Friday, September 14, 2007

Johnny's Gonna Die

Up from the red-leather remains of the New York Dolls rose the Heartbreakers, founded by ex-Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders (né Genzale) and handsome-devil drummer Jerry Nolan in 1975. Leaving their former band members in Florida with some guy named McLaren so they could score smack back in the Big Apple, Johnny and Jerry tapped proto-punk poster-boy Richard Hell for their new ensemble. CBGBs and Max's Kansas City were their battlefields and they were an integral part of this febrile, fertile spawning ground. You know the litany of names: the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, etc. etc. Though Hell froze up and departed, the Heartbreakers, eventually released only one album, the sonically-challenged L.A.M.F. (Like, of course, a motherfucker) in 1977. This recent mix, from re-discovered tapes, sounds wonderful, less muddy, and all sleaze.

What makes the Heartbreakers great is simplicity. They reduced twenty years of rock and pop and rhythm and blues into 3 minute rave-ups that always leave the listener wanting more. Johnny's guitar-slinging rings true, always teetering on the edge of collapse: it's chaotic and exhilarating. Blistering leads, solos that sound like a strangling cat, chugging rhythms like the subway trains roaring beneath the city streets.

Songs like "Get Off the Phone," "Going Steady," "Baby Talk," and "Let Go" are trashy rock'n'roll rave-ups, with all the requisite elements: catchy choruses, sleazy good-time lyrics (the ones that make sense, anyway; Johnny weren't no English perfessor), driving drums, and immediate gratification. A song like "One Track Mind" is a beautiful thing, all irresistible chorus and air-guitar glory. "It's Not Enough" is a reflective ballad-sorta thing, with Johnny lamenting how "You can give me this/You can give me that" but it's not enough. "Pirate Love" exists only for the dual-guitar solo that rivals anything the Dolls ever laid down.

Then there are the classics, the signature tunes that no Johnny Thunders performance was complete without: "Born to Lose," (or, alternately "Born Too Loose") which opens the album with an out-of-tune guitar whine, and lyrics revealing again just what a poet of the streets Johnny was: "Nothin' to do/Oh nothin' to say/Only one thing that I want/It's the only way/I said hit it!/Baby, I was born to lose."

"Chinese Rocks" is perhaps Thunders' most famous song even though it was written by fellow junkster Dee Dee Ramone. Anyone unsure as to what the song refers can be sure, it ain't nothing like Pop Rocks.

"The plaster's fallin off the walls
My girlfriend's cryin in the shower stall
It's hot as a bitch
I shoulda been rich
But I'm just diggin a Chinese ditch
I'm livin on Chinese rocks
All my best things are in hock
I'm livin on Chinese rocks
Everything is in the pawn shop"

These songs depict the downside of downtown and how the jungle could eat you alive. Johnny's status as a stylish, decadent loser who strutted those mean streets is legendary. As Wayne Kramer (MC5) said of Johnny: "He could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory."

The Heartbreakers weren't really a punk band, even though they rounded out the legendary Anarchy tour of the UK in late '76 with a couple bands you mighta heard of, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Rumor has it--actually, it's more than rumor, it's fact--that the Heartbreakers introduced heroin to the much younger and more naive UK punks, and Nancy Spungen went looking for Jerry Nolan and followed them there. You know what happened after that.

The band was never able to secure a record deal with an American label due to their, uh, extracurricular activities, so eventually they broke up. Johnny would put out a decidedly mixed solo album a year later (So Alone) and continue to travel the world as a performer. Shows were plagued by his drug use, his attitude, his poor guitar-playing. I never got to see him perform, and odds are that if I had, I'd've seen a shambles of a set. In April of 1991 Johnny Thunders was hauled out of a grimy New Orleans hotel, his lifeless body doubled over from the effects of countless drugs. It's not enough, is it, Johnny? No, I guess it never is.

Well, all that don't matter. What does matter is that if you care about real rock'n'roll you need this album. It rocks like nothing else I know, but fits kinda between the raunchiest Stones and the Replacements (whose "Johnny's Gonna Die" is an ode to Thunders), Guns N' Roses, my beloved Hanoi Rocks, very early Motley Crue (like just their first album) and other (good) hard rock of the '80s. Practically every hard-rock/glam/metal guitarist that tosses a mane of out-of-control hair with a sneer and screech copped it from Johnny (who of course copped it from Keith Richards, let's be honest here). Johnny deserves to be remembered for his single-minded rock tunes, his dedication to the rock'n'roll lifestyle, and also for one of the coolest rock "nom de guerres" ever--I mean, "Johnny Thunders" how cool is that?! Thanks Johnny Rock on RIP!

I said hit it...


Kimberly Lindbergs said...

Thanks for all the recent blog comments! I really appreciate them.

I was lucky enough to see Thunders play live 3 or 4 times and he was surprisingly lucid almost every time and really put on an incredible show. He was an amazing performer who clearly loved music and playing live. Nice post!

Anonymous said...

I saw Thunders many many times all over Manhattan. Heartbreakers were so much fun to see!
I used to see him out at clubs and other shows. We had a few verbal exchanges. He was buzzed and would flirt. He was great on stage!!