Too Much Junkie Business!
In the past year or so - for some unexplained reason - I've been coming across more & more references to the movie "Born To Lose": the documentary on the life and death of Johnny Thunders.
No doubt the very successful reappearance of the remaining ‘living Dolls’ has played a big part in the increased level of interest in this film. For years I've been trying to track down a copy (with no luck) - ever since I saw the movie in a Belfast back street cellar on the May 4th 2002 as part of a film festival - a massively depressing viewing experience:
Reason One: the subject matter had been a real glam/punk hero of mine ever since I was a young kid.
Reason Two: the resultant truth was so far removed/hard hitting that it bore absolutely no resemblance to what I’d imagined a rock star’s fairytale lifestyle to be (or in Thunder’s particular case - more of an existence than a life, per se).
The review you are about to read was written a day after I saw the movie/documentary – but was never submitted - & has remained on my hard-drive ever since. It’s my honest account of one of the most harrowing/nasty tales ever committed to celluloid.
Sadly, Johnny Thunder's eventual demise was quickly followed by the death of Jerry Nolan (the Dolls/Heartbreakers drummer & Johnny's constant sidekick) from a stroke on the 14th January 1992. Then The Dolls triumphant return to the live stage in London in June 2004 (which I attended with my 10-year -old son Steven) was promptly followed by the death of Arthur "Killer" Kane from complications arising from his undiagnosed leukaemia (thankfully after finally seeing his dream of a Dolls reunion become a long awaited reality). Can you see a pattern developing?
Tributes were paid to Johnny and Jerry at each gig - & now Arthur is remembered also. The current version of the Dolls even made it over to Belfast for a gig last summer. It was a trip Johnny had made himself many years earlier when he’d been freaked out by the army/police on the streets with guns & couldn't understand how we lived in this place. It’s a pity the Dolls never kissed & made up while they were all still alive - who knows what might have happened.
Here's the review from 5/5/02:
A day or so back, I attended a screening of the film "Born To Lose" - the last rock'n'roll movie (also known in its alternative cut as "King Outlaw") - the biography/documentary of the life of Johnny Thunders. I'd previously read a rough outline script for "King Outlaw" in the Freddy Lynxx produced high quality French JT fanzine. The documentary, now entitled "Born To Lose", was being screened as part of the Cathedral Arts Festival here in Belfast - & it proved to be one of the most uncomfortable viewing experiences I've ever had.
Now, when it comes to movies, I'm more your kind of Friday night ‘wham bam’ Hollywood film fan - but “Born To Lose” was as low budget as they come - strictly art-house. The film’s content was so ground-level-lower-than-a-snake’s-belly that I left the room in a total state of confusion - unable to work out if I had enjoyed the movie or not. I didn't know how I honestly felt about it - I was shell-shocked. “Born To Lose” left me with a nasty after taste of grime - with just a hint of depravity.
Being a major fan of Johnny Thunders – from the Dolls via the Heartbreakers all the way to his solo career - I just had to see “Born To Lose”. I had read various bits about it - but I still wasn't prepared for what I was about to see. You would be hard pressed to find a more unsavoury cast of characters anywhere - the fact that they were all real damaged people, & not a creation of someone’s imagination, makes it all the more frightening - you are confronted by the stark reality of just how low drug addiction can take you.
The documentary’s maker, Lech Kowalski, was present at the screening for a Q&A session with the tiny audience of around 20/25. He explained that there is no definitive version of the film - as he keeps editing & adding to it from an estimated 500 hours of available footage - to the point that each screening is effectively a different movie each time (though this version was burned onto DVD). He then took photos of us all - which he apparently does at each screening. He said this venue was the oddest place that he had screened the film. The name flea pit was made for this place - there has never been a more apt description of a low ceiling basement littered with old sofas, junk-shop chairs & pillars that block your view of the tiny screen at certain angles.
The lights were soon off - the film rolling - & we were taken for a casual stroll through the highs and lows of Johnny Thunders’s life - from his childhood in NYC to his death in New Orleans on 23/4/91:
The dialogue comes via interviews with family members & friends such as Dee Dee Ramone (who has also since died as a result of his own battles with drugs/drink) & Willy Deville (who witnessed Thunder’s body being removed from his hotel - not realising who the twisted corpse in the body bag was). Evocative insights into Thunder’s lifestyle come from the lips of junk buddies, fellow musicians & hangers-on. There is some fantastic vintage live footage of the New York Dolls in full hooker drag from 1972 - the Heartbreakers going full pelt - and some solo performances - but the real meat here is the negative mist that descends on the story as Johnny’s well documented drug dependency takes over the rest of his sorry tale. He was living in absolute squalid poverty conditions during his latter days - far removed from the splendour we imagine a rock star with the years of work he had behind him to live in. It’s an unbelievable sight - his apartment was a tip - a real dirty mess. His belongings are scattered all over the place - but at least he seemed to have the good sense and parental care to ensure his wife and children were not living amongst the filth at this point. One scene that sticks in my memory: the camera is behind a door - someone is knocking to get in - when it’s opened we can see it’s Johnny - this is the apartment of his dealer. Johnny proceeds to buy his fix - the dealer helps him to shoot up. You are left with the shocking image of Johnny sitting at the table with a syringe hanging out of his arm - wasted.
There are interviews & gigs were he's drifting in & out of consciousness – barely able to string two words together – yet alone perform. There are laughable arguments, onstage fights, as everything just spirals out of control. One guy actually dies during the making of the documentary (from Aids) - he's filmed being interviewed on his deathbed in one tasteless section. Johnny’s last scene in the movie is of him lying dead on a mortuary slab - this is not just car crash film making - its a motorway pile up.
Towards the end of his life there were persistent rumours that Johnny was suffering from leukaemia - though as far as I know, this was neither confirmed or denied by his family. It’s hard to feel any pity/sympathy for any of the frankly awful people featured in “Born To Lose” - because you know that it was all self inflicted. An ex-girlfriend of Johnny's is interviewed - it’s plain to see that she was once a good looking girl - but the drugs have taken their toll - & all she has left is that tarnished trashy glamour. Her looks are fading - her ratty blonde hair, smudged make-up, bad teeth and blood splattered sink speak volumes. She has no hope & no future. She exists from one fix to the next.
At the end of the day, Johnny Thunders was the ultimate anti-hero - and this movie is the ultimate anti-drugs advert. “Born To Lose” should be shown in schools as part of their drug awareness programs. Let the kids see just where that first buzz could eventually lead. Any stupid fucker who still buys into the whole rock'n'roll lifestyle that Johnny Thunders personified after seeing “Born To Lose” deserves all they get. It sucks big time.
In the real world, not everyone comes out of the drug underworld withered but relatively unscathed like Keith Richards (Johnny's hero). Don't forget, he's a multi millionaire, with skivvies looking after his every whim (& mystics overseeing every blood transfusion – Occult Ed). He has the money for the best treatments. Learn your lessons from Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols) & Malcolm Owen (Ruts) - two other dead punks - both fatal casualties of their drug addictions.
“Born To Lose” is thought provoking, repulsive viewing - not for the faint of heart. It pulls no punches. It’s certainly not recommended for a good night out – it’s not a Friday-Night-Feelgood movie. It will only bring you down. “Born To Lose” doesn't try to dress things up by presenting a fairy story of half-truths. This is how it was - take it or leave it.
Mickey Bradley, bass player from the Undertones, was sitting directly in the seat in front of me & he asked a few questions during the Q+A session. I remember thinking to myself, “all those years ago when you first arrived in London on the plane from Dublin – aren’t you glad you went to MacDonald’s for a treat - instead of copping some brown?”
Johnny T: too fast to live - so messed up he died.
By the way, I finally tracked down a copy of the film - in Belgium – of all places. It’s a small world – but I wouldn’t want to paint it.
Joe Donnelly – tMx 21 – 09/05