Johnny Thunders: The Mysterious Death Behind The New York Dolls & Heartbreakers Musician

The Mysterious Death of Johnny Thunders

Today on Rock N’ Roll True Stories they take a look at the mysterious death of Johnny Thunders who was famously a member and founder of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers.

What’s going on my fellow rock n’ rollers. Don’t forget to hit the bell notification icon to be notified every time i put out a new video on my channel. To a lot of people guitarist Johnny Thunders was the first punk rock guitar hero –  a member of the the New York Dolls in the early seventies – an almost mythological band  in the world of punk and glam rock. Thunders would be born in New York in 1952 and his stage name was inspired by a comic book character who first appeared in Flash Comic’s 1940 first issue called Johnny Thunder

In the twenty some years between his breakout as the New York Doll’s guitarist, and his mysterious death in April of 1991, he influenced countless artists and would be immortalized forever in the Guns N’ Roses song “So Fine”.

So, how did he end up dead at the young age of 38, alone, in New Orleans? Stay tuned to find out

Prior to becoming Johnny Thunders, he would be born with the name John Anthony Gonzalay Jr. Thunders wouldn’t have a father in his life and would be raised by his mother and sister and it would be the absence of a father that would help him channel his anger into rock n’ roll. it would also be that lack of a father figure that would wreak havoc on his personal life.

He would come to idolize Rolling Stone’s guitarist Keith Richards.

And By the age of 16 Thunders would take up the bass guitar and would start attending shows of the bands like the Who, and Small Faces and even rubbed elbows with the big rockstars at the time including Rod Stewart who he drank beer with backstage at the Newport Folk Festival.

By age 17 Thunders would latch onto the Detroit Music scene and  His childhood friend Gail Higgins remembered “We would drive eight hours to see the MC5 or The Stooges,”It was around this time that Thunders quit bass and picked up guitar. “Whenever he was practising, I used to yell into the bedroom: ‘Give up, Johnny’,”

Given the look of the New York Dolls, Thunders never blended into the crowd – he would frequently borrow his girlfriend’s clothes. His former bandmate from the band the Heartbreakers Walker Lure rememberd “He had high-heeled boots, velvet jackets and pants, bowling gear,” “I’d see him at all the shows – mostly the British bands, as opposed to the Grateful Deads and Jefferson Airplanes – so I’d seen him around for years. Then when the Dolls started happening I said: ‘Holy! There’s that guy.’”

The story of the New York Dolls began in the early 70’s in the East Village of New York with the original lineup consisting of vocalist David Johansen , guitarist Johnny Thunders, bassist Arthur Kane, drummer Billy Murcia and pianist Sylvein Sylvein. Some of the band members were already familiar with one another prior to the formation of the Dolls as they played with each other in various bands and The band quickly got noticed with their look. They had big hair, wore silk scarfs and dressed like women.In fact sometimes they got mistaken for women.

Fashion aside, The band quickly got noticed and would find themselves playing at Wembley Stadium in London, England supporting the faces a year later, but during that trip Tragedy would strike as drummer Billy Murcia die due to an accidental drowning during a party.

Johnny Thunders friend Gail Higgins would remember: “Johnny was devastated. He was the closest with Billy and it really upset him. Johnny was very sensitive and loving, very needy and very insecure.”

To some Billy’s death spelled the end of the dolls even though they would continue until 1976. According to Leee Black Childers who helped managed David Bowie’s career , the manager would introduce the band to new drummer Jerry Nolan who would have a devastating impact on the group. Due to his seniority in age to the guitarist he would contribute to Thunders getting hooked on drugs with the manager remembering

“Johnny and Jerry were one of the great unrequited love affairs. They fought like lovers, broke up like lovers, reunited like lovers. Jerry would manipulate Johnny, making him crazy, then Johnny would break down in tears and Jerry would storm off, and Johnny would lay in my lap crying: ‘Where’s Jerry? I can’t live without him, I can’t work without him, I can’t be without him.’ That sounds like lovers to me.” he’d say

Not helping the relationship was that Nolan was an avid smack user and while Thunders dabbled in the drug prior to Nolan’s arrival, it would be Nolan who helped make Thunders a bigger follower of the drug. People around Thunders would claim he started taking smack to remove his shyness as this would be confirmed by Thunders Heartbreakers bandmate bassist Billy Rath. But as you would expect it also had it’s side effects with Sylvain Sylvain claiming that the drug also made Thunders volatile and aggressive for no reason.

As the years went on, Thunders and Nolan became less and less reliable with vocalist David YoJansen remembering how the pair bailed on the dolls  while they were in Florida in 1975 with the singer remembering  “The problem with addiction] is that a person in that condition has to have their medicine available. So it limits one’s mobility, not to mention the myriad other things it limits. So you can’t travel freely, because you have to be looked after in that department.”

Following the drama that unfolded in Florida, Thunders and Nolan were out of the Dolls with new stand ins to finish off their touring commitments. Thunders and Nolan would form the new band The Heartbreakers with bassist Richard Hell who played in a band called Television who toured with The Dolls and vocalist Walter Lure The band struggled though to get any attention from labels given Thunders and Nolan’s reputation. But across the pond The Heartbreakers got the attention they were craving as Malcolm McLaren who managed the Sex Pistols offered an opening slot supporting the band. The Heartbreakers agreed and would arrive in UK in December 1976 of  Also on the bill was the Clash and the Damned and this tour would be known as the Anarchy Tour.

It was funny though that the day the Heartbreakers arrived in the UK the Pistols appeared on the Bill Grundy’s show for their now infamous Today appearance which saw them use profanity on live TV. Following that appearance the Pistols made the front pages of the newspapers and offended countless viewers resulting in a majority of their tour being cancelled., but the Hearbreakers soldiered on with whatever gigs were left.

Leee Black Childers who had come to manage the band at this point recalling. “We were freezing,. “The Heartbreakers, Sex Pistols and Clash on this rickety old bus. Johnny couldn’t care less, he’s laughing, carrying on. He kept the spirits up on the bus. It was like the old days of vaudeville – the show must go on.” he’d remember

Thunders drug addiction only worsened with time. Also further complicating matters was that Thunders would soon be married by August of 1977 to a women named Julie Jordan who had a son from a previous relationship and was indulging in the same extracurricular activities as Thunders.. Thunders figured if he had a family it would make him happy, but his insistance to have his wife around all the time created animosity with the rest of his band

Having made  little money after the Anarchy tour was completed, the band considered going back to New York, but their manager, convinced them to stay in England, thinking they would have a bigger career across the pond..Their prayers would be answered as Track Records offered the Heartbreakers a recording contract after several shows in the UK.

Throughout most of 1977  the Heartbreakers would call London their home and record their lone album L.A.M.F. The record was hampered by mixing issues that lasted months and months and ultimately forced the demise of the band with the band’s manager remembering

“That mix can be completely laid at the door of Jerry Nolan.” “He went into this kind of control freak thing where he had to mix it. But everyone was stoned. Walking into the studio was like walking into a crack house. I should have gotten a gun and shot a couple of them dead.” he’d remember

Walter Lure of the Heartbreakers remembered the record label pressures with the album saying: “We were told we needed to release it in time for Christmas because they needed to make some money. So they just put us in a room and said if it doesn’t get released you’re not gonna have a contract. Johnny, Billy and I said yeah; Jerry said no, he was leaving, and just walked out.”

Nolan would form his own band the Idols which would make a name for themselves back home in New York. The Heartbreakers meanwhile limped along but Thunders was devastated by Nolan’s departure.\\

The Heartbreakers would be done by 1980 but would sporadically reform and perform shows together until 1990. And following the breakup of the band Thunders would remain in London and release a series of solo records featuring a whose who of  the UK punk rock scene with his first being So Alone in 1978.  He would eventually find his way back to the US and hook up with one of his idol’s MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer to form the shortlived project Gang War with kramer remembering

Kramer: “Johnny was impossible to work with because he had another job that was more important. It’s the way addiction works – you can’t do anything until you cop. I thought I could fix it. And of course I can’t fix anyone but Wayne. And I can hardly even fix Wayne by myself.”

The group would release  a series of demos and play a handful of shows but that was it.

Adding to Johnny’s stress in his life was that his wife Julie would leave him with his children whom he would never see them again.

Things only worsened for thunders by the 80’s as he shared the same management with Aerosmith with guitarist Joe Perry remembering

He was walking death Every time I ran into him he was desperately trying to get from hour to hour. You’d hear that he’d tried to clean up and then he’d be back living on the street again.”

But something profound finally happened for Thunders. He seemed to find a new father figure in German Entrepreneur Christopher Giercke (Geerka). He would meet Thunders in 1981 and helped him rebuild his shattered life. It was also around this time that a new woman found her way into Johnny’s life a Swedish hairdresser named Susanne Blomqvist.

By 1986 Thunders seemed to turn his life around and repaired some of the fractured relationships in his life and soon enough Thunders was offering  words of advice to other musicians stuck in the grip of addiction. By 1987 Thunders would get a second chance at being a father with the birth of Jamie Gazale, but something was wrong. The mother to his new child remembered

“When Jamie was born I could feel that he didn’t want to get too close to her. He was very proud, and he took care of her, but at the same time I could see that he was scared to be a parent again… scared of hurting her. He couldn’t stand the thought that we weren’t going to get old together, as a family. He didn’t want to repeat the same thing his father did to him.”

Shortly after his daughter’s birth Johnny Thunders had been diagnosed with leukaemia with Blomqvist remembering “We separated when Jamie was one-and-a-half years old, and he moved back to New York. I drove him out to the airport, we said goodbye, and I knew I was never going to see him again. He went to see a doctor once and they took some tests, and something changed. I said: ‘Something is not okay with you.’ He said: ‘Oh, it was okay, it was nothing.’

“But then he started behaving in a way that made him unbearable to have around. He wasn’t hurting me or anything like that, he just wasn’t the homey guy any more – the guy who wants to cook the chicken soup, or go and rent a film… He was showing me less and less of John, and resorting to Johnny Thunders.

Thunders wouldn’t let that life altering diagnosis change his musical ambitions. Thunders toured in the last year of his life with the band the Oddballs and In the spring of ’91 wound up in New Orleans to record a new album but things didn’t pan out that way.

He was found dead in room 37 of St. Peter House, New Orleans on the afternoon of April 23, 1991. He was just 38 years old. The Coroner’s report claimed the cause of death was drug related as methadone and coke was found in his system, but many people have expressed doubts over this conclusion. Some think foul play was involved while others believed Thunders may have  succumbed to cancer.

There were conflicting reports over what was found in his room. The police supposedly found methadone and coke in his croom, but thunders manager at the time mick webster claimed there was no trace of methadone or any other drugs in his system.

The desk clerk who was working at the hotel the night that thunders check in claimed that thunders was “sweating and looked like a geisha girl.”

Thunders Manager also pointed out that the police failed to take into account several things: there were reports of several men coming to Thunders room the night before, his belongings including cash, his passport and his clothes being stolen as well. It would also turn out that the coroner who did the autopsy would be fired for falsifying a report in another case. There were other news reports that the level of substances in his system were not fatal.

According to his autobiography Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone was called by Stevie Klasson, Johnny’s rhythm guitar player. Ramone said, “They told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards… who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him.

And Singer Willy DeVille, who lived next door to the hotel where Thunders was found recalled the news saying

I don’t know how the word got out that I lived next door, but all of a sudden the phone started ringing and ringing. Rolling Stone was calling, the Village Voice called, his family called, and then his guitar player called. I felt bad for all of them. It was a tragic end, and I mean, he went out in a blaze of glory, ha ha ha, so I thought I might as well make it look real good, you know, out of respect, so I just told everybody that when Johnny died he was laying down on the floor with his guitar in his hands. I made that up. When he came out of the St. Peter Guest House, rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U shape. When you’re laying on the floor in a fetal position, doubled over – well, when the body bag came out, it

Danny Garcia wrote and directed the documetary “Looking for Johnny,” would tell punkglobe.com in a 2015 interview:

“He was a very ill man by the time he got to New Orleans, and I’m totally convinced that he died of natural causes. I read the other day somewhere he died of a methadone and coke overdose. That’s bs But since it’s still a mysterious drug-related death, and two guys that were with him when he died stole all his belongings, of course, people go for the sensationalistic theories before looking at the evidence. Murder sells more than dying of natural cause; that’s for sure.”

However Thunders sister would confirm that the autopsy found evidence of advanced luekemia. Thunders apparently knew about his cancer diagnosis, but kept it mostly to himself. His former bandmate drummer Jerry Nolan said he tried to get his bandmate and friend to see a doctor and claimed that Thunders had a medical phobia and refused to go to a hospital. Almost a year afer Thunders passed away his longtime friend Nolan would also pass.

In 1994 in an interview with melody maker, Thunders manager revealed that his family tried to get the new orleans police to reopen the investigation, but they have unwilling to do so. That does it for today’s video guys Thanks for watching be sure to hit the like and subscribe button and if you have suggestions for future topics let me know in the comments section below. Take care

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