MEMORIES OF JOHNNY THUNDERS by Kris Needs
Johnny Thunders had a tattoo on his right upper arm. A big heart and dagger, emblazoned with the words 'Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die'. Even
when he covered his lower arms with cut off t-shirt sleeves to hide his erm, track marks, the tat was still given breathing space.
We all knew even then - even Johnny - that these words probably would one day ring prophetically true. Sadly when they did, in the late eighties, Johnny died in mysterious circumstances in a seedy New Orleans hotel room. I won't even mention the name of the second Dolls album.
What a loss! What a waste! And what a load of bollocks even having to come up with such obvious statements. The way he approached life, Johnny was
never going to go the distance and pass through junkiedom into post-addiction consolidation and success like his hero, Keith Richards. He knew it but didn't seem to care. So, therefore I say: What memories.
Here, I try & record the best ones. I interviewed Johnny a few times and encountered him many more. As, over some of that time, I was in a similar state to Johnny, I probably don't remember all of them! First some background...
First time I clapped eyes on Johnny Thunders in the flesh was in early '74. The New York Dolls were opening a place called the Rainbow Room restaurant, which was situated on the top floor of Biba's department store in Kensington High Street. Biba's was ultra-hip, very expensive - like a Harrods for the glam era. There were a lot of sequins. Obviously such an extravagant venture didn't last long but, if nothing else, it'll be remembered for that Dolls gig.
Bear in mind that in '74 most 'serious' groups, apart from glam-rockers like Slade, wore denim and plaid shirts. They were not only boring to look at but astoundingly tedious to listen to. You really had to dig for gold in those days - which is exactly why punk rock needed to come along in full force the following year. But here were the Dolls with every member a larger-than-life personality - Jagger-preening vamped-up caterwauler David Johannsen; archetypal inscrutable bass mountain Arthur Kane; livewire hoodlum rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain [with cowboy holster]; powerhouse drum-demolishing hitman Jerry Nolan...and Johnny Thunders, the lead guitarist.
At the time he was described as a cartoon Keef, with his hair an exploding exaggeration of the patented Richards rooster coiffure. But his look was more a startling hybrid of street-gang cool and street-tart back-room. What's more, it looked like half his outfit had been nicked during the Dolls' little shopping trip around Biba's ladies department that afternoon. [It had!]
The next time I saw Mr Thunders, he was fronting a different band – the Heartbreakers. This band had come over to play on the Sex Pistols' ill-fated 'Anarchy' tour in '76 - and stayed. They'd been booked for the tour by Malcolm McLaren, who'd managed the Dolls for a stint the previous year, just before they split up. The Heartbreakers bowled everyone over in the first few months of '77, including myself. The punk movement had been going strong for barely six months. I was totally immersed in the escalating momentum around The Clash, the controversy about the Pistols and the new bands that kept springing up. But the Heartbreakers were different and special. They were from New York - the place that had spawned the original punk rock attitude [and I'd been into it since the Velvet Underground ten years earlier, anyway].
In Spring '77, the Heartbreakers were a joy to catch as they played everywhere in London - the Music Machine, Vortex, Roxy, Marquee and Speakeasy. They had the same New York attitude as the Ramones – play anywhere if people wanted to see you, make some dosh and blow them away in the process. For a few months it worked and I managed to catch them at this peak.
For the next section I'll hand over to myself, except I'm now writing in March '77 for Zigzag, which I was just about to take over as editor. It'll cover most of the bases, but I also think it sums up the impact that Thunders and his gang were having on the UK at the time. The interview was conducted at a central London studio, just off Carnaby Street [I think], where they were recording their first album ‘L.A.M.F.’. Present were Johnny
Thunders, Walter Lure and Jerry Nolan. [By the way, I was just as sad when Jerry Nolan died. He was the rock that Johnny needed to roll off and a fucking nice bloke].
'It's so good to see Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan - the real spirit of the Dolls - back in action and part of a real rock 'n' roll unit. No front man ego trip problems here.
The Heartbreakers have been in the UK since the ill-fated Sex Pistols tour last year, and in the ensuing months they've been gigging, recording and positively thriving in the electricity of the London punk scene. Johnny Thunders says he's never been happier.
The New York Dolls blazed the trail for many of today's punk groups, so we should begin by going back to having a look at the Dolls' legend before zooming back to the present and the Heartbreakers' story...
'The Dolls were an attitude. If nothing else they were a great attitude,' says Johnny Thunders. The New York Dolls proved that you didn't have to be a technical genius to play in a rock 'n' roll band. It was all down to style and energy. In this respect they paved the way for today's new wave bands, who nearly all rate the Dolls as the innovators they were.
Jerry Nolan's right when he says that the punk bands have been greatly influenced by the Dolls. You can see it in the stance, attack and most of all the songs. Riffs from the first two Dolls albums keep appearing in recycled form [For example, the first few bars of the Damned's ‘New Rose’ could be the Dolls' ‘Jet Boy’].
If you were wallowing in the boring excesses of Yes and ELP during the heyday of the Dolls four years ago - or still are - it might pay me to say a bit about them. The New York Dolls formed in mid-1972, when Bowie and Glitter were the latest news. These five Lower East Side kids decided that the rock scene, buckling under the weight of its own pomposity and boring singer-songwriters, needed a shot of excitement in its bloated arse. They gave it one alright.
Jerry Nolan: 'The Dolls were like a gang who turned over to instruments instead of guns. When they started they were great...very raw, a real rock 'n' roll band. Nobody could top them.'
As the Dolls played the New York clubs their reputation grew and other bands sprang up. Soon the city had a rock explosion on its hands, spearheaded by the Dolls and also included such bands as the Brats, Teenage Lust, Wayne County & Queen Elizabeth. The Dolls made an early sortie to Britain...but the trip ended in tragedy when [then-drummer] Billy Murcia died from a drugs overdose. He was Johnny thunders' best friend. They flew home to recruit a new drummer. They chose Jerry Nolan, who they knew because Billy always used to borrow his drums [Jerry had been in Wayne County's first band].
After being turned down by a succession of record companies because of their reputation, the Dolls signed with Mercury and emerged from the studios with their first LP, which is still a classic, despite Todd Rundgren's unsympathetic production. It was the best album of 1973, outclassing with ease everything else around. The songs and rampant energy won through the mix. ‘Looking For A Kiss’, ‘Personality Crisis’, ‘Jet Boy’ - the ultimate teenage rock 'n' roll statements. The production is still a sore point with Johnny and Jerry today. Jerry puts it down to Johansen's desire for complete ego gratification - factors which seem to figure strongly in the break up of the Dolls.
'David had a bad habit of calling the shots about things he knew nothing about. He wanted to pick the producer, and settle for this mix, that tone...He had everything to do with making the wrong moves, and fucked up everything. The first two albums were butchered. They were great songs and we could have done great performances, but David was the type of guy who didn't want to do a song twice in the studio. Sometimes you have to! He didn't give a shit about anybody in the band giving a good performance as long as he sounded okay.'
The Dolls next hit England for a tour in 1974. Their performance at the opening of Biba's Rainbow Room restaurant - a multi-coloured extravaganza which was as spectacular and short-lived as the Dolls - was the best gig I saw that year.
Up flared the lights and on tottered the Dolls in an amazing array of feathers, rubber, leather, high-heeled shoes and rooster coiffures. Couldn't believe me eyes! Then BANG! - they crashed into ‘Personality Crisis’, and for the next hour blasted out faves from the album and a neat choice of oldies, including the Shangri-Las' ‘Give Him A Great Big Kiss’.
I'll never forget Johnny Thunders, a thrashing hurricane of hair and black leather, skidding up to the mike and doing the 'what colour are his eyes?' bit with Johansen, then careering off again, splattering discordant riffs all over the place.
The Dolls caused another sensation when they appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test doing ‘Jetboy’ and ‘Looking For A Kiss’. Their appearance struck terror into the heart of every denim-brained hippy in the land, and Uncle Bob didn't seem too amused, judging by his comments after their spot.
But even as it looked like the Dolls were the answer to all our problems, the rot was setting in. The second album, ‘Too Much Too Soon’, was even more badly produced than the first. [By Shadow Morton, who had created the Shangri-La's' brilliant mid-60s epics but seemed to have failed to grasp modern recording techniques]. Again the songs were great – ‘Puss 'N' Boots’ and ‘Who Are The Mystery Girls?’ were typical Dolls slick city killers.
By this time, Johnny was shacked up with former queen of the Los Angeles groupies Sable Starr, who he had met when the Dolls hit the West Coast: 'I met Sable when she was 15 and I was 18. I sent her home to New York while we carried on the tour. When we got back the police were looking for her at the airport and everywhere!'
The pair stayed together for two years and became NYC's most celebrated couple. But the relationship went the way of so many teenage romances, and now Johnny is planning to marry another girl who is joining him soon in England.
By the time 'Too Much Too Soon' came out, friction was growing in the Dolls and the cracks were showing. Malcolm McLaren [pre-Pistols] moved in to try and give them a new lease of life, but that was 'the icing on the cake', according to Jerry Nolan. In an effort to kiss off their tatty glitter image, the Dolls struck a new, decidedly left wing political pose, donning red leather suits and writing a bunch of new, similarly-slanted songs. This didn't help though, and soon, Jerry and Johnny were on a plane back to New York, having split in the middle of a tour in Florida. It was summer '75.
The Dolls had lasted three years.
'Me and Jerry left because we felt we weren't getting anywhere playing our old songs in tiny clubs,' said Johnny. 'The group was getting stale and staying behind the times, not advancing in any way', added Jerry. And Mr Johansen's contribution to the split? 'He thought anybody in the band could be replaced, especially when Malcolm came in,' said Jerry. 'They felt that they were going to take over the world...but they were doing everything but rock 'n' roll music.'
There was nearly a third Dolls album, which would have included such songs as ‘Teenage Kicks’ and ‘Pirate Love’, which lives on as a highlight of the Heartbreakers' set [Johansen soldiered on with a new Dolls line up with Sylvain. It felt a bit like The Clash would later without Mick Jones. Johansen went on to reinvent himself as bar-room crooner Buster Poindexter – Kris Needs 2004].
When they got back to New York, Jerry and Johnny set about about forming their own band. During the latter days of the Dolls, Johnny had nearly got a band together with Iggy Pop, but it never got further than a loft rehearsal [and probably a trip down the local dealers].
By coincidence, Richard Hell left Television three days before the Dolls split. Johnny called and asked him to join the new group. Richard accepted and moved in with songs like ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ and ‘The Blank Generation’.
The three-piece Heartbreakers debuted at a club in Queens - and it was a disaster! They then got in Walter Lure, who was in a band called the Demons. After a number of gigs around the city, the Heartbreakers were ready to rock! But as time went on, things weren't working out. Apparently it could've been two different bands on stage with the contrast between Hell's and Thunders' songs. So Hell left to pursue a solo career [See Richard Hell interview – tMx 12].
Jerry: 'I guess Richard left because he wasn't happy playing the kind of rock 'n' roll we were into. He's into the Television/Patti Smith vein and we had to cater to him a lot. The longer he was in the band the more he wanted. We got tired of it because it stopped us from our own creating. When he left we got better quicker and we had a good bass player [Billy Rath]. Richard's not a very good musician. He's more interested in presenting himself as a poet. A lot of poets use music as a step to get where they wanna go, but we're better off without people like that in our band.'
At last Johnny and Jerry were in a real musical unit, pruned of frills [and now hair!]. Towards the end of last year, Malcolm McLaren asked the Heartbreakers to play on the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy' tour, which was viciously cut in an unparalleled display of narrow-minded stupidity by our moral guardians.
Despite the tour fiasco the Heartbreakers are glad they came. They were surprised and delighted to find the exciting creativity of the punk movement, especially as they had become pretty disillusioned with New York.
You weren't aware of what was going on over here then? Walter: 'Well, we knew about the Pistols but we didn't know there was such a big scene happening. We thought it was just this one band. As for the audiences, we were expecting a lot of hippies still into Led Zeppelin and shit like that. We didn't know we'd go over...but it was great once we got here.'
When they play the Roxy club - currently the only place for punks to play in London - the Heartbreakers go down a storm, causing 'loony bin scenes', as Walter calls them. 'We love that sort of craziness - PA columns being pulled over, people jumping up and down bouncing their heads off the ceiling, getting into fights. It's great - all those people going out of their minds! We have a mutual admiration society with our audiences.'
Jerry: 'The whole scene over here reminds me of New York four years ago, but they've taken it a step further. It's the same atmosphere with a different type of music. It's very exciting for us because we're the only band from the same background doing the same kind of trip. It seemed like we were the only band in New York that was really rocking and trying to keep up with the times, but you soon get bored with yourselves if you don't have other bands to look at and learn from. Here we can learn a lot, and I notice that they've picked up a few things from us too, which is great. It's very inspiring.
I think all the English bands have a lot of potential for their age. They've got the right idea and what it takes. I love these bands.'
The Heartbreakers are rather fed up with their hometown, however. Jerry: 'Four years ago you couldn't touch New York. They were really ahead of the times and the bands were really learning off each other. It was very creative and friendly. But right now, New York and the whole scene there is as fucked up as it was creative four years ago. It's gone stale. All the bands hate each other. I've never heard musicians put each other down so much. I've been in this business nineteen years, and I've never seen so much hatred and jealousy between bands. I'm glad I'm away from it all. I can't stand to be there. When we play there, we pack in the people and we don't even have a record a out. For some reason we're more popular than anybody in New York. We get a younger, more energetic crowd.'
I went to see the Heartbreakers recently during the New York weekend at the Nags Head, High Wycombe. They completely and utterly did me in! The group careered through 45 explosive minutes of songs like ‘Chinese Rocks’, ’Get Off The Phone’, ‘Let Go’, ‘All By Myself’ and ‘Goin' Steady’. By the time Johnny took off his guitar and spun the band into the encore, ‘Do You Love Me?’, the crowd had pogoed itself into a sweating, twitching heap. The Heartbreakers were slicing through the thick air and our brains like machetes - and it felt great! Walter looks like a psychopath, hacking his guitar in great windmill thrashes, occasionally lurching over to Johnny, who's as magnificent as ever, but exercising slightly more control now, which reflects in his groin-grabbing playing.
The Heartbreakers are going to be over here until summer, so you've got no excuse not to go and see them. 'We'll establish ourselves here, get a reputation, and then go back to the States and see if they've grown up a little', said Johnny.
The group has signed with Track, who are being very good with them, providing studio time, and hanging out at gigs and sessions. Leee Black Childers is doing a fine job as manager, and all this positive help and belief, plus the London buzz, is bringing the best out of the Heartbreakers. Originally they were just going to do a single, but the sessions went so well that there looks like being an album, bursting with the group's 'combination of the 50s and 70s rock 'n' roll.'
‘Chinese Rocks’ looks like being the single, with ‘Born Too Loose’ as the B-side. Both are great, and also happen to be drug songs ['Yeah, but that's in the past, man']. The future looks good for the Heartbreakers. As Johnny Thunders says, 'I've never been so happy in my life.'
In April '77 Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers really were on top of the world, ma. A lot of punters were just buzzed up to have two former New York Dolls hanging out and blasting out incendiary sets in small clubs. There's an album called ‘Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers Live At The Speakeasy’, which was released in '82 on Jungle Records and features sleeve-notes by me. It captures the Heartbreakers around the same time I did that feature, being recorded at the Speakeasy - the old London watering hole to the stars - over March 14-15. As I said in my sleeve-notes, it works through its 'charisma and teetering tension'. The group crash and burn, sometimes wildly out of tune, but gloriously reckless.
But fairly soon after my interview was published, things started to go a bit wrong. Immigration hassles meant they got deported back to the States in July - only to return shortly after for a UK tour. That album they'd beenrecording, which became #8216;L.A.M.F.’ - with ex-Thunderclap Newman drummer and notorious speed-freak Speedy Keene producing, was marred by muddy sound quality. Jerry had left in protest but stayed on for the UK tour. They were constantly skint. A couple of times I crashed at the house that Leee Black Childers' shared with Gail Higgins in Islington - bodies everywhere! Special mention must be made of Leee and Gail's dedication to the cause – imagine looking after that lot! The mood was a kind of optimistic desperation, which wasn't helped when Track Records encountered money problems and went bankrupt.
The band were also getting further into debt as the ever-present heroin spectre loomed larger the longer they stayed. This impregnated the London scene, most famously the late Mr Vicious, who became one of Johnny's junk buddies. Nancy Spungen turned up - a former Heartbreakers groupie from New York.
The band considered changing their name to the Junkies - quite suitable really. The Heartbreakers eventually had to leave London again in November. Their last London gigs were at the Vortex - the Soho basement club that had replaced the Roxy as a weekly gathering for the city's punk rockers. Here, Terry Chimes played drums.
With the Heartbreakers no more, Johnny managed to remain in London and played some gigs with a motley crew including Sid, Eddie & The Hot Rods' rhythm section and Peter Perrett. Billed as the Living Dead, they did a quite infamous run at the Speakeasy [where I was present but incorrect!]. Billy Rath had a stint with Iggy Pop's band, Jerry formed the Idols and I dunno what happened to Walter.
Johnny then embarked on a serious solo career. He signed to a new Warner Brothers offshoot called Real Records, along with a new band called the Pretenders. After releasing a single called ‘Dead Or Alive’, he embarked on the solo album which would become ‘So Alone’. It was produced by Johnny with help from Steve Lillywhite and Peter Perrett (the Only Ones), roping in such luminaries as Steve and Paul from the Pistols, who ironically played on ‘London Boys’ - Johnny's sneering answer to the Pistols' ‘New York’.
First taste in September was one of the loveliest songs ever committed to vinyl – ‘You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory’ - showed a tender side to Johnny that hadn't been seen much before. Yearning, sighing and broken, it emerged as a 12-inch on pink vinyl and still breaks the hearts of likeminded souls like Bobby Gillespie to this day. Johnny told me that one of his reasons for doing the album was because he couldn’t do ballads or slowies with his previous groups.
The album (‘So Alone’) was promoted by a major solo gig at London's Lyceum ballroom on 12 October - a chaotic-but-fun affair which saw Johnny joined by a string of guests. I think I went backstage! I do know that I interviewed Johnny one afternoon at Warners' plush offices. He sat at a boardroom table, skinning up pure grass spliffs and muttering good-naturedly about anything that came into his head, mainly how he was into his album. In the true spirit of things I can't find that interview, but if I do you shall have it!
Sometime in '79 the phone went in the middle of the night. It was Johnny phoning to enthuse about his new group. He told me how he'd moved to Detroit and hitched up with former MC5 guitarist, Wayne Kramer, on a project they were calling Gang War. He burbled excitedly about his new songs like ‘M.I.A.’, ‘There's A Little Bit Of Whore In Every Girl’, ‘You Call Me Gypsy’ and ‘Just Because I'm White [Why Do You Treat Me Like A Nigger?]’. Johnny also talked about planning to go to New Orleans to record with old jazz and R&B musicians. Didn't hear much more, apart from reports that, with Gang War over, Johnny had gone back to New York City, where he would play the odd Heartbreakers farewell gig or solo concerts under the 'So Alone Revue' tag.
While I was editing Zigzag towards the end of 1980, former Swell Map, Nikki Sudden, gave me the following account of time spent with Johnny in New York City, which I stuck in the Christmas issue:
‘After we’d been downtown to score - Johnny talked about Jerry leaving the Heartbreakers because fame had gone to Walter's head. They'd tried former Clash drummer Terry Chimes as a replacement, but 'it was never the same without Jerry.' So Johnny had quit to start Gang War with Wayne, one of his teenage idols and major influences. But this 'didn't gel on a personal kinda magic thing onstage'. Despite Gang War failing to ignite, Johnny said he learned a lot. They were doing his favourite cover version - ‘I'd Rather Be With The Boys’ - a mid-60s Stones out-take - plus ‘As Tears Go By’ and James Brown's ‘I Go Crazy’. After eight months, Gang War called a cease-fire.’
Johnny was also candid about heroin. In fact, probably some of the most soul-baring quotes of his entire career appear in this lengthy narrative. He was disgusted that smack had become trendyin New York.
'Everybody thinks it's really cool to do - they don't know how it destroys one's fucking life....yeah, speaking from personal experience, but knowing when to get out of it. Y'know? - it's something that I have no regrets about but it's not something that I'll do forever.’
'Why did I start? Kicks. It sure fucking kicked the shit out of me! I don't advise anyone to ever take it. It's really fucking awful. All these young kids who take it nowadays - it's just so trendy to do. They don't realise what it really does to you -takes you over. Yeah, I'm pretty healthy otherwise.’
Nikki asked Johnny if he was going to quit. He said yeah, and revealed that he'd already tried the same black box treatment that cured Keith - 'I didn't really give it a fair enough chance, but I don't think it would've worked.’
'I'm gonna try to be cured. I've never tried before in my life. I've been on heroin eight years and I just want to try a different style of life. It made me split up from my wife. It ruined a lot of things for me, a lot of chances. A lot of people don't think they can count on me, but I've never missed a gig in my life. It doesn't affect my musical life at all. All these people think I'm gonna die in the next week and I'll outlive all those fucking assholes, man, cos I want to live.’
'A lot of people want to die for a lot of reasons. I take smack because I enjoy it. I enjoy all it makes me feel. I don't do it to be in with the in crowd or shit like that. I do it because I enjoy it. If I didn't enjoy it I would never do it, and if it interfered with my music I would never do it. I can rock out with it. I can rock out without it. it doesn't affect my performance at all. It hasn't hurt my music, it hurt my credibility, y'know, in the industry - but what does the industry understand? Many people love me, many people hate me - there's nobody in between. That's the way I prefer it. I mean, no one really knows me. People think they know me.’
'I've got three boys. They look like me. They're called Dino, Guido and Little Johnny. My kids are everything to me. They're my whole life. I mean, the oldest one, he's four years old, knows all the words to all my songs - kids are a lot of responsibility but they mean more to me than music, mean more than anything to me.'
Nikki finished the interview by asking if Johnny had any regrets and got a Keef-style reply: 'No I wouldn't change a thing - except my bank balance.'
For the first half of '82 I was editing a teeny-mag called Flexipop. Well, it started life as a teeny-mag, with stars of the day like Culture Club and Duran Duran peppering its pages. I came in and tried to introduce a deeper content- my first front cover was The Clash and my last was Aleister Crowley. In between we poked fun and worshipped the decadent and the debauched. One day in early '83 I got a call to say that Johnny was ensconced in Tony James' Maida Vale - a bit of an activities centre as Sid had lived there for a while.
It was at a time when rumours abounded that Johnny had finally lived up to the predictions and shuffled off this mortal coil. He wanted to see me to prove that he was indeed alive and, erm, well. As a video of ‘Performance’ flickered soundlessly on the TV, Johnny chuckled at the absurdity of these reports. He'd actually been living in Paris all along.
'It went out in Paris that I died three times. It was in all the papers. Your guess is as good as mine where it came from. Everybody thought I was dead. Jerry Nolan phoned up from Sweden, friends phoned up from London. I thought it was really funny actually.'
He talked about his role as the new Keith Richards, now the Stones' infamous drug-punk was off the gear and, consequently the top-ten death list: 'Everybody makes more out of it than it is. It's so blown out of proportion it's ridiculous.' This is along the lines of what Johnny had said when we'd first talked six years earlier. Everyone knew that the Heartbreakers were into smack. The group themselves didn't think it was any big deal. That day, and going on other reports, it was fairly obvious that Johnny was unrepentant and still doing it. He wasn't denying it either. He just wanted to refute the death rumours. Not even a close scrape, I wondered.
'No, I handle it alright. As well as anyone can handle it. I mean, it's not easy for anyone to handle it. A lot of people take me seriously because of the things they read about me. The things they write about me are so incredible and ridiculous it's just kinda hard to take it serious. Maybe they wanted to sell more records. That's my guess.'
Johnny would never shake his outlaw junkie image. Didn't really want to. He told me about his film debut in ?Gringos?, a tale of every-day drug dealing folk on the Lower East Side: 'I play myself. It shows different ways of copping drugs on the Lower East Side, different aspects of it. The place is really heavy nowadays. A lot of murders, people getting ripped off and knifed. It's really dangerous.'
I asked Johnny if he gets ripped off in the film.
He laughed: 'I don't personally get ripped off! But it shows that side of it.' Johnny added that he also played in the film and wrote the soundtrack. [Did anybody out there ever come across this?]
A few months after this interview I went to New York for the first time and, of course, checked out this area. Johnny wasn't wrong. If you ventured East past Avenue A it visibly decayed into the ultimate urban no-go area, until by Avenue D, there were whole stretches of bombsite rubble, out of which derelict tenements occasionally poked like rotten teeth. That was the East Village, which was ruined, deadly and infested with dealers and hoodlums. The actual Lower East Side was over the main Houston Street, and no less deadly, although not as burnt-out and more of a community - albeit a run down and frighteningly dangerous one. In '86 I lived in the area for four years, and found myself in the thick of it all daily. Now it's been cleaned up for yuppies, but 20 years ago Johnny's old stamping ground was a no-go area for anyone other than junkies and criminals.
When I moved to New York, I became a fully-fledged junkie myself and would sometimes see Johnny around, including an '88 gig at the Limelight club where I must've been in worse shape than he was. I bumped into him in the gents toilets - I think we were both there for the same reason.
The last time I saw Johnny was later that year when I was working in a New York record shop called Bleeker Bob's. Sid had worked here too, so the puffed-up little owner must've had a thing for employing English smack-heads. Johnny charged in, hit me for twenty bucks and scooted off, looking a bit pale and panicky but still dressed sharp in a purple suit.
I never got that twenty back. A little while later I heard that Johnny had died in mysterious circumstances in a New Orleans hotel room. Obviously it was assumed that he'd died of an overdose, but some reports told of a robbery and the fact that he'd taken acid - one drug that he hated.
Rather than finish up on the usual sad note about wasted talent and all that, I'd rather go back to that '83 interview and a story Johnny told when I asked about other press reports concerning a recent Swedish trip that had become embroiled in drug-fuelled debauchery and almost sparked civil war. It illustrated an inherent mischievous and endearing side to his personality which often gets overlooked in favour of the the dope-addled hoodlum.
'I was in Sweden for ten days and they put me on the front page of the daily papers eight days in a row. I actually did nothing to warrant any of the attention. It was ridiculous. It started off, we did a TV show and they thought I was too messed up and wouldn't show it. That started the ball rolling with the press. They started following me.’
'We were on an aeroplane coming into Sweden and someone stole a medical kit, to try and get some morphine or something. They had the army there, searched us, but it wasn't any of us - at least it wasn't me.’
'I always get harassed by the police. One time I was coming into Detroit airport and I had these red leather trousers on and they made my balls look really big. The cops are looking at me real weird. We get picked up in these Rolls Royces and get three miles down the highway and five cop cars pull us over. "What's that stashed down your pants, boy?", they ask. I say, "What do you think it is?" This went on for about 20 minutes and I ended up whipping it out. That was one of the funnier moments, ha ha!'
LAMF? Law Actualises Mutton Flaunted.
Bye Bye Johnny.
Kris Needs – tMx 14 – 04/04