Note From the Margins




New York Memories: Johnny Thunders


Johnny Thunders circa '77

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. Johnny Thunders with Sid Vicious

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:

  • Bucko

    Recently a lot of books have been published on this music scene. It seemed like a time of great productivity and creativity, music and art and performance. I’m sorry I missed it, as I was in the suburbs being forced to listen to Journey and Pure Prairie League. A waste, a waste!

  • cityofstrangers

    Hi Bucko – thanks for the comment.

    Yeah, it was productive – and the nostalgia for that era in NY is great. The drug scene around it wasn’t so great though – a lot of destructiveness and darkness. An interesting time to be alive if you could survive it.


  • Thomas Jefferson

    Many a time I saw him in concert. A truly talented guitarist. I will never ever forget his version of Pipeline. Still my favorite of all the covered ever done of that song.

    He was a tragic figure. Once while seeing him play at, I think it was Erving Plaza (My memory isn’t what is used to be), he walked on stage with bloodly arms from just shooting up. So many times, I thought he would just keel over, but yet he would soldier through the set and give the impish grin when playing “too much junkie business”.

    Everything is so politically correct today, I guess that is good in some ways, but really sad in others.

    The only thing that came marginally close to that raw sound and power was the “grundge” movement of the early 90’s. But that was still a pale photograph as to what original punk was like.

    • cityofstrangers

      Hi – Thanks for the comment. Blood on his arms – man! I could believe it. I never saw him live, just on video – many, many times. Towards the end of his life, he looked pretty bad, and I’d heard many people came just to see him looking awful. But what’s forgotten was that he was a consummate performer, very committed to playing and performing. i can only imagine the energy at the best of those concerts.


  • Jim Duffy

    I saw Thunders play in Cambridge, Mass., in 1982, at a club called Jonathan Swifts. He was so far gone, he didn’t finish a single song! Midway through the set, he fired the bass player and asked the audience if anyone could play bass. My friend nudged me to go up on stage and play with Thunders, but I didn’t go. An audience member lasted for half a song on bass, then Thunders fired him too. He then finished the set with just a drummer, and they started a lot of songs but never got to the end of any of them. Thunders was wearing a sort of black priestly cassock. On his Les Paul Junior was a pasted-on headline, “Death of a Pusher.” I still have a photo from that show. Maybe not great music, but a memorable show.

    • cityofstrangers

      Hey Jim, thanks – great story. Yeah, I guess that would have been the height of his post-Heartbreaker days when being wasted was an end in itself. I’m curious – how did the audience react? Too funny that he fired the bass player. If yo’d have gone up, you might have suffered some abuse – well, WOULD have suffered some abuse, but it would have been a story for the ages . . . .

      But hey, it’s all showbiz.


  • mark

    Johnny is copied today by many who havent any clue who he is

    • COS

      This is so true. You see Johnny’s look and sound in everything from metal to rockabilly to what’s left of punk . . .

  • GAZM135

    When the fuck is “Looking for Johnny…” coming out?

    • COS

      my apologies in the long delay in responding – been neglecting this site of late. I was just talking to someone about the new Thunders – and the answer is I think pretty soon. There’s a facebook page: