Johnny Thunders, born John Genzale, Jr. in Queens, New York, became perhaps the most influential musician in the New York music scene in the 1970s. Leading the New York Dolls, the short-lived Gang War, and finally the Heartbreakers, Thunders pioneered a raw rock and roll revival and helped give new life to rock and roll fashion. He never sold a lot of albums and his bands never became international stars, but the history of New York music would be incomplete without mentioning his contributions.
This writer came to know Thunders in 1969 at Fillmore East. He and his girlfriend, Janis Cafasso, would attend every concert by a British band. This writer attended every concert there every weekend. Rather than take our seats, all of us preferred to watch the concerts from the back of the venue. Although we knew each other and often made small talk, we ran in different circles. Thunders and Cafasso had the mod Rod Stewart look, with cropped, stylish hair and dressed in velvets, silks, flowing scarves and boas, and boots. They watched from the left side. This writer and his company were more the Grateful Dead crowd, with long hair, patched jeans and sneakers. We watched from the right side. The two camps shared candy and a passion for live rock music.
In the early 1970s, Thunders and a growing cohort of similarly colorful rockers frequented a bar called Nobody's. This writer frequented the Bitter End, a folk club down the block, so our paths continued to cross on Bleecker Street, but again in parallel lines. In a few short years, he would be the lead guitarist in the New York Dolls and this writer became the New York columnist for the Aquarian Weekly.
Glitter rock was born in London, England, with the likes of David Bowie, T. Rex, David Essex and Gary Glitter. In New York, the local adaption was a return to raunchy, ragged rock and roll after the music scenes across the world were flooded with the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Allman Brothers Band. Glitter rock glamorized sexual ambiguity and androgyny through fashion and make-up, and the bands reverted to simple rock and pop compositions. Suddenly, the New York rock clubs were jammed with rockers dressed to the nines. The New York Dolls ruled the local music scene from 1972 to 1975.
This scene would later evolve into glam rock, with Kiss and Twisted Sister in New York and Motley Crue and Poison in Los Angeles gaining the international success that had eluded the New York Dolls. The two Dolls albums were slicker than what the live shows were like, but just were not commercial enough. In New York, however, they were spun frequently by rock club djs (and still are).
The Dolls were deeply inspired by the Rolling Stones, and ironically the band came to life and ended between the Stones' tours of America in 1972 and 1975. Thunders left the band in 1975 and formed the Heartbreakers. The glitter scene had exhausted its run and the punk scene was not yet in high gear. The Heartbreakers now ruled the local rock club circuit.
The Heartbreakers toured America before going to Britain in 1976 to join the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned on the now-legendary Anarchy Tour, replacing the Ramones, who quit the tour due to a lack of organization. The Heartbreakers stayed in the United Kingdom throughout 1977, where their popularity was significantly greater than in the United States, and released their only official studio album, L.A.M.F., in 1977. Shortly thereafter, the Heartbreakers officially disbanded, and Johnny Thunders began a solo career, although for New York area shows he would reunite members of the Heartbreakers (guitarist Walter Lure, bassist Billy Rath and drummer Jerry Nolan).
Among his other musical endeavors, Thunders occasionally performed in the 1980s in Gang War with former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and in the 1990s in the Oddballs. These and other efforts were met with less enthusiasm than the New York Dolls or the Heartbreakers. By this time, Thunders' storied abuse of heroin and methadone was well documented, and noticed by audiences at his gigs. Thunders was found dead in a hotel in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 23, 1991, apparently of drug-related causes.
Local impresarios Steve Krebs and Barry Apfel host the Johnny Thunders Birthday Bash every year on what would have been Johnny Thunders' birthday, July 13. Each year, the show at the Bowery Electric headlines Walter Lure's band, the Waldos, and many local artists covering the Thunders catalogue. This year's show featured performances by the Waldos, Steve Krebs & the M.I.A Band, the Ritualists, Lulu Lewis, Lenny Kaye, Dina Regine, the Rousers, Diane Gentile, the Skelekasters, New Rock City, Mora Tau, Density, and a final performance by FFN. Some of the musicians played with Thunders, and all the musicians still revere him. It was a fitting tribute to the all-time king of the New York rock club circuit.
|Dennis Doyle of Density|
|Ronnie Wheeler of Mora Tau|
|New Rock City|
|Bill Dickson of the Rousers|
|Dina Regine with Lenny Kaye|
|Dylan Hundley of Lulu Lewis|
|Christian Dryden of the Ritualists|
|Steve Krebs & the M.I.A. Band|
|Walter Lure of the Waldos|