By the time Johnny Thunders had arrived, he was already gone. Just 19 when he transformed from John Anthony Genzale, Jr.—the skinny Italian kid from Queens, New York who loved chicks and baseball and rock and roll—and hit Manhattan as Johnny Thunders—the sneering New York Dolls guitarist with a mop of teased hair, platform go-go shoes, and low-strung TV yellow Les Paul Junior—he was already a full-blown junkie.
Like some sad cross between Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park and Exile-era Keith Richards, Thunders took the myth of rock’s excess and stripped away the fairy tale to reveal the abscesses, dope sickness, loneliness, and self-destruction at the poisoned heart of it all. And with every breath he managed, Thunders both undermined and strengthened the lie. Like all junkies, Thunders was in love with his own self-destruction and blurred where his addiction stopped and he started, probably because Thunders never stopped. From the lurid, street-life specifics of “Too Much Junkie Business” (Well you run down to the corner baby, see what you can cop / You buy some for your sister and you take yours off the top) to the heartbreaking lament “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (Even though they don’t show, the scars are so old … You can’t put your arms around a memory / Don’t try), Thunders was a walking sharkskin incarnation of his own songs.
But boy, could he play guitar. From the growling shuffle of the Dolls’ “Jet Boy” to the pummeling power chords of the Heartbreakers’ “All By Myself,” from the incredible Live at Max’s Kansas City, the sound of Johnny Thunders punishing his Les Paul Junior is one of the greatest noises in the history of rock and roll. With his sloppy Chuck Berry leads and howling feedback, Thunders careened through rock guitar’s hall of fame like a wrecking ball.
After quitting the Dolls’ in mid-tour down in Florida because they were unable to get heroin, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan—his partner-in-crime for the rest of his life—returned to New York and formed the Heartbreakers. The band released one album, 1977’s L.A.M.F. (”Like a Motherfucker”), and dedicated it to the drug dealers on the Lower East Side’s Norfolk Street.
Thunders sound and style with the Dolls and the Heartbreakers had a profound influence on the nascent English punk scene. Sex Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones has professed embarrassment at how much he patterned himself after Thunders, and Joe Strummer name-checks Thunders on the Clash’s “City of the Dead.” But unfortunately, Thunders influence was more than musical. He is infamously credited with introducing heroin to the London scene on the chaotic 1977 Anarchy Tour that featured the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and the Heartbreakers.
In 1978, Thunders released So Alone, his one great solo album, featuring “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” and cameos by Phil Lynott, Steve Marriott, and Chrissie Hynde. Soon after, the quality and quantity of his output became erratic. Throughout the 1980s he stumbled from band to band, struggling with his drug habit, on and off methadone maintenance. He was besieged by sycophants and copycats, dealers, and hangers-on, in the ugly twilight world of addiction and semi-stardom. He was never without his moments of greatness, though, and even late in his life he could summon up the power of his Junior with more charisma than most performers. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, Thunders died alone, in a New Orleans motel room in 1991, possibly of an overdose, possibly murdered for his supply of methadone. All by himself.