Guitarist Johnny Thunders and vocalist David Johansen were the garage-punk coefficient of the Rolling Stones’ “Glimmer Twins” Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. They were the “Toxic Twins” before Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. Before there were Sex Pistols, there were New York Dolls. As with those British-screaming snots, the “Gemini Snots” defined a scene: the ‘Dolls were New York. Bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, formed out of “The Bromley Contingent,” the Sex Pistols’ fan-clique based around London’s 100 Club. The Buzzcocks (!) birthed because of the ‘Pistols. There’d be no Clash or the Ruts or the Stranglers without ‘Pistols. In New York, bands formed out of the ‘Dolls’ audience at The Bowery-based CBGBs. There’d be no Blondie, Ramones, Television, or Talking Heads without the Thunders-Johansen dichotomy.
But not every gunslinger of the six-string electric is destined to be Thomas Edison: sometimes you’re Nicola Telsa.
While their Todd Rundgren-produced (Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell was the ex-Nazz leader’s big one; he produced Sparks (of Rollercoaster fame) as well) eponymous debut on (Mercury, 1973) is regarded as a “rock classic,” no classic rock radio station will ever play them. (Nor will any of today’s alt-rock stations spin the ‘Dolls’ as “golds” analogues to classic rock radio’s spins of the Rolling Stones.) The ‘Dolls’ debut was—as with most “innovators”—a resounding marketing failure compounded by the release of their appropriately-titled sophomore-final, Too Much Too Soon (Mercury, 1974). And, with that, the New York Dolls—along with, to an extent, their Detroit-based inspirational precursors the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges—singlehandedly soured major records labels on punk snot . . . at least until some blonde-haired kid from the Pacific Northwest decided (well, the X-Generation decided) to become the new Jim Morrison. By the time the Sex Pistols first took to the stage in 1976, the ‘Dolls’ were punk vestiges, but not enough in ruins that megla-Svengali Malcolm McLaren (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) didn’t want to sink his fangs and extract the last ounce of snot. But it gave him the idea to “form” the Sex Pistols <eye roll>, so it all worked out.
In the midst of the fad-driven major-label mania over rock “supergroups” (that run the gambit from Blind Faith in the 60’s to KBG in the ‘70s to Asia—the last of them—in the ‘80s), there was (before some kid named Tom Petty absconded it as a suffix-moniker) (The) Heartbreakers—a ‘Dolls’ phoenix stoked by Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan with ex-Television (formed out of the ‘Dolls’ audience, natch) bassist Richard Hell. As with all supergroup outings (Fastway comes to mind: UFO’s Pete Way was out before Motorhead’s Fast Eddie Clark and Humble Pie’s Jerry Shirley recorded their debut album proper and became the “No False Metal” voice for Sammy Curr in Trick or Treat), Hell was out before Thunders and company recorded their first album in England (where the ‘Dolls’ had a rabid fan base as much as they had an indifferent fan base in America), L.A.M.F (1977). And, with that, Richard Hell was off to form the Voidoids.
Could you imagine—if he wasn’t so ambivalently indifferent in perpetuity—Kurt Cobain being talked into taking an acting role, say like the Kurt-divergent Eddie Vedder appearing in Cameron Crowe’s “grunge Friends” flick, Singles?
Well, Thunder’s ex-Heartbreakers’ mate Richard Hell used his infamy for a quick stage-to-film transition in Blank Generation (1979). It would be a decade before Thunders repeated the cinematic leap made by Hell (and Debbie Harry in Union City, Iggy Pop in Cry Baby, or the Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School)—and Thunders had to cross an ocean to do it.
Initially shot in 1984 in a start-stop-start, financially-plagued production schedule (and released three years before his 1991 New Orleans death; it was released in 1988 in France; then Europe in 1989), this acting debut by Johnny Thunders is, needless to say, an extremely rare VHS that’s impossible to find outside of its native country of origin. Alongside with a little-to-nothing to say Jerry Nolan and Billy Rath from Heartbreakers, Thunders stars as Johnny Valentine: a troublesome New York rock star (not far removed from his own self, natch) that’s left in the charge of a music manager assigned to “babysit” the hard-living artist for a week. The thin premise for the drama is a down-and-out rock promoter flying Johnny into Paris to headline a concert. The romantic triangles tinkle as Thunders falls in love with Mona, the manager’s girlfriend. And if that sounds a lot like the character and pseudo-plot of Richard Hell’s Blank Generation, then it probably is. And if the “babysitting” manager angle sounds too much like Get Him to the Greek (with Russell Brand’s obnoxious-oblivious-rocker Aldous Snow—only with less heroin sheik and more Apatow raunch), then it probably is.
While Hell was clean (we think) and coherent in his role in Blank Generation, it’s hard to watch Thunders swagger-stagger through the film either drunk, stoned—or both. Regardless of the cool factor in having one of punk’s forefathers in an acting role (and truth be told, Thunders isn’t half bad at it), it’s nonetheless heartbreaking (sorry) to see a clearly broken Thunders squeezing out (or manipulated into) his last ounce of
fame infamy—especially when considering the mainstream film appearance of his clean and sober ‘Dolls’ mate David Johansen in hit films such as Scrooged and Married to the Mob.
While Thunders was (always) a musical-footnote oddity in the States, he was, nevertheless, a celebrity in France—alongside ex-U.S. punks Stiv Bators of the Dead Boys and Willy DeVille of Mink DeVille. So, in that country, he continued to record and perform in concert—long after the early ’70 glam and late ‘70s punk halcyon days. In a historical twist, his solo debut, So Alone (1978), featured the backing of ex-Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Director Lech Kowalski (D.O.A) examined the troubled life of Thunders in Born to Lose (1999) and offered additional insights with the direct-to-video New York Doll. The Polish director also shot and recorded a pair of shows with Thunders for his heroin-document Gringo, aka The Story of a Junkie; while that film-music partnership floundered, the footage ended up in Lech’s subsequent Thunder-documentaries.
An extremely clean rip of the Mona Et Moi—with subtitles—is offered on the You Tube page of Cult Fusion TV. You say you need more Johnny Thunders? Then check out the fictitious take on his life with Room 37: The Death of Johnny Thunders, available on DVD/Blu-ray and Amazon from Cleopatra Entertainment.