In 1987, Nina Antonia published the first book about John Anthony Genzale (aka Johnny Thunders) (1952-1991). It was a time when the rock ‘n’ roll establishment had turned its collective back on the former New York Dolls guitarist. She got to know Thunders for who he really was, not the dissipated drug martyr he projected to the public. That book, Johnny Thunders…In Cold Blood, has just been reissued as an affordable e-book. Beth Hall spoke to Nina for PKM.
By Beth Hall
The author Nina Antonia is primarily known for her insightful, groundbreaking biographies of Johnny Thunders and the New York Dolls, but she has also chronicled the misadventures of Peter Perrett and glam starlet Brett Smiley. Nina made her literary debut with Thunder’s authorized biography Johnny Thunders…In Cold Blood: in 1987. Although currently out of print and selling on eBay for crazy money, is now available as a lavishly illustrated e-book, which she hopes will make it affordable for all, once again.
Getting her work taken seriously has required a lifetime of struggle, as rock ‘n’ roll is one of the last bastions of macho values. When her Wikipedia page first appeared, it began with the description of Antonia as “a groupie who turned to writing books.” This false assumption was based entirely on her gender, but it was widely shared on the internet. It took months for Wikipedia to change the un-validated statements, at Nina’s behest. As she acknowledges: “No one would have said that about Lester Bangs or Nick Kent and they hung out with more bands than I did. When I started writing in the early 1980s, the women who you found backstage at gigs where either wives, girlfriends or groupies but a female rock writer was a rarity. At least Johnny Thunders was sophisticated enough to give me a break, he could see that I was genuinely into the music and not there to mess around. Plus Barbara Charrone had just finished an authorized Keith Richard’s bio so Johnny would have taken note, he was aware of what was going on.”
Beth Hall caught up with Nina Antonia to talk about the real Johnny Thunders whom she got to know.
PKM: What made you realize your path was to be a writer?
Nina Antonia: I had to have a form of self-expression because I wasn’t allowed to express myself in childhood. Reading, like music, was a necessary escape; actually, it was a life belt! I was a neglected child. Realizing the path I was going to take was a gradual dawning, suffice to say, I started writing about music in school essays and the English teacher who had a pre-Low Bowie fringe, seemed to like them. His Bowie-ness was purely accidental. As much as I loved music, especially T.Rex and the New York Dolls, I was also an avid reader and I suppose the template of how a writer exists began to formulate once I started working my way through the work of Jean Genet, William Burroughs, John Rechy and Hubert Selby. Thirteen was a kind of breakthrough year – it was when I discovered the New York Dolls and the Beat Generation writers, the common thread is that they all chronicle a flamboyant street life.
PKM: Why did you feel you were drawn to the NYC glam and punk scene instead of the music scene in Liverpool where you grew up?
Nina Antonia: Because I grew up in Liverpool in the 1960s, it was mandatory to like the Beatles so, of course, I rebelled. As an adult I can see that they were incredibly important and they gave Liverpool vitality and hope. However, anything you were supposed to like, I didn’t like. I would go the other way. Possibly it was because I had a very strict upbringing where you practically had to ask if it was okay to breathe. There was no room to think beyond my parents’ perspective. If you do that to a kid, you either break them or send them running to the upstarts and outlaws. I happened to discover The Dolls when I saw a picture of them in 16 Magazine and it shot an arrow in my heart. They encapsulated how I thought rock n’ roll should be. Back then, no one thought in genre specifics although there were loose categories, I suppose. What became Glam, at that early stage, was being referred to as freak rock. It hadn’t sort of solidified yet. I loved Marc Bolan. I loved T-Rex. I think in many ways it was mining the same scene as the New York Dolls. In fact, Bolan influenced them. His influence is very similar to Johnny’s which was American rock ‘n’ roll like Eddie Cochran, kind of simple but very catchy. By the time I was 13 and 14, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin seemed passé and old. They were successful, wealthy and didn’t have a connection to the kids anymore.
Because I grew up in Liverpool in the 1960s, it was mandatory to like the Beatles so, of course, I rebelled. As an adult I can see that they were incredibly important and they gave Liverpool vitality and hope. However, anything you were supposed to like, I didn’t like
PKM: Besides 16 Magazine, how did you learn about the NYC punk scene?
Nina Antonia: I was probably the first person in Liverpool to order copies of Punk magazine. I used to save up my pocket money and get it via mail order. It was exciting, like a window on a world that was just out of reach. Plus, Nick Kent in the NME reported both on Glam and later covered a festival at CBGB, when the Heartbreakers were included in the line-up. At the end of 1976, the Heartbreakers came over for the Anarchy tour. It was like telegrams from space. I sort of liked that one would only get little glimpses of things, because you could build up a mystique around it which isn’t the case today. I think it’s a real shame. I always thought that Hollywood was great at developing a mystique around say Garbo or Dietrich and that enigmatic quality was also used by David Bowie. The excessive narcissism that the internet has encouraged kills the alchemy of mystery, even if it is an airbrushed lie.
I was probably the first person in Liverpool to order copies of Punk magazine. I used to save up my pocket money and get it via mail order. It was exciting, like a window on a world that was just out of reach.
PKM: What did Johnny represent to you?
Nina Antonia: He looked incredibly cool. He looked like something out of a movie that hadn’t been made yet and I just thought the Dolls as a whole looked great. It was just that Johnny really grabbed me. Even just the way he wore his jacket. You know, you could kind of guess what he would sound like or how he would play guitar, from his sneer. And his hair was like a back-combed quarrel between ravens.
PKM: How were you able to become Johnny Thunders official biographer?
Nina Antonia: It was more that I was kid with a dream. I was living in very difficult circumstances at the time in a cold-water flat in Manchester bringing up a kid and I went into town to look at all the rock biographies. The Iggy Pop biography I Need More which he wrote with Anne Wherer, had just come out. I thought somebody really needed to write a book about Johnny Thunders. But then I realized that he was pretty much a living ghost at that moment in time, there was hardly any press and what little was known was worrying. But I was never used to easy so I thought, I’m going to do it even though I haven’t had any real journalistic training and I don’t know anybody in London. I was very influenced by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, blighted yet seedily romantic Americana. Ladies and Gentlemen-Lenny Bruce!! was also influential; Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller wrote it like a black and white documentary that presented Lenny Bruce and his midnight milieu almost as a secret society. I like the idea of secret societies within society. Our Lady of The Flowers by Jean Genet was also a pivotal volume; it’s quite dream-like yet tough, about marginalized characters who one way or another are in their swansong. That’s how I wanted to write about Johnny… in an underground outlaw way. Someone told me I was lucky to have had the opportunity but there wasn’t a great big queue of people waiting to write about him. It was something that my heart wanted to do rather then it being practical. I’ve always been like that.
It was just that Johnny really grabbed me. Even just the way he wore his jacket. You know, you could kind of guess what he would sound like or how he would play guitar, from his sneer. And his hair was like a back-combed quarrel between ravens.
PKM: How was that first meeting with Johnny?
Nina Antonia: It was at the The Ship pub in Wardour Street where Jimi Hendrix liked to drink in the ‘60s and close by to the Marquee Club. I was so nervous! But then I realized that he was also quite sensitive and quite shy. That came as a real revelation, because so was I. That Johnny Thunders guitar hero was in some degree an image and the real Johnny was a very different character. I think that was probably why he found it so difficult to come off drugs because he had to make his living playing up to that image and heroin would have acted as a barrier, a cocoon and a soother. He had a Judy Garland vibe, the entertainer whose crying on the inside.
PKM: You were given unlimited access to him to write Johnny Thunders… In Cold Blood. How did that transpire?
Nina Antonia: I think it in part transpired because Johnny wasn’t the most talkative of people and he didn’t want to answer the same old questions. So, I was able to observe and learn, which was great for me plus I didn’t feel discriminated against for being female either or having a child. I think Johnny actually liked that aspect of it because he had been raised in a single parent household, so what would have been an issue in other circumstances wasn’t with him. He was a very human creature, there were no airs or graces – of course he was Mr. Johnny Thunders and you had to treat him with respect but he wasn’t a snob, either. It’s probably why despite the industry and the media, he had a solid, devoted international fan base, because he could reach out to his audience when he was on good form.
PKM: What was Johnny like in concert? Were there any specific memorable moments that you experienced while gathering material for the book?
Nina Antonia: He was the most exciting thing I had ever seen and he understood implicitly how to wind a crowd up and when to go on stage. He really knew the borderline of going on a wee bit late to raise anticipation, but not too late. It’s funny because I did a question and answer event for my latest book (Incurable, published by Strange Attractor Press) and we were supposed to start at 7 sharp, and my co-presenter was like ‘We should start now’ and I was like ‘no, hang back until the place is full’. Anyway, the place did fill up and I said to my co-presenter, Darcy, ‘Johnny Thunders taught me that.’ He was very professional in his own way. He was funny, too, his obsession with sound men, always ‘Yo, yo, turn up the vocals.’ I think my proudest moment was when he was doing a gig at Dingwalls and it was absolutely packed. It had gotten to be the acoustic bit in the set and he gave me his electric guitar to hold. I was like this is Excalibur!!
PKM: Can you speak about your experience of being a young rock journalist in such a male dominated industry?
Nina Antonia: I wasn’t taken seriously – but that gives you a leeway to maneuver. One person I interviewed for the New York Dolls book was like ‘Is this the kind of book they sell in shops?’ I think he thought I’d confused book with stapled fanzine. Another gave me a test, asking me questions about various bands. ‘Who fronted Black Oak Arkansas?’ – they were nice people too, but their brains had gotten stuck! Unfortunately, there was a belief that if you were backstage, you were either a girlfriend, a groupie or a wife. There was very little else in the early 1980s– women photographers were acceptable – perhaps it’s seen as more female to capture images – but not to chronicle them. I’m not saying I was the only girl to be writing about rock, but Johnny and the Heartbreakers were pretty heavy duty territory. As far as the Heartbreakers themselves, specifically Johnny and drummer Jerry Nolan, I was treated incredibly well. They had very specific views of women. They were rooted in that 1950s Catholic thing of a virgin and whore, but I really did want to write about them and they realized I was serious. I think if I hadn’t had that attitude about me, it would have been a lot different. I was very clear in my intentions and it worked very well for me that Barbara Charrone had just written a book about Keith Richards. Johnny probably thought, “Oh, that worked for Keith to have a chick writing about him, so this could work for me.” And he was genuinely delighted that someone wanted to write a book about him. Sometimes when I read things about myself or glance at Wiki, which provides such a distorted view, I wonder why people find it so difficult to accept that I wanted to be a writer, to live as a writer, to document people outside of the mainstream but who still had great value. No publisher would touch In Cold Blood in the mid-1980s and the NME’s editor, Neil Spencer, who I’d written to for advice, wanted to know why I was even bothering about Johnny as neither he nor the staff journalists regarded him as being of worth. Everything is so faddish. However, all the knock-backs acted as a weird encouragement, ‘I will prevail.’ Ultimately, Johnny’s English label, Jungle Records, agreed to publish the first edition of In Cold Blood as they thought it would be good promotion.
Another gave me a test, asking me questions about various bands. ‘Who fronted Black Oak Arkansas?’
PKM: What did Johnny think of the book?
Nina Antonia: He was so delighted there was a book full of gorgeous pictures of him. In some ways, he was like a little kid, once it was published, he was taking copies of ‘In Cold Blood’ out of Jungle’s office by the cartload, to give to family and friends. One thing that has become controversial is the original ‘masked man’ cover by Marcia Resnick who is a great photographer. Johnny being Johnny had stuck a syringe in his hat. Now that wouldn’t have been my choice of cover, but it was his book and he was adamant that we use that image. Trolls have accused me of exploiting his addiction but that was far from the truth – sadly, so very sadly, he wanted the world to think of him as a bad boy junkie. He actually asked me to take something out of the first edition that showed him as sweet. Thunders wanted to be mythical in an outlaw way but that never has a happy ending. On a more positive note, I’ve had communications from people to say that ‘In Cold Blood’ actually helped them to stop using and address their substance misuse.
PKM: Did the book do well when it was first published?
Nina Antonia: In wider terms, it didn’t do well. It did well with the hardcore Johnny fans that magically learned about it. There weren’t many reviews. I think there was one in Record Collector and the writer was really surprised that someone had written about a book about Johnny. I remember it, because it was sandwiched between a Wham book review and one about Madonna. There was a band called the Bent Black Tulips. On their CD, the centerfold was an image of their favorite rock ‘n’ roll things, including a bottle of Jack Daniels, a guitar and a pack of cigarettes and in the middle of all this ephemera was a copy of In Cold Blood. But no, the wider world did not know anything about In Cold Blood nor did it care but Johnny’s fan base did and it traveled. I heard from people in Canada, Spain and Australia. There was also a very nice Japanese translation which is rare now. I hadn’t written In Cold Blood to be a great commercial smash. I wrote because I thought Johnny deserved a book that he had some input in. Then it went quiet and certain things took a turn for the worse in Johnny’s life, what had given him fleeting stability was no longer there. He made an attempt to get clean, which failed, then he went to New Orleans and, unfortunately, everything caught up with him. He was already in fragile health when he died. It was awful. Ironically, In Cold Blood began to get mentioned in the music press, usually when people were writing his obituary. It was really sad and really perverse, like ‘hey, we forgive you now you’re dead’. Subsequently, there was a deluge of requests for copies of the book but there was very few of the original A4 version published by Jungle, so they licensed it to Cherry Red Books in 1992. With that one, it gave me a chance to look at things from a more mature perspective and I had the chance to do quite a long interview with Jerry Nolan in the summer before Jerry died. At that point, Jerry was hoping to write his own book. I was able to sit with him and talk about his feelings for Johnny as well as his many memories. He’s buried near to Johnny in Mount St Mary’s cemetery in Queens, which was where Johnny grew up.
PKM: Now that Johnny Thunders… In Cold Blood has been released as an eBook, what do you think Johnny would have thought about it?
Nina Antonia: I often think about all these different gadgets like mobile phones and imagine that Johnny would have run up unholy bills and then lost the phone. The same with eBooks – what do you do with a virtual book? They baffle me. However, the most important thing is for Johnny’s legacy to have longevity and part of that is keeping the book out there in a new format that is affordable. Unfortunately, secondhand book dealers have bumped up prices on the Jungle A4 edition as well as the Cherry Red version. I’d hoped to see it reissued as a regular book again, also but finding a publisher for it remains a quest. Maybe someone will see this and get in touch – In Cold Blood has never had a U.S release and Johnny was very proud of coming from New York. Two summers ago, an agent tried some U.S publishers but they all passed – in favor of books on the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The market doesn’t offer more choice; it just offers more of the same choice!!
PKM: What makes this eBook version different from prior publications?
Nina Antonia: There’s a lot more photographs and there is some additional text. It was given an edit by John Perry, the guitarist from The Only Ones, which I’m grateful.
PKM: Why do you think that Johnny still has such a large influence?
Nina Antonia: I think it’s because rock ‘n’ roll has become so formularized and safe with both the artists and the industry. The days of rock ‘n’ roll being like the Wild West is over. Johnny did things on his own terms and he was very good at being mythological. He has that same ability as James Dean. He captures people’s imaginations and he took great photographs most of the time. I think that helps. He’s like the runaway boy that never came back, the boy that had everything but was self-destructive. They are all very compelling archetypes. Everything about Johnny was innate and natural and authentic which is also appealing. He’s a taste of the genuine spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and that’s a very rare thing. Sadly, also, dying whilst still young always intrigues new generations.
PKM: Johnny Thunders is loved internationally. What do you think draws people from different countries to him?
Nina Antonia: These things have a universal appeal. I would have thought the majority of young people unless they are utterly conservative want to know what it’s like to live free and on their own terms. Unfortunately, since the internet, it’s just made the world like surveillance. We are constantly under surveillance. If I walk down the street, I just look at young people and they are the age group that is most likely glued to their phones. I think it’s really sad they are living their lives through their phones. They are having corporate ideas fed into them as they walk down the street. I think Johnny would have liked the idea of extinction rebellion. He did a homeless benefit not long before he died and was aware of issues of homelessness as well. His life was rather precarious in terms of security, so he felt for the underdog.
PKM: Why is it that some legendary iconic stars tend to not live long lives?
Nina Antonia: Because there is a type of personality (live fast and die young) that some people just kind of burn up because they are so intense. Johnny was the most charismatic person I’ve ever met. You hear the word charisma used a lot but actually when you do meet someone who is charismatic, it’s quite unnerving. I was reading about some PR guru talking about how you learn to present with charisma. That was her buzzword, but you can’t learn charisma which means that the lady in question hasn’t actually encountered it. Charismatic people are very rare – they have something magical and different about them. I should imagine that Robert De Niro has it and that Jimi Hendrix had it. A charismatic person has the ability to almost change the electricity in the air; you can feel it crackle in their presence. When Johnny got on stage, it was like a switch had been turned on and he was absolutely galvanizing. It’s difficult to explain the manifestation of invisible things. Thunders lived and experienced emotions in a very intense way. He was tragically needy and very self-destructive. That’s not a recipe for a long and settled life.
A charismatic person has the ability to almost change the electricity in the air; you can feel it crackle in their presence. When Johnny got on stage, it was like a switch had been turned on and he was absolutely galvanizing.
PKM: You have been writing decadent and supernatural fiction the past couple of years, why did you make that transition.
Nina Antonia: Because I wanted to write about self-destructive marginalized decadent poets! It follows a similar trajectory. So much of rock writing now is a rehash to sell back catalogues. But it’s also because I feel like I’ve written about those rock figures that interested me. Rock n roll should be the poetry of youth not the mechanics of industry. Besides, there’s a whole otherworld of decadence and strangeness to write about, it’s just that it took me awhile to feel confident enough to explore those themes. The esoteric or secret realm subverts reality – it’s a form of resistance.
PKM: What comparable historical figures have you been writing about recently?
Nina Antonia: I don’t think there is anyone that can compare with Johnny, the French poet Rimbaud perhaps, for sheer feistiness. However, if I look back on all the different people that I’ve written about, the main threads are addiction and melancholy, which I’m well acquainted with. They tend to go hand and hand. The last thing I did was a book called ‘Incurable’: The Haunted Writings of Lionel Johnson, the Decadent Era’s Dark Angel, which was published by Strange Attractor Press. Strange Attractor have a great ethos in which books they put out which tends to be popular unpopular culture – again it’s that theme of creative marginalization. I became very interested in Lionel Johnson, a virtually forgotten Victorian poet, who introduced Lord Alfred Douglas to Oscar Wilde and sadly drank himself to death whilst being pursued by a ghostly bird that is straight from the alcohol submerged nightmares of Poe. It’s a misty walk through Victorian London with lots of intrigue. There seems to be an idea that gay culture is recent, but there was a thriving homosexual subculture until Oscar Wilde was arrested and ended up going to prison. Lionel was part of that scene. He was also a muse to W.B. Yeats. It is fascinating to write about this character that has been marginalized and all but forgotten. For Incurable, I edited his poems and essays and wrote a biographical introduction. Its had some lovely reviews in the U.S., from the Washington Post and the Gay and Lesbian Review. I was also inspired by Lionel Johnson for a supernatural novel, The Greenwood Faun which was published by Egaeus Press. I’m so grateful for the good quality independent publishers that currently exist in the U.K. All books released by Egaeus Press are like works of art, they return the reader to the age of Victorian books, which were always wonderfully produced. David Tibet of Current 93, wrote the back-page notes which rather succinctly state that The Greenwood Faun is ‘Shot through with decadence, poetry, opium, and incense, with the ghost of Lionel Johnson as psychopomp and the Great God Pan heavy in the fields, this is a beautifully written proem: witty, crepuscular, enchanting, surprising.’ It was rather nice finding out what crepuscular meant……..pertaining to twilight…….
Johnny Thunders… In Cold Blood and Johnny Thunders Sleeve Notes: the eBook companion – notes from the original CD & LP releases can be found on Amazon. The Prettiest Star eBook will be making its appearance this summer on Kindle as well. To learn more about Nina Antonia as well as upcoming news and events, please go to https://ninaantoniaauthor.com. She is also on Twitter (@NinaAntonia13) and Instagram (@officialninaantonia).
Beth Hall is a freelance graphic/web designer and social media manager who began her career as an art director in the video game industry. Over the past 10 years, she has worked on various projects for Bobby BeauSoleil, Holt McCallany, DJ Sid Presley, Helmut Berger, Zoe Hansen, Magas/Midwich, Lydia Lunch, The Damned and Christian McLaughlin. A selection of her work can be seen on her site and @bhalldesigns on Instagram.