New York prototype glam-punk guitarist Johnny Thunders donned women’s blouses and dolled himself up at a time when few US artists dared to do so. Hard as it is to believe, at school in New York he’d wanted to pursue a career as a sportsman, excelling in baseball far more than his studies, but the longhaired outcast was never going to fit in with the jocks.
Instead, the young Genzale, adopting the name Johnny Volume, fronted a rock band, The Jaywalkers, creating the blueprint for his murky blues-influenced rock guitar style. Attracting like-minded friends in Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane (bass) and Billy Murcia (drums), he formed Actress, which morphed into the seminal line-up of The New York Dolls by 1971 – with the addition of schoolfriend Sylvain Sylvain (ne Mizrahi, guitar) and highly distinctive vocalist David Johansen.
Record sales were never huge, but with punk, metal and newwave luminaries admitting a substantial debt, The Dolls were to prove one of the most influential acts of the epoch. They put together a couple of suitably murky albums too: "New York Dolls" (1973) and "Too Much, Too Soon" (1974).
The band’s first of many encounters with the darker side, though, occurred with the ontour death of Murcia ( November 1972) (the drummer was replaced by Jerry Nolan). Far from pulling the band to its senses, this loss heralded a public relationship with drugs that would inform much of their songs’ subject matter and run to some inevitable conclusions. Despite later management by one Malcolm McLaren and some very odd changes in image,
The Dolls never fully caught on (at least, not at the time); Thunders left during a 1975 tour to fashion the popular Heartbreakers with Nolan and Richard Hell (the former Television bassist and future Voidoids frontman), brushing with McLaren again as the band frequently opened for The Sex Pistols. Playing on Thunders’s increasingly strung-out image, early publicity for The Heartbreakers included posters bearing the legend ‘Catch ‘em while they’re still alive!’, but the group somehow still came up with the excellent "L.A.M.F." on Track Records (1977).
After the breakup of the band, Thunders’s further recorded work was mainly in a solo capacity (1978’s "So Alone" is well worth digging up), though he did link up with MC5 guitarist/singer Wayne Kramer in Gangwar, later fronting The Living Dead (with Sid Vicious) and Oddballs, at one point even playing with Steve Marriott, whom he was to survive by just three days (April 1991).
But Thunders’s addiction to heroin was critical now, and the musician was effectively kept going by his management and friends. Throughout his life Thunders – who was supposedly introduced to the drug by Iggy Pop – must have spent countless days wired: one waiter friend at rock hang-out Max’s Kansas City described the guitarist once continuing to hold a conversation with him while his face was immersed in a fish dinner. Just as plans were being made to re-team with Nolan, Johnny Thunders was found dead at a New Orleans boarding house, his system reportedly wracked with cocaine and methadone (he’d been undergoing rehabilitation). A post mortem revealed that the guitarist had also been suffering from lymphatic leukaemia, of which he was probably aware.
The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars - Jeremy Simmonds, 2nd Edition, Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, 2012, page 233
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