Johnny Thunders would have turned sixty years old today. In tribute to one of my major musical heroes, I am re-posting this look at his greatest album that I wrote in the early days of Moon in the Gutter.
Memory is a strange thing, specifically what we remember. I have over 3,000 records and cds. I've been collecting, passionately, since I was in my early teens. I have had girlfriends that I can't even remotely remember anything about but I can pretty much pull any of my records, or discs out, and recall not only where where I got them but what was going on in my life at the time. I couldn't tell you what I was doing last week but I could tell you my first 45 was Blondie's "The Tide Is High" and that my first lp was Elvis Gold Records Vol. 5. I mention this because, even though I remember these things clearly, certain albums seem to be almost part of my DNA...while I remember the first time with them, I can't imagine ever really being without them.
I found Johnny Thunders then out of print solo debut, SO ALONE, on vinyl in a tiny Manhattan record store in 1992. I had discovered JT at the perfect age of 16 when I bought the first New York Dolls record and even though his guitar playing had been copied a million times over at that point there was still a freshness and raw energy that made it totally unique and unbelievably compelling to me.
Southern Indiana in the late 80s early 90s was not the most ideal spot for finding Johnny Thunders solo records; so for several years it was just those Doll sides, some scattered live recordings and articles that I found in old music magazines.
I'll never forget getting the news that JT had died my senior year of high school. My friend Ryan coming into the cafeteria and simply saying, 'Johnny died'.
A year or so later my father took me up to Queens to see Johnny's grave, by that point Jerry Nolan was gone also and the groundskeeper was very helpful in helping us locating both markers. Johnny's grave was covered with stuff fans had brought...I added a pack of Lucky Strikes..
It was on that same visit that I found SO ALONE, a near mint original British pressing with the insert sleeve. The original Rolling Stone review was entitled 'The Promise Of Rock and Roll' and all these years later that still seems fitting. It's not only one of the great rock albums but it's an album that's in love with the idea of rock itself. It's because of this record that when I think of Johnny I don't think of drugs, his early death or any of that shit, I just think of the passion and humanity that he injects on SO ALONE'S 10 tracks. Humanity might seem an odd word to use in describing Johnny but like the line goes in "Great Big Kiss", "Bad but not evil". Hell, even the notorious Sex Pistols put down "London Boys" has a certain honor to it...like a kid talking trash on the playground because he's been insulted in front of his friends.
The album open with what sounds like a call to arms with Thunders storming version of the classic instrumental "Pipeline". What other 'punk' album would have worn it's heart on its sleeve so much? Johnny on this album right up to his final work COPYCATS would always, at heart, be that kid who grew up listening to rock in the 50s and 60s. One of the main things that always separated the New York punk scene from the British one was New York's willingness to tip their hat to what had inspired them. A lot of the British bands from the time seemed to take this holier than thou attitude that they were doing something new, when of course they had all been influenced by the same stuff the NY scene had. While Joe Strummer was singing 'No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones' Patti Smith was covering "Jailhouse Rock" and Richard Hell was doing "Ventilator Blues". It all works out though, and the influences that punk carried are more and more known. I think it might even get to the point where I can say no one was more punk than Elvis in '55 or The Who in '66 and not be looked at like I was crazy.
SO ALONE includes a mixture of covers, originals and a few older redone Dolls tracks and yet it feels completely cohesive. "You Can't Put Your Arm Around A Memory" is the most famous and probably rightly so, but listen to the way he sings David Johansen's incredible lyrics to "Subway Train" or that cover of the Otis Blackwell penned "Daddy Rolling Stone". It sounds like a greatest hits album to me and if the closing late period Dolls track "Downtown" doesn't make you miss what used to be New York City, nothing will.
A lot has been written about Johnny Thunders, highly recommended is Nina Antonia's bio 'In Cold Blood' (plus her work on The Dolls) and books like 'From The Velvets to The Voidoids' and 'Please Kill Me' are essential. For newcomers, I would recommend three things over any of those: The first Dolls album, SO ALONE and an essay Richard Hell wrote after Johnny died called 'Johnny Thunders and The Endless Party'. It's available in Hell's must have 'Hot and Cold' book. There isn't a finer piece of writing on a rocker that's ever been written. The most famous quote comes when Hell describes him as the 'the rock and roll Dean Martin of Heroin' which is of course dead on but it's his description of Thunders as a guy who wanted to be 'as good as Frank Sinatra and Elvis' that really gets me. After reading that I saw that guy staring at me from that isolated corner on the cover of SO ALONE differently. He was no longer that doomed rock and roll loser that everyone is so quick to cast him off as. He was just a kid who grew up wishing he could wear a great suit, play music that he loved so much and be as good as good ever got. Through the ten tracks on SO ALONE Johnny Thunders got his wish.