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Nina Antonia’s introduction to her update of the official biography of Johnny Thunders - ‘Johnny Thunders - In Cold Blood’.

First draft of introduction to book

PART THREE: DISTURBING ANGELS

I got asked for a quote the other day. A journalist had wanted to know what Johnny was like and why I had written his biography. I really wished I could call up a heavenly operator…

‘Hi, I’d like to talk to Johnny please.’
‘All numbers are ex-directory, but if you could give me a description?’
‘He plays the guitar.’
‘We’ve got quite a few of them up here, disturbing the angels.’
‘Jesus…you know the guy, black hair, got tattoos on his arms, looks down when he walks and his hotel room’s always a mess.’

She puts me through. I ask how he’s doing and tell him how much I miss him before getting around to the quote business. He pauses, lights up a celestial cigarette (no more health warnings) and bemoans the fact he can’t get hold of any Lucky Strikes.

‘Just tell ‘em I was a legend before I died, but I knew I’d be bigger after, ‘cos they ain’t got nothing to be scared of now. Sure I fucked up a couple of times but I was only human. I said I wanted to make the kids dance and that’s what I did. Say how you always voted for me and I taught you how to dance.’

I first met Johnny between the obituary and resurrection phase of 1982. He made an entrance like he’d just blown in off some long lost highway. From a distance he looked great, up close he was tousled and his clothes looked grubby, but he exuded a presence like no one I ever met before or am likely to meet again. He was like the best moment Martin Scorsese ever filmed, only real. That night Johnny was tired and bedraggled in his finery. The obvious prescription should have been a bubble bath and a hot meal, but he was motivated in other directions.

Turning his collar up against the night, he shuffled towards the Marquee Club. Dr. John was playing and I watched him hustle his way in. The girl at the ticket-booth thought it was a wind-up as he delivered a wise-cracking adenoidal rap about being Johnny Thunders and did he have to pay? Maybe he had to pay for being Johnny Thunders.

Two days later I had a meeting with Johnny and his then manager, Christopher Giercke. They’d read my notes and had taken to them. There was never anything formal about the way in which Johnny worked and that suited me fine. Over a fairly lively afternoon tea, during which Christopher was propositioned by a wealthy duchess type and was then duly warned by Johnny that he might catch something nasty should he consider the offer, we made a few plans. When they were in London, I could spend as much time as I wanted with Johnny, any contacts I needed would be arranged and they would keep in regular communication. In return I had to send them a copy of each chapter as I finished it.

Getting to know Johnny was a gradual process but eventually we became friends. He was a shy man who covered up his insecurities with the street-wise persona of Thunders and deliberately kept his heavy duty narcotic comrades separate from those less drug orientated associates in his circle. He recognised others vulnerability in an instant and would, depending on his mood, either capitalise or empathise. Johnny beckoned me into the theatre of turmoil that was his life, introducing me to the cast as I got on with the paper work. I was more than pleased that he took an active interest in the book’s development. He nudged me in the right direction a couple of times, but never criticised. Naturally irreverent, the part he enjoyed most was thinking up some droll captions to accompany the photographs. When the book was almost completed, he phoned from New York. He said he’d found the perfect picture for the cover: Marcia Resnick’s hat-pin-syringe portrait. Perhaps it was satire in the extreme - a Lenny Bruce style retort to the then current US moral majority, who backed by the president’s wife, Nancy Reagan, were pushing a simplistic ‘Just Say No To Drugs’ campaign at the nation’s youth. Like Bruce, Thunders’ pharmaceutical martyrdom may have enhanced his hipster glory for certain disciples, but ultimately it did neither of them any good. Both died alone.

It was a suitably perverse decision to launch the book in a converted church. The (London) Limelight had a full congregation as Johnny troubadoured through an acoustic set. Afterwards he pulled me into a smoky corner of the former joss house, to show me snapshots of Susanne and their baby daughter Jamie. He was happy. Such a simple statement. I wish I could have used it to describe him more often. He really did glow with a Poppa’s pride and whatever the downside of the guitarist’s history, Johnny had, in theory at least, traditional morals; he was already fretting about his daughter’s first date and detailed how he was going to follow from a distance to make sure she was safe. Once the book was finished, I saw less of Johnny, but I always knew how to find him.

Everybody loves a happy ending and I signed off fingers-crossed optimistic in early ’87. Johnny was busy on new projects, buying baby clothes and following the road eternal. The French film episode took even longer to complete than the entire Godfather trilogy; the aforementioned ‘Go Back To Go’ and ‘Personality Crisis’ later evolved into ‘Simple Simon’ before finally getting on screen as ‘Mona et Moi’. Thunders also co-starred on an album of covers with Patti Palladin: Copy Cats is castanet heaven as Johnny Teardrop and Patti Jezebel sashay through classic themes of love, losing and just wanting to dance, selected from the juke-box of their childhood.

For the first time since the Heartbreakers and Gang War, Thunders dropped the often chancey consequences of pick-up bands and put together a more stable outfit comprising of Jamey Heath (Saxophone), Stevie Klasson (Guitar), Alison Gordy (Vocalist), Chris Musto (Drums) and Jill Wisoff, who was later replaced by Stuart Kennedy (Bass). The line-up became known as the Oddballs after Johnny remarked how different they all were in an article. The major record deal they were hoping for eluded them. Apart from an unsatisfactory demo session set up by Jill Wisoff, Johnny never got the opportunity to properly record his later material, although the songs like most of the guitarist’s catalogue were captured live. Even without the sheen of the studio and a wash of mixes, a prophetic wisdom and humanity illuminates Johnny’s closing repertoire. Although the past’s themes of delinquency have been deposed, Thunders is ever candid, from the sharp letter to the music press in Critics Choice or stringing rosaries for In God’s Name… ‘It’s been ten years since my last confession’ he admits, like all the best good bad guys in the movies. Probably the best of the eight or so tunes is Society Makes Me Sad, out there with Memory it brings the heart to its knees.

It wasn’t a case of Johnny falling into a decline, rather his life just caught up with him after he separated for good from Susanne. Johnny had always relied on others for stability because he had none of his own. A series of jarring events took a further toll on his already faltering physical health beginning with an incident in April 1990. Johnny had gone to Paris to guest on two Stiv Bators’ demo tracks, Ain’t Got Nobody and Two Hearts, when he got his Les Paul Junior trashed in a tussle with Chinese Rocks co-author Dee Dee Ramone.

Five months later, on September 3rd, Johnny went into the world renowned rehab centre, Hazelton in Minneapolis. When he returned to NY I phoned him at his sister’s house. He sounded well and was pleased with an apartment he’d found. Apart from the loss he was feeling over Stiv, who had passed away in June after being hit by a car, Johnny said he was fine. We hoped to meet up in the new year. It was the last time I ever talked to Johnny. The sudden departure of Stiv Bators came as a harbinger of gathering clouds.

In April 1991, following a successful tour of Japan, a flying visit to London to collect methadone and a recording session in Germany with Die Toten Hosen, Johnny flew to New Orleans for what might have been: a chance to draw on the incarnate spirit of the blues and the possibility of putting together a new band. Both Stevie Klasson and Jerry Nolan had been invited to join the proceedings. Stevie was already finalising his travel arrangements, while Nolan was awaiting a call from Thunders. It never came.

If it wasn’t for bad luck, Johnny would have had no luck at all when he arrived from the Big Easy on Monday April 22nd. Exhausted and sick, he took a room at the St. Peter Guest House at approximately 9.30 p.m. The desk clerk on duty, Lesley Carter, later told the New Orleans Metro newspaper that Thunders had been… ‘Dressed all in black from head to toe and he was sweating. At one point, I was afraid he was going to fall on me. He wasn’t obnoxious. He looked real white like a Geisha girl.’

The hotel receptionist called Johnny early the following morning, having received a noise complaint from the room next door, whereupon Johnny asked if he could come and talk to her. Rumours of conspiracy and theft haunt those fraying hours as Johnny slipped over the horizon forever. A member of staff discovered his body that afternoon, amidst a story of sorry disarray.

With an inconclusive aftermath, despite the efforts of his family, and a seedy cluster of New Orleans flotsam that engulfed Thunders along with his last morning, nobody knows for sure where to put the final verdict. Perhaps it’s best left the way Thunders lived, blurred by shadows and speculation. In November ’94, Johnny’s last tour manager, Mick Webster, gave a summary of the scenario to Melody Maker… "We keep asking the New Orleans police to re-investigate, but they haven’t been particularly friendly. They seemed to think that this was just another junkie who had wandered into town and died. They simply weren’t interested. They said nothing about the missing money or the theft of Johnny’s passport and some of his clothes. The state of the hotel room was also ignored. It was totally wrecked. The guy who found the body said it looked as if something totally violent had gone down and I’m told that the characters Johnny was seen with on the night were serious underworld types. One of them was later sent to prison for armed robbery. Another was rumoured to have been an LSD dealer and Johnny hated LSD. If they spiked him with that, he would have had a terrible time. The body was all curled up, sort of like a ball, and I understand that’s often a sign of strychnine poisoning. On top of all that is the fact Johnny had been off heroin for a long time before his death. He was, however, taking methadone, which had been prescribed to him by his doctor, but there was another bizarre twist in the story when the autopsy didn’t find even the slightest trace of this. The Coroner was apparently later sacked for falsifying a report in another case. We’re determined to keep on fighting until we actually get to the bottom of what happened that night."

Six years on and it appears that there are no definite conclusions to be drawn.

Holy Ghost or Holy Terror? Johnny was no angel as Wayne Kramer admitted when he came forward to set the record straight regarding his side of the Gang War partnership (see Chapter 6) during his participation in the Thunders’ tribute album I Only Wrote This Song For You.

Wayne Kramer - "If I’d have wanted to go along with someone to improve my career, it wouldn’t have been Johnny Thunders! My interest in playing with him was because I could see the sheer excitement in what he could do and the thrill of the audience. It was a right brain, left brain thing, my sense of what could work, because I knew he was out of control but I also knew that it could be a great rock ‘n’ roll band. It was a struggle for me to be in a band with him because he managed to fuck everything up. I’m not into kicking Johnny, he was capable of being very charming."

In death, Johnny has become the critic’s choice, and has a place in the pantheon of deceased icons. Like the man said in Disappointed In You, ‘the only way you get respect is when you die’. Whenever there’s a wreath attached, Rock ’n’ Roll gets serious. Not only has a genuine tenderness misted up the type, but even the old guard have come forward to reassess with peppery lamentation. Tony Parsons remembered Johnny for the Daily Telegraph (Sept.’94)… ‘In death Thunders is managing something he never truly achieved in his lifetime. Finally he is emerging as more than a bad imitation of Keith Richards. Self-destructive, stupid, supremely selfish - Johnny was all these things. But he was also closer to the dark essence of rock and roll than almost anyone. And when that talent shone through the fog of heroin, he was mesmerising.’

Johnny even has his own display in the Hard Rock Café in NYC. Beatles and Stones collectables were reorganised to make way for some memorabilia from a neighborhood boy’s career.

Tracing glimpses of the restless kid who grew up to become The Arch-Rocker and a unique guitarist is where In Cold Blood must draw to a close. Using extracts from interviews done with Johnny’s family, friends and co-musicians, a collage of passage that began in Queens and ended in New Orleans was created.

The original edition of ‘Johnny Thunders - In Cold Blood’ was finished in 1986. After Johnny died, to complete the story Nina interviewed Jerry Nolan and the following people for their views and reminiscences of Johnny.

Rachel Amodeo - Based in New York, she first met Johnny whilst working on her directorial film debut ‘What About Me’.

Mariann Bracken - Johnny’s elder sister is married to Rusty. They have five children, Kelly, Danny, Chrissy, Michael and Amanda.

Chrissy Bracken - Mariann’s daughter and Johnny’s niece.

Campi - The front man of Germany’s premier punk outfit, Die Toten Hosen (The Dead Trousers).

Octavio Cohen-Escali - Octavio formed an alliance with Johnny when he was still in the Dolls. They remained close friends up until Johnny’s death.

Alison Gordy - Oddballs vocalist.

Chris Musto - played drums with The Oddballs.

Gail Higgins Smith - Acted as Heartbreakers tour manager and is one of Johnny’s oldest friends.

Lech Kowalski - Was responsible for the gritty evocation of Punk in his movie DOA and portrayed the brutalities of street level junkie life in ‘Gringo’.

Stevie Klasson - Oddballs’ guitarist and Johnny’s friend.

Luca Mainardi - Italian prima donna, musician and arranger with a classical background.

Gaku Torri - Leading Japanese rock journalist.

Mick Vayne - A fan and former guitarist of Leeds band, The Vaynes.

Mick Webster - Hailing from Yorkshire, he acted as Johnny’s last tour manager/minder and now works on Mariann’s behalf for Thunders’ estate.

Marc Zermati - Helped bring Punk to Paris and founded the Skydog label.

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