My first stay in New York City ended with the death of Johnny Thunders. Not that there was any connection between the two – I was leaving anyway. But Thunders died in New Orleans the week I was about to leave New York after four months in the city.
I wonder how many people in New York know about Johnny Thunders now. For a few years he was an almost iconic figure, the junkie rocker rebel, punk rock icon who bust out with the New York Dolls, became, along with the Ramones and many others, the NY face of punk rock in the Heartbreakers. In the years after, he continued as legend, waste-case, sometimes brilliant performer and song-writer right until he died in a New Orleans hotel room in the spring of 1991.
By coincidence, the week Thunders died I was staying with the film-maker who would embark on what became a years long, semi-obsessive quest to penetrate the Thunders mystery. A few years later, in my third or fourth incarnation in the city, his obsession became mine. I sifted through hundreds of hours of concert footage, interviews, cameos. Footage of people talking about Thunders, but never Thunders talking about himself – amazing to think now that in all those hours, I never saw on Thunders interview. He remained mysterious, unknowable, a private man living a very public life. Maybe this was part of his charisma, maybe it was part of what killed him.
I walked down 3rd Ave the other day, remembering someone had told me Thunders used to hang out in the area (Max’s Kansas City, hangout of Warhol, the Velvets, Jim Carrol, Thunders and company was just around the corner, on Union Square). Thunders might have been the face of the downtown music scene once, but he wouldn’t last two minutes in the Village now. His death, I realized, was the end of an era, the end of 70’s and 80’s downtown New York. When I came back a year later and the city had already moved on and the Village had moved on with it.
And there was no going back. By the mid-90’s, when I was working on the film, Johnny Thunders and that part of downtown New York had already become History, to be cataloged, its minutae argued over, its dangers observed safely through the lens of the past.
More on Thunders later. Until then: Johnny Thunders performing ‘You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory’ on Spanish TV, 1980’s: