Johnny Thunders (July 15, 1952 – April 23, 1991), born John Anthony Genzale, Jr., was an American rock and roll/punk rock 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 58th Street near 7th Avenue.
In 1968 he began going to the Fillmore East and Bethesda Fountain in Central Park on weekends. His older sister, Mariann, started styling his hair like Keith Richards. In late 1969 he got a job as a sales clerk at D'Naz leather shop, on Bleecker Street in the West Village. He and his girlfriend, Janis Cafasso, went to see the Stones at Madison Square Garden in November 1969, and they appear in the Maysles film, Gimme Shelter. In the summer of 1970 he went to England for the Isle of Wight Festival. In London he hung out at the Speakeasy Club and updated his wardrobe on the King's Road. Toward the end of 1970 he started hanging out at Nobodys, a club also on Bleecker Street in the West Village. It was near there that he met future Dolls Arthur Kane and Rick Rivets. He joined their band "Actress" which, after firing Rivets and adding David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia, became the New York Dolls. At this time John Genzale renamed himself Johnny Thunders, after the DC comic book figure.
Dolls bass guitarist, Arthur Kane, later wrote about Johnny Thunder's 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."
The New York Dolls were signed to Mercury Records, with the help of A & R man, Paul Nelson. Thunders recorded two albums with the band, New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon. They were managed by Marty Thau, and booked by Leber & Krebs. Subsequently they worked with Malcolm McLaren for several months, later becoming a prototype for the Sex Pistols.
In 1975 Thunders and Nolan left the band, though 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. Their early recordings are still in print and continue to influence young musicians.Johnny Thunders, performing at the VFW Post in Ann Arbor, Michigan in July 1979. At that time he was collaborating with Wayne Kramer of the MC5, as 'Gang War'.
Thunders formed The Heartbreakers with former New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan, and former Television bassist Richard Hell. Walter Lure, former guitarist for the New York City punk band The Demons was soon added. After conflict arose between Thunders and Hell, Hell left to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids and was replaced by Billy Rath.
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 now-legendary Anarchy Tour, replacing theRamones, who had quit the tour due to a lack of organization. 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, LAMF, an abbreviation for "Like A Mother Fucker". LAMF was poorly received by critics and fans alike, due to technical problems in mastering the record. 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". 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.
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 formerMC5 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 LP titled Gang War, which was credited to Thunders and Kramer. Bootlegs of their demos and live performances remain in circulation.
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 Patti Palladin to release "Copy Cats", a covers album. The album, produced by Patti, featured a wide assortment of musicians to recreate the 50's and 60's sound of the originals, including Alex Balanescu on violin, Bob Andrews on piano, The Only Ones John Perry and others on guitar, and a horn section.
From August 1988 until his death in April 1991, Thunders performed with a band known as The Oddballs, with Jamie Heath (saxophone), Alison Gordy (vocals), Chris Musto (drums), Stevie Klasson (guitar) and Jill Wisoff (bass).
April–May 1990, Johnny performed an acoustic tour of the UK & 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.
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 canceled when Johnny experienced 'health problems' following his performances in Wakefield, UK while on tour. Bootleg live recordings, although very poor in quality, do exist.
Many rumors surround Thunders' death at the St. Peter House in New Orleans, Louisiana, in April 1991. He apparently died of drug-related causes, but it has been speculated that it was the result of foul play. According to the autobiography Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone took a call in New York the next day from Stevie Klasson, Johnny's rhythm guitar player. "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."
What is known for certain is that Johnny's room (no. 37, now no. 7) was ransacked and most of his possessions were missing (passport, makeup, clothes). Rigor mortis had set in with his body positioned in an unnatural state, described by eyewitnesses as "like a pretzel", underneath a coffee table. Friends and acquaintances acknowledge he had not been using heroin for some time, relying on his methadone prescriptions. The police did not open a criminal investigation.
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's 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. And 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' sister, Mariann Bracken's husband says, "Only Johnny knew how sick he really was."
In a 1994 Melody Maker interview Thunders' manager Mick Webster described the efforts of his family, "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." Mariann Bracken claims that the original police report is largely missing and Webster further explains that the Coroner who conducted the autopsy was fired for falsifying a report in another case.
Thunders was survived by his ex-wife Julie and four children: sons John, Vito, and Dino; and daughter Jamie Genzale by Swedish national Susanne Blomqvist.