“Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders”: The cautionary rock ‘n’ roll fable of a New York Doll

By on July 15, 2017

Today’s the anniversary of Johnny Thunder’s birthday — he was born on July 15, 1952, and died on April 23, 1991 — so we thought we’d repost this blog from last year about Danny Garcia’s 2014 documentary Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders , now streaming on our Night Flight Plus channel, which chronicles the short, troubled life of the one-time New York Doll.

After the demise of the NY Dolls, Thunder became a Heartbreaker before ending up recording a classic 1978 solo album So Alone until his decades-long descent into drug addiction bent the trajectory of the rest of his life downward towards its eventual sad end, dying at age 38 on April 23, 1991.

Read more below.

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The low-budget 90-minute film — the young Spanish filmmaker raised some of the film’s estimated $100,000 budget on the crowd-funding site IndieGoGo — tells Thunder’s story, chronologically, from his birth as John Anthony Genzale, Jr. in Queens, New York (he first called himself Johnny Volume, then changed it to Thunders, which came from a Kinks song) all the way to his sad last days, dying of an overdose in Room 37 of St. Peter House, a New Orleans flophouse, although the film speculates that the amount of drugs in his blood wasn’t high enough to kill him, leading some to think that his death was the result of locals robbing him for his methadone supply.

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Along the way we hear from the people who knew him best, like his bandmate Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls, who tells us that “Johnny was the best songwriter that ever lived,” and how he once heard that Bob Dylan state that he’d wished he’d written “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” We also hear from writer/musician and cultural maven Lenny Kaye, who says Thunders is “the essence of rock ‘n’ roll.”

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Garcia — who previously directed The Rise and Fall of the Clash — spent eighteen months traveling all across the USA and Europe, filming interviews with fifty people from various parts of Thunders’ life, talking to people like Heartbreakers guitarist/vocalist Walter Lure (now a stockbroker), celebrated New York photographer Bob Gruen, the late Alan Vega of Suicide, Richard Lloyd of Television, Terry Chimes of the Clash, three of his late managers — Marty Thau, Leee Black Childers and Malcolm McLaren (both Thau and Childers passed away after the film was completed) — BP Fallon, Heartbreakers bassist Billy Rath, Don Letts, Sami Yaffa and many others, each providing a personal perspective on the man they knew.

We learn along the way about the legend he became — and, also, how he ripped off friends and bandmates, living the desperate life of a junkie, the sum total of the takeaway feeling very much like a cautionary rock ‘n’ roll fable.

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We also hear the story of Thunder’s involvement in the founding of the New York Dolls, as well as the stories of the later bands he founded, including the Heartbreakers — who had a classic masterpiece of raw, energetic punk-doused rawk, L.A.M.F. — and a solo career that gave us some memorable recordings to remember Thunders by, including the aforementioned album So Alone, featuring guest appearances by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde and others.

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The movie moves along briskly, particularly during the New York Dolls period, which highlights his talents as a songwriter. The film is rich with archival live footage interspersed throughout, beginning with his early life in Queens, growing up without a father.

We learn that like many young boys he wanted to play professional baseball until he got into high school and discovered music.

Read more about Johnny Thunders below.

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In 1971, Johnny Thunders was living in the basement of the home at 25-62 83rd Street, with his sister and mother, when he first started playing in a Newtown high school rock band with Arthur Kane, Billy Murcia, and Rick Rivets.

At the time Thunders was playing bass, calling himself Johnny Volume, and the band were originally called Actress.

Later that same year, Rivets would be replaced by Sylvain Sylvain, and with the change in personnel came a new name, the Dolls. Thunders added the “New York” prefix.

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By the end of the year, they’d also be adding a new vocalist — from another band in Queens, called Vagabond Missionaries — named David Johansen.

The New York Dolls would play their first ever show at a Christmas party at the Endicott Hotel, filling in for another band who cancelled. They played mostly R&B and soul covers.

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By the next Spring, they were playing shows in the Oscar Wilde Room (capacity: 100) at the Mercer Arts Center on Mercer Street in Greenwich Village, which led to a Tuesday night residency, and their popularity leads to a manager, Marty Thau, a former Paramount Records A&R man, who got the band into the studio to record nine tracks which will later be released as Lipstick Killers (the first release is actually on cassette by the ROIR label).

Thau is a major force in the band’s trajectory, setting up deals for the band like their own publishing company, their Dollhouse Productions company, and taking charge of their publicity, promotions and recordings. Two booking agents, late of the William Morris Agency, handled the Dolls’ accounting, legal crapola and tour booking.

By mid-summer 1972, the Dolls were attracting celebrities to their Mercer gigs, people like Lou Reed, David Bowie, Alice Cooper, John Cale, Todd Rundgren and others, and soon they’re picked up to open a massive show headlined by Rod Stewart at the Empire Pool (now called Wembley Arena).

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While in the UK, they become the toast of the town, and a handful of record companies begin courting the band. The Dolls end up recording demos at a studio in Kent (these recordings are later released by a number of labels; the band never seeing any money from these releases).

On November 6, 1972, drummer Billy Murcia drowned in a bathtub while drunk. He’s just 18 years old. The band returned to New York City — cancelling their plans to meet with Track Records, who are interested in signing the band — where they mourn their bandmate’s death. Soldiering on, they find a new drummer, Jerry Nolan, and play their first show with him in December.

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In the spring of 1973, the Dolls sign with Mercury Records, and begin recording their debut album with Todd Rundgren producing. The self-titled platter, released in late July, takes just a week to record because they know the songs so well by this time. It will eventually peak on the Billboard album charts at #116, not exactly topping the charts.

The New York Dolls began their first national tour in August ’73, playing a memorable four-night run of sold-out shows at the famed Whisky A Go Go in West Hollywood, then returned back to New York, where they opened for Mott the Hoople at a big show at Madison Square Garden. They also appeared on Burt Sugarman’s “Midnight Special” TV show.

Future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren met the band when he came to NYC to exhibit his Let It Rock clothing line, and it is the Dolls who squire him around town, introducing McLaren to lots of celebrities who instantly elevate his perceived importance.

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The Dolls returned to Europe after first playing a memorable costume ball on Halloween night in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, playing shows at the Paris Olympia Theatre and two nights at the Rainbow Restaurant atop Biba’s Boutique in London.

McLaren is so enamored with the band that he accompanies them on the rest of their European shows.

They also perform two songs on England’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” which are later recalled by many UK punks as the American inspiration for a whole new sub-genre that kick-starts in the U.K.: punk rock.

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In Paris, Johnny Thunders vomits at the airport, in front of a large group of press, and later smashes his guitar over the head of a fan who is spitting on him (in 1973!). The band also appeared on Germany’s “Musikladen” TV show.

Back in the U.S. again, the music magazines are still singing their praises (they’re voted both the best new group, and worst new group, of 1973 in Creem Magazine).

They fly back to Paris for Christmas and New Year’s Eve shows, both of which will show up later as popular bootleg recordings, before they begin recording tracks for their second album, Too Much Too Soon, with Shadow Morton producing.

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In February, official New York Dolls photographer Bob Gruen — who is interviewed for Looking for Johnny — screens the film he’s made of the band over the past year, at a New York Academy of Music gig, before the band take the stage.

That Spring they also perform in full drag at the ’82 Club, a full-on transvestite bar.

Too Much Too Soon is released in July, a year after their debut, but the album does even worse than their eponymous release, peaking at #167 on Billboard‘s album chart. They start their second national tour, and it will turn out to be their last.

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While in Los Angeles, in August of ’74, the band are filmed for director Ralph Bakshi’s Hey Good Looking film, playing a trashy New York street gang, but when the movie finally hits theaters in 1982, they find all of their footage has been left on the editing room floor.

They have four nights of shows lined up at the Roxy Theater, just a block down Sunset Strip from the Whisky where they’d played four sold-out shows a year before. The first of their four Roxy gigs is also a sold-out show, but the remaining three are cancelled.

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Their third planned UK tour is also cancelled, due to visa problems, and by now, the band is starting to unravel.

Both Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan have become heroin users, and Nolan ends up getting hepatitis; Arthur Kane ends up needing to have a stand-in, Peter Jordan, play Kane’s bass lines from backstage because Kane’s alcohol issues have become so bad.

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By October of ’74, there are changes behind the scenes in the band’s management, with Thau falling out with the two booking agents, and now Mercury Records wants the band to start repaying their loans and advances back before they will release any more albums, because sales are so sluggish they don’t expect they’ll be able to recoup what they’ve spent by taking it out of the band’s royalties.

The label ends up dropping them in November.

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By this point, things weren’t looking good for the band, even after Thunders and Nolan get on methadone and Kane is sent off to detox.

The Dolls end the year wondering what 1975 is going to bring.

Indeed, even though Malcolm McLaren attempts to inject enthusiasm into the band, it doesn’t help when their new “Red Patent Leather” shows — which feature Chinese revolutionary communist flags as part of their stage backdrop — attracts the wrong kind of attention from the rock media, poorly timed along with the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon.

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In April ’75, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan leave the band in the middle of a tour. They form the Heartbreakers, with Richard Hell — formerly the bassist of Television — joining on bass.

They play their first show in Queens, NY, on May 29th.

The next month, Walter Lure — also interviewed for Looking for Johnny — joins the band as a second guitarist and vocalist, and they begin to play shows in New York at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City.

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Hear about the rest of the post-Dolls Johnny Thunders story in Looking for Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders, streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.