Johnny Thunders may have started off as an unlikely candidate for punk icon, but that’s just what he became.
Born John Genzale, Thunders stole his legendary alias from the DC Comics character Johnny Thunder when he co-founded the New York Dolls.
But long after his death in 1991, Thunders continues to be immersed in punk lore — in addition to his work with the Dolls and his band The Heartbreakers, he released six solo albums and has been the focus of nearly 50 bootleg, live, compilation and tribute albums.
Few punk rockers this side of Sid Vicious have that kind of staying power.
Thunders was an Italian-American kid from Jackson Heights when he fell into the burgeoning New York City punk scene. He started off with the stage name Johnny Volume, hooking up with local musicians and delving into the scene.
In the early ‘70s he joined the band Actress, which included future Dolls bandmates Arthur Kane and Billy Murcia. By 1971, the band added guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and singer David Johansen. The New York Dolls were born.
Thunders was the raunchy, if sloppy, driving guitar behind the Dolls’ brief success. The band became the face of the Big Apple punk world, scoring big with the song “Pills” off their first album. However, it was short lived, and the band broke up in 1975.
After the band’s demise, Thunders formed The Heartbreakers with Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan and bassist Richard Hell, who had just left Television and would later make a bigger name for himself with Richard Hell and the Voidoids.
The Heartbreakers had limited success, and Thunders was involved in a series of other projects. He also launched a solo career. He released six solo albums, starting with 1978’s So Alone and ending with Copy Cats, released in 1988.
However, his career was marked by rampant drug use. He died of an overdose in New Orleans in 1991 under suspicious circumstances — his body was found in advanced rigor mortis and his apartment had been ransacked. His friend and fellow punk legend Willy DeVille, who was also a neighbor, was reportedly one of the first to see the body.
But Thunders has lived on in music. Countless albums bearing his music have been released over the years, including the recent tribute box set, Born To Lose.
Rolling Stone magazine likened Thunders’ lingering appeal to that of Sex Pistol Sid Vicious. The difference, the magazine said, is that Thunders had talent.
That’s probably the real tragedy of Johnny Thunders.
(NOTE: This is part of my ongoing series of reports on guitar players who fly under the mainstream radar. Keep checking The Listening Room for future installments of guitar players you should know – JF)
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