LOOKING FOR JOHNNY - The Legend of Johnny Thunders DVD


Johnny Thunders was something of an enigma. Sex, drug and rock'n'roll just about summed up the guitarist that was born to live fast and die young. Both his most notable bands, the New York Dolls and Heartbreakers, were largely commercially unsuccessful, but in retrospect are now widely regarded as forerunners of the punk movement that would later emanate from the Big Apple. Ultimately even his death would be shrouded in mystery with his demise in New Orleans being attributed to both a drugs overdose and foul play.

So hopefully a new documentary could shed some more light on the life of the enigmatic outlaw. Made by Spanish film-maker Danny Garcia (who had previously made "The Rise and Fall of the Clash") it includes interviews with friends and band mates of Thunders, including Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), Walter Lure and Billy Rath RIP (Heartbreakers), Terry Chimes (Clash), Alan Vega (Suicide), Neal X (Sigue Sigue Sputnik) and Malcolm McLaren (Sex Pistols).

The opening shots see the almost emaciated Thunders wandering the streets of pre-gentrified 1970's Manhattan. School friends recall how he initially wanted to be a baseball player but, hearing the Beatles for the first time, it was music that became his true passion. It is explained that bands like The Stooges and MC5 heavily influenced him, but it was a visit to England and in particular seeing T Rex, that made him want to form a band. However, an introduction to Arthur "Killer" Kane at a bar in the West Village was the catalyst to setting him on the road to notoriety.

Interestingly it puts forward the theory that the Dolls were actually a caricature of the Rolling Stones, with lead singer David Johansen being Jagger and Thunders playing the part of Keith Richards. Using a glam rock/transsexual look the band startled and excited audiences in equal measures. However, interestingly, photographer Bob Gruen puts forward the opinion that they dressed like this as they knew girls liked "playing with dolls" and boy did they want the girls to play with them! The death of original drummer Billy Murcia in a drugs related incident seemed to signal the end of the band, but in fact it meant Thunders found his junk soul mate in replacement Jerry Nolan.

As well as interviews the film uses vintage photographs and grainy home movies to chart the story of the ups and (many) downs of all the bands he was a part of. Providing a chronological history of one off the most talented, but troubled guitarists of the punk era, it follows him from the Dolls through the Heartbreakers, the Living Dead (briefly with Sid Vicious on bass), Heartbreakers reunion, Gang War (with Wayne Kramer of MC5), another Heartbreakers reunion, film career, acoustic recordings, Thunders/Nolan band and finally the Oddballs.


It does not shy away from highlighting his gargantuan heroin habit. But the film also shows his softer side and the effect the end of this marriage had on in, particularly his inability to see his children. He subsequently found solace in Sweden, of all places, however this appeared to be all too brief an interlude in the helter-skelter of his career. Ultimately it is the entwinement of his life with drugs that is the defining factor. They gave him a unique character onstage, but played a massive part in his demise and untimely death. The ultimate rock'n'roll fuck up genius died in 1991, aged only 38.

Even then however the mystery continued with major question marks hanging over the nature of his death. A reluctance of the local police to investigate another rock star overdose was in direct contradiction to the post mortem that showed he had insufficient drugs in his body to have caused an O/D. Possessions were missing from his hotel room and rumours abound about him getting a hotshot from local lowlifes.

But, irrespective of his end, this film shows that Thunders seemed to be on a long drawn out suicide mission from the outset. A gifted musician, but flawed personally, it does not detract from the legacy of great songs that he left behind and the fact that he was part of a New York scene that would shortly thereafter light a fire under the British punk movement. The film is well worth a watch for anyone familiar with this musical era or just anyone interested in rock's long and tortuous lineage.


By Bones