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Thunders in 1979
Performing at the VFW Post in Ann Arbor, Michigan in July 1979. He was then collaborating with Wayne Kramer of MC5, as 'Gang War'.
John Anthony Genzale (July 15, 1952 - April 23, 1991), better known by his stage name Johnny Thunders, was an American guitarist, singer and songwriter. He came to prominence in the early 1970s as a member of the New York Dolls. He later played with The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist.
His first musical performance was in the winter of 1967 with The Reign. Shortly thereafter, he played with Johnny and the Jaywalkers, under the name Johnny Volume, at Quintano's School for Young Professionals, around the corner from Carnegie Hall, on 56th Street near 7th Avenue.
Dolls bass guitarist Arthur "Killer" Kane later wrote about Thunders' guitar sound, as he described arriving outside the rehearsal studio where they were meeting to jam together for the first time: "I heard someone playing a guitar riff that I myself didn't know how to play. It was raunchy, nasty, rough, raw, and untamed. I thought it was truly inspired...", adding "His sound was rich and fat and beautiful, like a voice."
In 1975 Thunders and Nolan left the band, Thunders later blaming McLaren for the band's demise. Johansen and Sylvain continued playing, along with Peter Jordon, Tony Machine (an ex-assistant agent at Leber & Krebs) and Chris Robison, as the New York Dolls until late 1977.
With Thunders leading the band, the Heartbreakers toured America before going to Britain to join the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned on the 'Anarchy Tour'. The group stayed in the UK throughout 1977, where their popularity was significantly greater than in the U.S., particularly among punk bands. While in Britain they were signed to Track Records and released their only official studio album, L.A.M.F., an abbreviation for "Like A Mother Fucker". L.A.M.F. was received positively by critics and fans alike, but was criticised for its poor production. Displeased with the production, the band members were soon competing with one other, mixing and remixing the record, culminating in drummer Jerry Nolan quitting in November 1977. Shortly thereafter, the Heartbreakers officially disbanded.
Thunders stayed in London and recorded the first of a number of solo albums, beginning with So Alone in 1978. The notoriously drug-fuelled recording sessions featured a core band of Thunders, bassist Phil Lynott, drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones, with guest appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Steve Marriott, Walter Lure, Billy Rath and Peter Perrett. The CD version of the album contains four bonus tracks, including the single "Dead or Alive" and a cover of the early Marc Bolan song "The Wizard". Soon afterwards, Thunders moved back to the US, joining former Heartbreakers Walter Lure, Billy Rath and sometimes Jerry Nolan for gigs at Max's Kansas City. Around this time Thunders played a small number of gigs at London's Speakeasy with a line up including Cook and Jones, Henri Paul on bass and Judy Nylon and Patti Palladin (Snatch) as back up vocalists.
In late 1979, Thunders moved to Detroit with his wife Julie and began performing in a band called Gang War. Other members included John Morgan, Ron Cooke, Philippe Marcade and former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. They recorded several demos and performed live several times before disbanding. Zodiac Records released an EP of their demos in 1987. In 1990 they also released an album titled Gang War, which was credited to Thunders and Kramer.
During the early 1980s, Thunders re-formed The Heartbreakers for various tours; the group recorded their final album, Live at the Lyceum, in 1984. The concert was also filmed and released as a video and later a DVD titled Dead Or Alive.
In 1985, Thunders released Que Sera Sera, a collection of new songs with his then band The Black Cats, and "Crawfish", a duet with former Snatch vocalist Patti Palladin.
Three years later he again teamed up with Palladin to release Copy Cats, a covers album. The album, produced by Palladin, featured a wide assortment of musicians to recreate the 1950s and 1960s sound of the originals, including Alex Balanescu on violin, Bob Andrews on piano, The Only OnesJohn Perry and others on guitar, and a horn section.
From August 1988 until his death in April 1991, Thunders performed in The Oddballs, with Jamie Heath (saxophone), Alison Gordy (vocals), Chris Musto (drums), Stevie Klasson (guitar) and Jill Wisoff (bass).
From April-May 1990, Johnny performed an acoustic tour of the UK and Ireland joining up occasionally with John, Sam & Peter of The Golden Horde, whom he had met and played with previously in 1984 at the TV Club, and were concurrently on tour (of the UK & Ireland) at that time also, for full-band electric performances and TV appearances.
On May 8, 1990, recording sessions in London for a joint EP-single cover version with The Golden Horde of "Sugar, Sugar" by The Archies, and original material, had to be cancelled when Johnny experienced "health problems" following his performances in Wakefield, UK while on tour.
His final recording was a version of "Born To Lose", with German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen, recorded 36 hours before his death in New Orleans.
Rumors surround Thunders' death at the St. Peter House in New Orleans, Louisiana on April 23, 1991. He apparently died of drug-related causes, but it has been speculated that it was the result of foul play. According to his biography Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone took a call in New York City the next day from Stevie Klasson, Johnny's rhythm guitar player. Ramone said, "They told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards... who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him. He had gotten a pretty large supply of methadone in England, so he could travel and stay away from those creeps - the drug dealers, Thunders imitators, and losers like that."
Singer Willy DeVille, who lived next door to the hotel in which Thunders died, described his death this way:
I don't know how the word got out that I lived next door, but all of a sudden the phone started ringing and ringing. Rolling Stone was calling, the Village Voice called, his family called, and then his guitar player called. I felt bad for all of them. It was a tragic end, and I mean, he went out in a blaze of glory, ha ha ha, so I thought I might as well make it look real good, you know, out of respect, so I just told everybody that when Johnny died he was laying down on the floor with his guitar in his hands. I made that up. When he came out of the St. Peter Guest House, rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U shape. When you're laying on the floor in a fetal position, doubled over - well, when the body bag came out, it was in a U. It was pretty awful.
An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, but served only to compound the mysteries. According to Thunders' biographer Nina Antonia as posted on the Jungle Records web site, the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. According to the book Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon by Pamela Des Barres, who interviewed Thunders' sister, Mariann Bracken, the autopsy confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which would explain the decline in Thunders' appearance in the final year of his life. This also sheds light on the interview in Lech Kowalski's documentary Born To Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie, where Thunders' brother-in-law says, "Only Johnny knew how sick he really was."
In a 1994 Melody Maker interview, Thunders' manager Mick Webster described the family's efforts to get New Orleans police to investigate the matter further: "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."
Thunders was survived by his ex-wife Julie and four children: sons John, Vito, and Dino, and daughter Jamie Genzale by Susanne Blomqvist.
Born To Lose - The Last Rock'n'Roll Movie (1999), directed by Lech Kowalski
Looking For Johnny: The Legend of Johnny Thunders (2014), directed by Danny Garcia
"Room 37" (2019), directed by Vicente and Fernando Cordero
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Thunders has had numerous bands paying tribute or mentioning him in their songs, while he was alive and after his death.
Sand Rubies (The Sidewinders) on their 1997 release, "Return of the Living Dead" covered "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory" as the final track on the album.
The Clash mentioned Thunders in the lyric from their song "City of the Dead", singing "'Don't you know where to cop?'/That's what New York Johnny said/'You should get to know your town/Just like I know mine'"
Adam Bomb wrote the song "Johnny in the sky", to pay tribute to his friend Johnny Thunders. The song appears on the album Grave New World in 1993.
Willy DeVille wrote a song called "Chemical Warfare" which appeared on his 1992 album Backstreets of Desire. "Chemical Warfare" was dedicated to Johnny Thunders with whom DeVille shared a long-time friendship. DeVille was first to arrive at the hotel the day of Johnny's death.
Screaming Bloody Marys guitarist and vocalist Dave Dalton wrote a song called "Dead n Gone" about Johnny Thunders. (Dr Dream/Die Laughing Records).
At their reunion shows, the New York Dolls performed "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory", with member Sylvain Sylvain singing the lead vocal and sometimes changing the title lyric to "I can't put my arms around you, Johnny."
Sylvain Sylvain paid tribute to Thunders, Jerry Nolan and Billy Murcia in "Sleep Baby Doll."
The Comics recorded several of Thunders' songs with German lyrics in the early 80's, e. g. "I Wanna Be Loved" (as "Warum schaust du so traurig?") and "Let Go" (as "Wolken").
On the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Johnny Thunders is mentioned in the song "There She Goes my Beautiful World", singing "...And Johnny Thunders was half alive when he wrote 'Chinese Rocks'"(although Johnny performed and recorded 'Chinese Rocks' it was written by his friend and fellow punk rocker Dee Dee Ramone).
The Replacements included a song about Johnny Thunders, "Johnny's Gonna Die", on their first album. The group also recorded a track entitled "Dose of Thunder" on their later album, Tim.
Alex Chilton in his song "Bangkok" sings the lines "I'm not living on Chinese rocks, I'm in Bangkok." A small tribute and allusion to Johnny Thunders.
Die Toten Hosen paid tribute to Johnny Thunders by including the line "So lange Johnny Thunders lebt, so lang bleib ich ein Punk" ("As long as Johnny Thunders lives I'll stay a punk") in their song "Wort zum Sonntag". After his death Die Toten Hosen changed the lyrics to "Hey, Johnny kannst du uns grad' seh'n, wir vergessen dich nicht - wir werden überall von dir erzählen damit dein Name ewig weiterlebt." ("Hey, Johnny can you see us right now, we won't forget you - we'll let everyone know about you so that your name lives on eternally.")
The Murder City Devils named a song "Johnny Thunders" on their album Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts.
Napalm Beach played on at least two bills in the 1980s with the Heartbreakers in Portland in Seattle. Three days before Thunders died, the band had breakfast with Thunders in a Berlin hotel, where Thunders autographed bandleader Chris Newman's passport "all my love and admiration." In 1993 Napalm Beach released a cover of "Chatterbox" for a Johnny Thunders Tribute compilation put together by Tim Kerr Records. The single featured a photo of the autograph next to a photo of a guitar Napalm Beach bassist Otis P. Otis had gotten from Thunders in an earlier trade. The last meeting with Thunders was alluded to in the Napalm Beach song "Longtime Johnny" on their 1993 album, Curiosities.
Slaughter & the Dogs had a track titled "Johnny T" allegedly about Thunders which was the b-side to their single "Dame to Blame".
In the "Call of the Yeti" episode of "The Mighty Boosh" Naboo tells Vince "Vince, you're a punk, stay punk! Think of Johnny Thunders, Mick and Keith!" when they are threatened to be raped by Hippy yetis.
Paul Westerberg released an album in August 2008 entitled "49:00" which contains a track about Johnny entitled "Devil Raised a Good Boy".
Chinese punk rock band Joyside's "Neptune Child" is in tribute of Stiv Bators and Johnny Thunders.
When doing their cover of The Rolling Stones song "Dead Flowers", JB Beverley and The Wayward Drifters substitute the line, "and another girl to take my pain away", with, "with my Johnny Thunders records taking all this pain away".
American label Skykrebs Records Limited Skykrebs Records Limited - Home released Born To Lose: A Tribute To Johnny Thunders in 2009, a 3CD Boxed Set of various artists featuring 51 songs and a 36-page full color booklet. Guest stars include Richie Cannata (saxophone player from Billy Joel), Steve Holley (drummer from Wings), Buddy Bowzer (saxophone player from The New York Dolls), Andy Shernoff (bass player from The Dictators) and Jeff Magnum (bass player from The Dead Boys).
John Waite references Johnny in his song "Downtown" from his Temple Bar album. In the song, the lyric "Johnny Thunders on the Radio, ah You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory".
The Schizo's, an infamous Dutch punk-rock band played several covers from Thunders. For them Thunders was one of their main influences
Backyard Babies reference Johhny in their songs "Stars" with the line "Nevermind that Rotten Johnny Thunders New York Dolls. In Too Much Too Soon Too Late he know he had to fall".
The Subsonics reference Johnny in their song "Heroin Addict's Beach Party" with the line "They're all so high, well it's no wonder, only music that they played was Johnny Thunder".
The 69 Eyes reference Johnny and Stiv Bators in their song "Stiv & Johnny" from their 2016 album Universal Monsters.
Kevin Rowland pays tribute to Johnny Thunders by playing "Born To Lose" on his DJ sets/shows. Kevin then sings the song in his own unique style after the original is played.
Shilpa Ray makes an ironic nod to Johnny Thunders and his lifestyle in her song "Johnny Thunders Fantasy Space Camp".