Johnny Freaking Thunders
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because in a just world, his name and likeness would appear in the dictionary entry for “cool.”
By Eugene S. Robinson
The man who called himself Johnny Thunders made his way through a scattering of chairs and tables in a basement club on St. Mark’s in the East Village, New York. Sporting a close-cut, baby blue sharkskin suit and Beatles boots, Thunders swung his guitar case onto the makeshift stage and smiled at the question about Walter Lure, the guitar player for Thunders’ post-New York Dolls band, the Heartbreakers.
“Out in Queens, somewhere over at Hebrew National. Looking for a hot dawg.”
The audience tittered, nervously. Thunders yanked his acoustic out of its case and ripped into unplugged, unamplified versions of his songs that nonetheless managed to be louder than freaking bombs. The year was 1980 and not many had seen anything like it: the trouble-prone Thunders as an acoustic killer who sounded not even a little bit beatnik or folky, but rather full-on punk.
“He had taken along a whole lot of methadone so he could tour, stay clean and function,” says Garcia by email while on a tour with the movie. “And people who make it their life to know stuff like that sought him out. And then he’s dead?” Apparently so. The investigative will to “hunt for the real killers” never reached critical mass, leaving the film with unanswered questions aplenty even as it captures a cool slice of New York’s pre-punk legacy — and a world that no longer exists. Like a motherfucker (L.A.M.F., Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers’ first studio album), indeed. And now Spanish writer/director Danny Garcia is telling Thunders’ story in a loving documentary, Looking for Johnny. The film chronicles not only his life, but also the curious case surrounding his death. Curious because, although he struggled with heroin on and off over the years, when he died at 38 on April 23, 1991, in New Orleans, Thunders may not have died from a heroin overdose as had been widely expected and reported.
The film boasts ample footage of the gnome-like guitar god Johnny Thunders doing what he did best: channeling blues-based guitar rock into heartbreaking glimpses of what might have been. Released on DVD and digital in October, the film also has a companion soundtrack available on CD (remember those?) and a double LP on red vinyl.
Too much too soon? No. Not nearly enough.