Ever heard of Johnny Thunders? While people who are more familiar with Rock & Roll's back alleys would probably roll their eyes at the question, the truth is the average rock fan who listens to the likes of Muse and Green Day and even some of the younger classic rockers might have to say "no." Johnny Thunders (1952-1991) was the guitarist for the early seventies glam-rock band The New York Dolls and also had a career of his own which spanned fifteen years. His legacy is broad and far reaching and he probably did as much to shape the sound of modern rock & roll as anybody else of his era. Hopelessly addicted to heroin, his troubles were at least as well known as his art and it is a small miracle that his stripped-down style has touched so many musicians.
Johnny Thunders is probably best known for his work with the proto-punk glam band, The New York Dolls. Formed in 1971, the band featured several members who owned a clothing store which sold the kind of androgynous threads favored by rock stars. Not satisfied with merely wearing outfits that were a little bit girly, The Dolls hit the stage in full drag including lipstick and lingerie, bringing a trashy, over-the-top element to the look which still had the power to shock. As in many cases in rock, their outlandish approach won them a few enemies but eventually became a staple of the mainstream. The "Hair Metal" or Glam Rock fashion of the 1980's and early 1990's was basically a mass- marketed version of The New York Dolls' early escapades.
Lace and fluffy hair aside, The Dolls' music was as wild and innovative as their get-ups and herein lay the greatness of the young Johnny Thunders. Thunders grew up listening to 50's girl groups and Doo-Wop crooners like Dion as a little boy and later came of age hearing blues-inspired bands like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds. The thing that distinguished him was that by the time he started playing music he had also been exposed to the work of two edgy American bands: The Stooges and The MC5. The latter two groups were the proto-punks of the late sixties who played with a level of ferocious energy that was entirely new. With this combination of oldies, classic blues and rule-breaking garage-rock, Thunders crafted a style that was at once melodic, rocking, and wildly intense. Both animalistic and deeply musical, the riffs and leads he created with The New York Dolls were the most memorable feature of the band. In his stage movements and his personal charisma, Johnny represented a rock personae as memorable and exciting as any that had come before.
Following the break up of the New York Dolls in 1975, Thunders began a solo career which spanned the next fifteen years. Already addicted to heroin in the Dolls, his toxicity only increased as he forged his own musical path. Throughout his post-Dolls years he was as well known for being a walking disaster as he was for his song-writing. In his jaunts with the various groups he put together, including his flagship band The Heartbreakers (not to be confused with Tom Petty's band of the same name), Thunders seemed to have a gift for self destruction rivaled only by the likes of Keith Richards. On-stage collapses, missed recording sessions, overdoses, endless drug-busts and delusional behavior were the rule rather than the exception all the way until the very end. Even so, in the years following the break up of The New York Dolls he managed to record the classic punk/rock & roll album "L.A.M.F." with The Heartbreakers and his remarkable solo album "So Alone."
After a long and treacherous road, Thunder's life came to an end in a New Orleans hotel room in 1991. Ever the scrappy underdog, he was experiencing one of the many small career resurgences that he always seemed to be capable of. He was on tour at the time performing with his last back up band, The Oddballs. Much like his daily life, the circumstances of his death were chaotic. Though he supposedly died of a drug overdose, there were other people involved and some suspect that he was the victim of a fatal robbery. The truth will probably never be entirely clear.
Thunders' influence is most easily seen in the work of seminal punk bands of the late seventies, most notably The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. The Sex Pistols were practically an English version of the New York Dolls in many ways and The Ramones both played material Thunders wrote and cited him as a major influence for their own songs. Moving forward from the Sex Pistols and The Ramones, virtually any band that came from Punk beginnings has Thunders in their roots. Probably the most obvious of these would be Green Day who simply could not have existed without The Ramones. In addition to this, Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong cites The Replacements as his primary inspiration, a band which was hugely inspired by Thunders, even penning an ode to him on their first album (the prophetic "Johnny's Gonna Die"). Thunders also had a clear influence in the work of Guns N' Roses. Their song "So Fine" celebrates Johnny as does their cover of his classic "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." Among other groups that may never have come to be without him are bands as musically far flung as U2, New Order, Nirvana, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Beastie Boys, all of whose members got their start playing the kind of punk rock that Johnny helped invent.
In short, almost everywhere you look in rock you will find the thumbprint of the troubled Italian kid from Queens who gave his life to the music's extremes. In his personal style, guitar playing and in his excesses, Johnny Thunders was rock & roll. Dangerous was a common adjective associated with the man. Oddly, watching old footage, the most magnetic thing about him was not his edginess but his innocence. As he strikes his often imitated stance, ready to slash the air with the neck of his Les Paul Special, the look in his eyes is dreamy and almost curious, as if he is just as amazed as his audience.
By Jesse Michaels