arrived, as sweet as he was being and as charming, too, he just looked dead. His skin-tone was yellowish-grey and he was sweating. It broke my heart to see him like that. I just wanted to get out of there as fast as I could. He was very good with Liv. He made her giggle and he played peek-a-boo with her. That’s the part of the Thunders saga that’s so tragic. He really did have a child-like, polite, Catholic boy mixed with bad boy side to him that was truly endearing. When he would crack a smile or when he wanted something, sugar could melt in his mouth! He was also a really good-looking guy. Even at his worst, he was stylish and dressed great, like an Easter Egg Gangster in one of his brightly colored silk suits.
He had two sons, Vito and Dino, with Julie. He had a daughter named Jamie with his final partner, Susanne Blomqvist. I’ve not met any of the kids as adults but I recall being blown away at how much Vito looked like his father. I often wonder how all these offspring are and how their mothers have fared since his death. The stories I hear are not very positive. Back in 2013, I remember the New York Post reporting that there was an “estate” fight going on between the siblings.
To think that Johnny Thunders was only 38 years old when he made his exit. I wonder what would have happened if he had been forced into rehab and cleaned up his act. I wonder if he would have made another monumental album that would change his life. I wonder if he and Peter Perrett would have become the Everly Brothers.
One of the last times I saw both Stiv Bators and Johnny together was in June 1989 after a show Johnny did at The Continental on 3rd Ave. & St. Mark’s. The performance was crazy, and Johnny was fighting with the audience. It’s so strange to realize that a year later Stiv would be dead followed by Johnny less than a year after that.
When it comes to Johnny’s death, I’m one of those who believe he was murdered in New Orleans. Murdered and robbed. He was far too experienced as a junkie to end up with his head in a toilet. I have no proof of this. It’s just a gut feeling. I know his sister Mariann Bracken tried to get deep into investigating the whole mystery, but I lost touch with her a year or so after Johnny’s funeral. She died in 2009 after making some very savvy investments and turned the small amount of money he had when he died into at least a few hundred thousand dollars. I’ve yet to hear what the outcome of the financial battle between his children has been.
The 1991 funeral was an open casket affair. Bob Gruen picked me up at my apartment on East 22nd Street and we drove out to Queens to say goodbye. At the viewing, it was surreal to see him lying there almost like a wax figure in the coffin. His fingernails were the only giveaway that it was really him. There was still some dirt underneath his nails and his fingers were puffy like sausages. I knelt next to him and said a prayer and told him I regretted that we never slept together when we were kids. I’m not sure why I felt that but for those few minutes I did. Ironically as I got up to walk back to the seats, I ran smack dab into Steven Tyler who was there with his then-wife Teresa and her twin sister Lisa. Cyrinda was there, too, so the room was lit up with a lot of emotional chaos drifting in the air. It wasn’t long after this that Liv’s paternity became public knowledge, so Steven and I just fell into each other’s arms in a heap of tears from the drama of it all. It was heavy! It was draining.
Sylvain Sylvain and I were the last two people to walk away from his burial plot as they were lowering him into the ground. They put his guitar shaped flower arrangement on top of the coffin as it descended into the hole. We had all thrown a flower in, too. Syl wanted to skip back to the car because he thought we should leave the scene happy, to send Johnny off in true party style.
As July approaches, I always think of JT… A few of us had our birthdays around the same time. July 13th was Cameron Crowe and then Wayne now Jayne County, the 14th is mine and the 15th was John’s. All Cancerians. Todd is a Cancer, too, as is my daughter Liv and her daughter Lula…
When I think about Johnny, the boy I met when he was 19 is the face I see. The kid with the swagger and flair. The guy who played guitar like a weapon. He carried himself with a ton of confidence, his shoulders back and his head held high.
Yes, he was the Italian Stallion in every way. Born to lose.