Yeah, I knew Johnny Thunders. Little bastard tried to steal my black leather jacket back in 1981, backstage at a great, long defunct Harvard Square club, Jonathan Swift’s. I was reviewing the show and doing an interview of sorts and when my attention was diverted – well, he liked what he saw and tried to lift it. Reminding me of that maxim: What do junkies do? Junkies lie and junkies steal. I caught him and he sheepishly put it down.
Ten years later I was writing his appreciation/obituary. Some parts follow, along with impressions from Thunders at that concert – but first, the reason for this now: Danny Garcia, who did a terrific in-depth doc about the Clash (“The Rise and Fall of the Clash”) has done something similar, I think, with Thunders, a 90-minute film called “Looking for Johnny.” It makes its Boston area premiere at the Regent Theatre in Arlington Sunday May 11 at 7:30. The Daughters, a North Shore band, that often opened and served as Johnny’s backup band in Boston back in the day will also play a set.
When Thunders died at 38 in was in a manner his friends and fans long ago anticipated: of a suspected drug overdose in New Orleans.
“He was like a big kid that never grew up,” said Walter Lure, a former bandmate and friend of seminal punk rock guitarist. “You loved him and you hated him. He was spoiled and selfish, but talented.”
Thunders, guitarist for the glam-rock pioneers the New York Dolls and punk rockers the Heartbreakers, spent much of his life battling heroin addiction. It was no private struggle. Thunders sang about it in “Chinese Rock” and “Too Much Junkie Business”; he’d often wander offstage in the middle of a set and disappear backstage; he agreed to play the lead in an unreleased documentary film about a New York junkie in 1982; he sang a pained lament for his late pal and fellow junkie Sid Vicious in “Sad Vacation.”
“I remember I made a comment many years ago,” said Hilly Krystal, owner of New York punk rock club CBGBs. (Hilly died in 2007.) “They were wondering how long he was gonna last and I thought he might last forever. Nothing seemed to phase him. But, you get caught up in drugs and there’s no solution except to stop. You never know when your heart’s going to give out, your lungs, your liver.”
Thunders was cut from the Keith Richards, ragged-but-right cloth. He loved Chuck Berry guitar riffs and surf rock. He indulged in the bratty antagonism of punk rock — taunting the Sex Pistols in “London Boys,” himself in “Born Too Loose” — but he also had a big romantic streak, too, evidenced in his tear-jerking ballad, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”
“I think John was an amazing guy,” said ex-New York Doll singer David Johansen, aka Buster Poindexter. “His was a total genius invention of himself, of a working class kid. He was one of the sweetest guys you’d ever wanna meet. The problem boils down to when you first invent yourself as an arist, you’re totally free. Then, intimacy has a way of creeping in on your life and some people are too sensitive.”
“He had an emotional quality — you believed him,” added Kristal. “Some people are gifted technically, but what he did, even if it was sloppy, it was right.”
Thunders joined the re-formed Heartbreakers for a gig in New York’s Marquee club late in 1990. Lure said it was a great show. “We were surprised we pulled it off. We hadn’t rehearsed in seven years, except twice before the gig. I figured somebody would be unconscious or we’d forget the songs, but it was all right. Johnny was in fairly good shape. He threw one of his temper tantrums, but it wouldn’t be Johnny without that.”
Was Thunders’ end all but inevitable?
“You’re always hoping against hope that somebody’s gonna get it together and prove the naysayers wrong,” said Johansen. “There’s a lot of ways to live life and that’s one of them. He lived a free existence. He was a definite journeyman, a have- guitar-will-travel kind of a guy. And there’s something to be said about that.”
That 1981 Jonathan Swift’s show …
“Shut up!” Johnny Thunders yells, greeting the crowd at Jonathan Swift’s about an hour after his set is scheduled to start. “You guys ready for a real education? You sure ain’t gonna get one in this set.”
“You fucking burnout!” a member of the crowd yells, welcoming Johnny Thunders to Cambridge.
And thus the stage was properly set. To put it mildly, Johnny Thunders has a tainted reputation. In rock ‘n’ roll, more than a few legendary and /or tragic figures – from Keith Richards to Sid Vicious – are tainted. Thunders, who played guitar with the New York Dolls in the early ’70s and staggered hit and miss through the rest of the decade, is a proud member of the walking wounded, the human car wreck waiting to happen.
Since the Dolls split, singer David Johansen has taken rock ‘n’ roll to great emotional heights, investing songs with do-or-die conviction. With Johansen, the questions that come to mind are ones such as “can love liberate or must it confine?”
With Thunders the questions brought to mind run along different lines. Will he be able to get the guitar strap up over his shoulder? Will he make it through the set?
At Swift’s, Thunders was schizophrenia personified. He teetered about and grinned like a dazed Ed Norton – Jackie Gleason’s foil, not the actor – during the dead spots and jerked to life in the best wasted-guitar-hero form during the songs. After two numbers the cry came from the crowd: “Johnny, get off the stuff!”
“I got off the stuff?” Thunders shot back. “Can’t you tell?”
Thunders cut off Wednesday’s set after a half hour, causing more than a bit of crowd hostility. A roadie came out to explain, “He’s taking a quick breather.” Twenty minutes later Thunders came back for 20 more minutes of music.
Though their time was limited, Thunders and friends (he was joined by Blondie’s Frank Infante on bass and ex-Doll Jerry Nolan on drums) raced through a rough, raw, ragged set of impolite rock ‘n’ roll. Johansen took the drama, wit and profundity with him. Thunders took the devil-may-care attitude and the abrasion.
When Thunders comes up with a great title such as “You Can’t Put a Hug Around a Memory,” he proceeds to sing about beating his head against the wall to knock some sense into his libido. When he sings “I love you . . . I really do, no one like you” in “I Love You,” he tosses it off haphazardly.
But the man is honest. “I don’t have one of those voices that can, uh, sing,” Thunders said at one point. Like the Stones’ Richards, Thunders has a reedy voice that slurs and slides along as the guitar blasts away. Thunders’ songs are not often exceptional – lots of frayed ends and tattered seams – but the fragments are driven by hot-wired leads.
He is a born antagonist who wears a sneer on his sleeve. When the Sex Pistols took a blast at the Dolls in “New York” by questioning their sexual preference, Thunders couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sling mud from the gutter back across the ocean. He blistered through “London Boys,” a rocker that suggested the Pistols were puppets who needed help in using restroom facilities. Boys will be boys and when Thunders launched into that pile of bile Wednesday, it still made crude, snotty sense.
Movie at 7:30. Tickets: $12 advance, $15 day of.
7 Medford St., Arlington, 781-646-4879 www.regenttheatre.com