By Tom Wynbrandt
Photo By Bob Gruen
Johnny Thunders wasn’t so much a guitarist or even a musician as he was a star. His considerable talent couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by his persona. The rooster hair, the platform shoes, the quiet acceptance of all the adulation— I’d never seen anyone quite like him. From the gushing writings I’ve read, many others hadn’t either.
The first time Johnny Thunders came to the apartment my brother and I shared, it was like the king had come to visit. He wore a leather jacket and jeans and he pulled a bottle of Jack Daniels out of a paper bag. It was a gift for all of us to share as the evening got going.
“So, let’s play something,” he said.
It was 1972. The New York City of that era—a bubbling pool of filth, poverty, muggings and overdoses—spawned a community of musicians, photographers, designers, playwrights and painters who continue to influence tastes to this day. In a city of some eight million people, these individuals, both native New Yorkers and transplants to the town, managed to find each other, collaborate, compete and, for many, break through to critical and commercial success. Blondie, the Ramones, the Dolls, Patti Smith, Television and Talking Heads are only a few.
No one was famous and everyone knew everyone. The world below 14th Street was the primordial ooze out of which the stars were forming.
I was playing in Queen Elizabeth then, backing up noted transgender artist Wayne (now Jayne) County; Johnny was with the Dolls. We shared a few bills at the Mercer Arts Center. The Dolls were wonderful: high-energy, glamorous and well defined. Great songs. “Personality Crisis” and “Subway Train” were my favorites.
Johnny had one of the truly great right hands in rock guitar, and an innate feel for the killer lick. A lot of people say he was Keith to David Johansen’s Mick, but that doesn’t give either of them (or Keith and Mick) enough credit.
When I first knew him, Johnny and Sylvain Sylvain shared a walk-up apartment on East Fourteenth Street between Second and Third Avenues, two minutes from the place my brother and I shared and next to a massage parlor. Johnny had the main room, what was supposed to be the living room, with a big bed and a small TV next to it. Syl had the back bedroom. A kitchen area separated the two. They lived with two black Labrador retrievers and a monkey. For sport, the monkey tormented the dogs, throwing things at them from the top of the kitchen cabinets, or jumping down and pulling their tails, then scampering out of reach before they could react. The contest seemed unfair on every level.
We all became fast friends; my brother James and I, Syl and Johnny. Each time I visited, the place was crowded: girlfriends, would-be girlfriends and friends of each segment. They’d be bringing food or cooking things, cleaning up and even taking the garbage down. Johnny would often be lying on his bed, clothed, noodling on his guitar, which wasn’t plugged in, and watching TV, seemingly unaware of the commotion around him. If it was the afternoon, around four, he’d be watching cartoons.
Fast forward a year or so and Johnny had an apartment in a modern high rise at 24th and Third Avenue. He attracted every sort of sycophant. There was rent boy English Keith and his pretty, wan sister. There was Phil, thick lipped and not smart, and Billy, a young tough and part-time pimp, who cast himself as Johnny’s servant. He loved calling Johnny, “Boss.”
“OK, Boss,” he’d say, and run to get coffee or pizza, or unpack Johnny’s guitar.
“Hey Boss, got the bed made for you.”
It surprised those of us who’d known Billy only as a sullen thug who didn’t mind renting out his girlfriend to see him so blissfully submissive. I was even more surprised that Johnny allowed it. But then, he was passive at heart. The adulation didn’t embarrass him. He’d accept whatever as long as it made life easier for him.
Eventually, Billy tried to strong-arm the wrong people. They threw him down a flight of stairs and broke his leg. With his cast on, he became quieter and didn’t act the bully. He became a less effective attendant, too.
One summer day, Johnny invited my brother and me to come with him to his family’s home in Queens. Johnny’s brother-in-law, Rusty, drove us out there. He worked for the New York City Department of Sanitation and was married to Johnny’s older sister. He kidded with Johnny on the drive, but I wasn’t sure—I thought his ribbing might have had an undercurrent of suppressed jealousy. After all, being a New York Doll was better than being a garbage man, even if a garbage man had job security and union benefits. Or that’s what I thought then.
At the house, Johnny’s sister fussed all over him. As the baby of the family and the only boy, he’d grown up spoiled and doted upon from birth. This made him devalue female adoration, expecting it as his due.
In early 1976, Johnny transitioned from being “Gentleman Johnny,” as we called him (he had surprisingly good manners), to “Junkie Johnny.” I became aware of it when, at a major birthday party of a close friend, Johnny and Jerry Nolan hogged the bathroom and spent time shooting up. Some people consider his junked-out work with the Heartbreakers to be his best. Maybe; maybe not. The guy I knew was gone.
For the rest of his life, everything was secondary to ensuring that he had a supply of heroin. For those of us who’d known him when, the descent was sad. For those who hadn’t, it probably just burnished the fantasy.
I like to remember Johnny as he was in the early days, a legend at 20 in the New York Dolls, his finest hour. The clothes, the hair, the sneer, the swagger, the half-closed eyes, the stage confidence.
Here’s the perfect button (Frenchy, the Dolls’ roadie and confidante told me this story—it sounded too perfect to be true, but Nite Bob, the famous sound man, was there and confirmed it):
Johnny, Frenchy and Nite Bob—were getting out of a cab at the Detroit airport. Two cops, not used to the way rockers looked in New York, came over and started hassling them for drugs. Were they carrying any in the cab? No. Did they have any on their person? No. Were they sure? Yeah.
Then one of the cops pointed to Johnny’s crotch and said, “What you got in there?”
“That’s my cock,” Johnny said.
“Your cock?” said the officer. “Bullshit.”
“Yeah, my cock,” Johnny said, unzipping. “What’s the matter—don’t they grow ‘em that big out here?”