Johnny Thunders. John, of all the people I knew at Max's, was the tracer out to now. He is the great story from Max's. The reason I guess I knew him. I mean sometimes I talk about being friends with some awesome star or other, and I have met many, even spent time with them, but for all those stars and legends, Johnny was a friend. I don't remember how long it was I knew him, probably a good part of my time at Max's. In that time I was his waiter. Johnny would get himself another tab with Tommy Dean, with some reluctance, probably more from Mike then from Tommy, because of the ever expanding debt Johnny owed Max's (but of course he made up for it several times in his presence and his playing there). It was undoubtedly the best place to see Johnny and I guess the large audiences for six performances of the Heartbreakers, Thursday through Saturday, probably knew that, since I never saw him sell out or have a great crowd except at Max's. So I'm sure it was a relatively easy burden to carry! He would demand in his own charming and very stoned way to have a brandy with coke on the side and please put some ice cream in the coke. I would sneak into the kitchen and steal Johnny a couple scoops of ice cream. He occasionally would try to sneak a free meal for a friend, too, like for Bob Gruen's wife who was at least financially outrÈ. Of course, after all the drama of an unpaid bill, My boss, the manager, a very suave fellow, stuff for a different chapter, casually signed off on it. The thing about John being my customer was I was the only willing waiter. Everybody else wanted no part of his idiosyncrasies/irritations. The way it was, I always got the crazies, I guess I could relate to them better or they didn't scare me as much or I was the only fool left after everybody else ignored them or something. I don't know. John wasn't exactly crazy but I guess many would look at his life, the way he led it or the way his outlandishly addictive behavior led him by his large Italian nose, and see him as, if not the devil's own, dweller in the underbelly of society, a threat to everything wholesome and holy, at least as being crazy and doing crazy things all the time. Aren't the crazy ones the ones who live on the streets, mumbling to themselves. Well, John never really had a home either, at least none I knew about. He would stay in various places, crashing at whatever bed was near. I don't know if he slept on the streets. I've known musicians who have, or at least in cars. And I don't recall him mumbling to himself, at least not in a way abnormal, but maybe him singing his sort of nasally, whiny rock 'n' roll and his whacko insulting audience repartee and his nasty little stories when doing 'So Alone' blew away the ghost he might have been chatting with down on the bowery or somewhere. Maybe he was demanding, but it never bothered me much. I enjoyed it.
I knew him outside of Max's, out of the public eye. I knew him in the morning when he was sober while he was pursuing the first high of the day. And he was one of the greatest people I ever knew. He was warm and funny and honest and gentle and kind. A great person. Of course he was a mess. He was fucked up. He would often get so fucked up he'd be blank out in the world. He wouldn't remember in the morning what he was doing then and there. He'd do really stupid things like getting himself beat up a couple times in Boston calling some African-Americans niggers or something. He'd get so fucked up that he couldn't play, not an unusual occurrence. He came in wasted one evening, a caste over his right hand, saying he slammed it in the door. What he'd done was to shoot up something or other into his wrist. I knew this cause I knew the person who was there and she told me. Maybe she didn't know any better and when John asked her to help him shoot up, he having no veins left to spare, the vein in the wrist proved too tempting or proved the only one left or she didn't know not to shoot it there or she did it too deep and viola the wrist in the caste. Whatever it was it was not one of the great performances of Johnny Thunders that night. But often enough John and the band would ROCK OUT. In that long narrow black space upstairs, the Heartbreakers tore up. They shook the walls with their brand of hard rocking hits, whether old tunes like 'Too Much Junky Business' or 'Do you Wanna Dance?' or 'Seven Day Weekend' or 'Great Big Kiss' or 'Pipeline', or fast drum bits like 'I Love You' or 'Pirate Love' or the classic punk hits 'Born To(o) Lo(o)se' and 'Chinese Rocks'. It was the Johnny of great and terrible performances, of his witty jousts with his audience and with Walter Lure every night (no matter how fucked up he was) of his dark mean, often misogynist stories that most people knew. They knew him backstage matching wits with the cynical Walter, blow for blow, and making fun or using them. There was a cruelty to his fame, but also a deviousness. He made use of what was available, and he needed to. He lived on it. But the John I knew sober, in the morning, not normal cause he was looking for the fix to make him normal, before that happy fix, was a distinctly different personality. Maybe he was crazy. Maybe he had a multiple personality. Maybe he had what another friend of mine was diagnosed with: Behavioral Drift wherein one would go from a warm and charming person to the complete opposite, a yelling, mean as a junkyard dog, louse. No probably not. I guess it was that alcoholic thing where the drug transforms one into a kind of beast. Johnny was never a beast, but he was more of one in his stoned and public persona than he was in the morning. John was a sweet man and I miss him.
Thru John I met some interesting people. I met his wife, a nervous waif who appeared in my apartment one evening sitting beside John. I had no idea what their relationship was. In the two or so years I knew him, that was the only time I met her. I still know nothing really about her. I do know they had a kid, who I saw walking with John down 1st Avenue, a beautiful sight. Despite the impossibility of the idea, there was always a naivetÈ somehow invoked by John, and there certainly was a childishness, but whatever there was, I guess the two of them together was a perfect vision. The vision may have been accentuated by John's undeniable charisma. Maybe the kid had some to. Now that I think of it, I don't know how much the people I encountered, the name dropping type people, were there because of John or just the interrelationship between Max's and the people working there both as fulltimers like myself and as performers like Johnny. I remember Keith Levene visiting a couple times during Public Image's tour thru the USA but that probably had more to do with quantities of drugs and a friend of a roommate who supplied him with those. Though Keith and John probably knew each other from John's extended visit to the UK, I don't recall him being there at the time. I may have copped some dope for John via James Chance and his wife Anya Phillips who was dying of cancer and was being kept numb by the drug. Again that may have been another person's connection.
Walter Lure was interesting. He was a chemical engineer of some kind, a brilliant kid, before turning away from a steady career to be a rocker. The mind always remained with Walter despite all the drugs it may have taken in. He was someone who was never out of control. Obviously for Walter the urge wasn't to forget so much as to maybe have some fun or to numb or to enjoy the plenty of the stuff which both John and Jerry Nolan were so often pursuing and obtaining. Like John, Walter always dressed well. Unlike John it was not about taste. He was always wearing jazzed up outfits, lots of colors and patterns. He would often wear a necktie directly around his neck and the necktie was polka dotted. With his flaming red hair and pale skin and height, he was a sight. He would call his outfits his clown suits. John, on the other hand was black and white with maybe a little gray. He wore black suit jackets sometimes embellished with appliquÈ, sometimes nearing unusual lengths like a subtle nudey suit, but more often just a gray/black suit jacket with a flouncey white shirt with extra white ruffles like some fancy tux shirt. Walter was the kind of guy with whom I could never feel comfortable or friendly. He seemed to be forever sharp as a tack. Not to say we didn't get along, we did. I know for sure one guy Walter enabled me to encounter, Jimmy Miller, the great producer of the Rolling Stones great late sixties/early seventies LPs, Beggar's Banquet and Exile On Main Street, and some of those great early Traffic LPs, too. He was a dark man, well acquainted with the shadows, large, with black hair and beard. He was producing some sessions for the Heartbreakers at the time, the results to be found at the beginning of the Too Much Junkie Business tape.
Jerry Nolan, John's drummer from the Dolls and off and on with the Heartbreakers, was also a unique character. He was suave and charming but mostly quiet. I remember him most personally when I got a ride out of the East Village in his girlfriend's black Vette. She was an exquisitely beautiful woman with classic beauty of the tall, brunette and well built type. She was beautiful as he was handsome. A strikingly good-looking blond. The Vette had been recently acquired from one of her John's. She was one of the highest priced call girls in NYC. I never got to know Jerry very well, but we'd hang out from time to time with John and Walter and some times Billy.
Billy Rath may have been the quietest of the four. He seemed a little on edge, even on stage. He seemed to grit his teeth while playing. Most remarkably he would stare out into the audience with large, dark, almost haunted eyes. Always expressionless. Offstage the humor would come out. He would enjoy a good laugh on occasion, but if he supplied the humor for it, it wasn't with the boys. Mostly he'd relax with his girlfriend who was also the cashier at the Max's restaurant. I can't remember her name, but I remember the name of the other cashier, Donna Destri. Like Jerry's friend, Donna had a classic dark beauty. She was the sister of Jimmy Destri, a pretty boy if there ever was one, the former keyboardist for Blondie. She had some talent as a singer as well, but she didn't gain much attention. I don't recall her doing too many gigs, which may explain her lack of success.
There are more stories generated by John during my time at Max's and in later years when I would say hi to him and he'd say hi right back. If you want more, I wrote an article on his death which you can see. There are a couple overlaps, but the writing is different.
Maybe I should mention the couple times I saw him here in Minneapolis. The first time he was playing with a couple of Rasta's during the Que Sara Sara LP period. John was real together and his guitar was sweet and bluesy. For some reason he wasn't dressed in his usual suave outfit but in what looked like pajamas. And he'd put on some pounds. It didn't look good. It was a good show though with not alot of audience. I hung out with him after. As a token of friendship I offered a joint. Meanwhile one of the two rasta was rolling up a big spliff. My joint looked like a pin. John of course was gracious. I asked him if I could roadie for him. He suggested I should be his doctor. He was making fun of me I'm sure. Either about my lack of ability for injections into him or my uptight, professorial manner, I don't know. When I ended up taking his then manager back to the hotel (I had probably overstayed my welcome and John had another agenda, probably having something to do with getting high) I suggested to that manager that with John getting more and better bluesy all the time, he should get booked at the caboose, a better club for that sort of thing. A couple years later, John played the caboose. It was one of his last shows, being the tour with the tall tight red dressed voluptuous woman who he claimed to be his wife. While playing the bar basketball game for free, popping the ball out of its cage to toss into the little net, I said hi. John seemed fairly glad to see me. I mentioned a name and he laughed. She was probably his supplier that night. Her son even played guitar with John on occasions. I don't recall him playing that night. It was not one of his better shows. His and hers 'Hit the road, Jack' was kind of fun, but they actually played 'Johnny B. Goode' a song, even though John learned alot from Chuck Berry, he would never stoop to play before. He was going through the motions, I thought, though I still enjoyed it. But! He did not look well. He was very thin and pasty in the face. Things had changed from the last time. Not surprising with John. He would often clean up for a few months and then he'd get back to town and take a hit as large as the last one he took before he cleaned up and he'd OD. You had to put him under cold water while he turned blue until he snapped out of it.
Which reminds me (and I thought I was going to have too little to say) of John's relationship with Wayne Kramer. Him and Wayne go way back (though Iím not sure how far back). I heard that when John wanted to get off the smack, he'd head out to Detroit and stay with some guy, some coke dealer, and just do coke for a few months. That's John's way of drying out. I am not positive of this, but I'm almost positive that it was Wayne who supplied the coke and the place to crash. I met Wayne a couple times when he and Johnny hit the road as Gang War. I really did enjoy the shows they performed together. Lots of good guitars and maybe not the greatest songs. It was always a cool show to see. That Gang War was one cool band.
It was undoubtedly one of the great times of my life when I knew Johnny Thunders. He was an incredible man. There's no way there can be anyone like him, and I think that's probably a good thing. If Max's was Rock 'n' roll, then J.T. was Max's. I love ya, John.
From The Johnny Thunders Cyber Lounge
Last modified: September 21, 1997
Managed by: Chris Ridpath