I know the exact moment I fell in love with Johnny Thunders. I had rented New York Doll, the documentary about The New York Dolls’ bass player Arthur Kane. Arther never had much success in the music world after the Dolls disbanded in 1975. He had substance abuse problems and ended up working at a Mormon library in Los Angeles. Thanks to Morrissey, who was a huge fan, the Dolls reunited and planned a show in London. Arthur got a second chance at fame, playing again with his band mates David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain. But it was not to be. On July 13, 2004, just twenty-two days after the reunion concert, Arthur thought he had caught the flu and checked himself in to a Los Angeles emergency room. He was quickly diagnosed with leukemia and died within two hours. He was fifty-five years old.
Arthur’s story was touching and compelling, but when I saw photos of Johnny Thunders in the Arthur Kane documentary, I was a goner. I had heard of the Dolls. I knew who David Johansen/Buster Poindexter was. But I never really latched onto them or took a serious listen to their music. All that changed once I got a gander at that hair and that face. Oh Johnny!
The New York Dolls formed in 1971. They had some hard times; their original drummer Billy Murcia died while they were on tour in London. They reformed with drummer Jerry Nolan and became one of the most influential bands of the punk/glam era. They wore makeup and had huge hair. But the clothes ”” good night nurse. They wore the best clothes! They sometimes dressed like girly girls. They wore leather, leopard print, stripes, flower chiffon blouses, scarves, boots, hats, feather boas. They dressed like total mobsters in fedoras and pinstripe suits. It was magnificent. The photos of the band still amaze me. Their influence over bands that came after them is vast.
Johnny Genzale was born in Queens and had a rough childhood with an absentee father. He started hanging out in Greenwich Village and met other musicians and formed various bands. He took on the name Johnny Volume at first but changed it to Johnny Thunders. He and Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan were best friends, and after the Dolls broke up they formed the Heartbreakers together. Johnny was a heroin addict and fought with his addiction for most of his adult life. He was in and out of bands, lived in Europe for a while and made most of his money touring since record companies were wary of signing him.
After the reunion show in London and after Arthur died, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain recruited new members and went on a world tour. I went to see the Dolls perform in their new incarnation several times. I even got backstage thanks to my pals The Dirty Pearls who opened for them at Irving Plaza. I met people who knew Johnny, played with Johnny, even kissed Johnny. I went to Johnny’s grave in Queens on what would have been his 55th birthday.
It was a wonderful tribute; I went with friends who were Johnny crazy like me and we all read messages we had written and sang songs and drank. Johnny’s nephew even came and shared some of his memories of when he was a little kid with his uncle, who tried to teach him guitar. The Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan is buried in the same cemetery.
I bought All Dolled Up, the documentary by Bob Gruen, and then met Bob and had him sign the DVD. I stood in front of Gem Spa on St. Marks where Johnny and the boys posed for photos. I even dressed like Johnny for Halloween.
But my ultimate trip was to stay in the room in St. Peter House in New Orleans where Johnny died in 1991. I know it might be a bit morbid and creepy to want to stay in a room where someone died, but for me, it was more about a tribute to Johnny and remembering his life.
Johnny went to New Orleans in 1991 to hang out in the music scene there. He was in New Orleans only one night before he died. His death remains a mystery. Johnny was supposedly clean and off drugs. He was found curled up on the floor under a coffee table, robbed and beaten. The New Orleans authorities called it an overdose and never investigated. It was believed he was robbed for his methadone supply. He was 38 years old.
I called St. Peter House and felt like a dork asking for a reservation and requesting that I had to have Room 37. They couldn’t have been nicer or more understanding. They get a lot of calls like mine. I was down in New Orleans staying with a friend who lives there, so I really didn’t need to stay in a hotel. If I couldn’t have that room, I didn’t want to stay at all. But the staff at St. Peter House were wonderful and promised me Room 37.
I checked in on a Sunday night after going to a Saints game. St. Peter House is in the French Quarter but on the outskirts on St. Peter and Burgundy. The room is on the ground floor and has a window that faces the street. It’s a simple room, just a single room with a bathroom. There was a huge bed with a massive headboard in the room. I didn’t ask, but I assumed nothing was the same as it was in 1991.
My friend was wonderful and let me have some alone time in the room. She was also a good sport and spent the night there with me. I was worried I might get freaked out and wanted her there for support. But it was a good night. In fact, later that night, her boyfriend and another friend of mine came over, and we all hung out and talked about music and Johnny’s life. So it really was a perfect tribute.
I brought some Johnny artifacts: some photos, some CDs. I played Johnny and the Dolls in the room constantly. When I had my alone time, I lit candles and said prayers. At first I felt really sad and tormented. Room 37 was not a happy place for Johnny Thunders. He died there, miserable and scared and alone. I didn’t want to have that heavy energy of sorrow. So I sent out good thoughts to the spirit of Johnny, and then I did what any New York Dolls fan would do: I danced. I danced like a maniac all over the room and on the bed and even in the bathroom. I danced to “Trash,” to “Pills,” to “Chinese Rocks,” To “Pirate Love.” I even danced to “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” And I sang every word.