Arms Around A Memory
The London premier of a new documentary on the life of Johnny Thunders “Looking For Johnny” attracted a full-house of Thunders acolytes including John Perry, Peter Perrett, Patti Palladin, Anita Pallenberg and Bobby Gillespie. Introducing the film at the Prince Charles cinema were Alan Hauser of Jungle Records and Danny Garcia, the film’s producer.
Danny’s fascination with Thunders goes back a long way. “I first came across Johnny Thunders in the ‘80s as a teenager living in Spain. I used to buy records compulsively, every day, go down to the record shop, spend my breakfast money on second-hand records. I came across a New York Dolls compilation Night Of The Living Dolls. I totally fell in love with Thunders sound and his music, from there I started collecting his albums. I only saw him live once with the Oddballs, and it was a great show.”
Garcia’s motivation to make Looking For Johnny was to move the focus away from Thunders junkie lifestyle and focus on his many musical talents. “I just wanted to show that Johnny was a great songwriter / entertainer / musician who had some substance abuse problems. What interested me was the music, always. The film is called Looking For Johnny because I never met him so I’m just trying to find out about him, who was this guy: his music and his songs and what’s going on in his head. I was interested in looking at his musical talent, explaining where that came from, understanding why his guitar sounded the way it did.” Thunders private life is also included where relevant. Thunders’ Father walked out on the family when Johnny was a small boy which goes some way to explain his relationship with New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan “He was always looking for that father / elder brother figure and Jerry took that role. They were brothers-in-arms, they loved each other. “
The movie is structured around fifty specially recorded interviews, interspersed with live footage taken from throughout Thunders career. Notable absentees are David Johansen, Richard Hell and Patti Palladin, none of whom replied to Danny’s emails. The conversation at the Phoenix Club after the screening was whether there should have been more music and less talking. Danny is unrepentant. “There are plenty of live Thunders shows on video and YouTube. This is a documentary about his life, if we had put in more live footage it would have been over two hours long. A lot of the live footage like the Don Letts material is only twenty seconds long, that’s all I could use. The Heartbreakers performing Get Off The Phone and Can’t Keep My Eyes On You – that’s newly unearthed footage, never seen before.”
Why make a film about Thunders today? “I am doing this now because in twenty years I won’t be able to. It was very important that I got to film Leee Black Childers and Marty Thau before they passed away. The number of musicians influenced by JT is humungous. Steve Jones, the ‘punk guitar sound’, all those ‘80s LA Hair Metal bands with their Thunders lookalikes. We know this, maybe the mainstream doesn’t but in a hundred years time people will know where it all came from. I loved every minute of doing this film. I’ve been to many places that I would never have dreamed I would visit, meeting wonderful people everywhere I go – I owe a lot to Johnny Thunders.”
“There is so much information online now that kids are kind of lost. It used to be that you read an interview and it would make you think. People who had something to say and who were rebelling against the system, Now there is more reason to rebel against the system than ever and there’s nothing going on, everyone is content, everyone has their high band internet connection and doesn’t give a fuck about anything. There is no-one around today who can have the same impact as Johnny Thunders. I don’t see icons, like Thunders or Joe Strummer or Ian Dury, people with the attitude “Here we are, this is how we are, fuck you if you don’t like it.”
Danny cites Nina Antonia as being crucial to the success of Looking For Johnny. “She knows everything. She was very supportive from day one so I am really thankful to her.” Nina was at the screening, and found it “quite an emotional experience; not just for the loss of dear friends but also it stands as a testament to a rock n’ roll generation. After the screening I did a Garbo and went home with my memories. Danny’s documentary ensures Thunders and Nolan’s musical legacy and conveys their story to a wider audience who may not have been there the first time around.”
Further evidence of renewed interest in Thunders is the news that Nina’s official biography In Cold Blood will form the basis of a forthcoming biopic with the working title of ‘The Dangerous Life of Johnny Thunders’ . “We couldn’t call it ‘In Cold Blood’ because of the Truman Capote adaptation. There have been many previous approaches from film companies to adapt the book for a biopic but LAMF Films, who are a Hollywood independent headed up by Thunders aficionado, had the aesthetics that are so important to such a project. I’m a consultant on the film and it’s taken the best part of a year to get the script completed, now the big question is who is going to play JT?”
Jungle Records has a long history of releasing material that enhances Thunders’ reputation, such as Looking For Johnny. After the screening Alan Hauser reflected that “it was very strange to see it up there, after all this time. Danny first approached us in 2010, once he started in 2012 he planned to finish it by the end of that year, but kept finding people and things to add to it. Danny is great; he has a lot of energy and a vision of what he wants to do. Generally he gets it all done. And he already had detailed knowledge of Johnny’s life.”
The forthcoming DVD will feature extra material, still to be decided. “Danny knows better than me – all he’s confirmed to me is that there’ll be more of his interview footage and at least three full music clips. The full versions of ‘Alone In A Crowd’, ‘All By Myself’, and a video promo of Stevie Klasson’s ‘Looking For Johnny’ title-track song. The DVD will be released, along with a soundtrack album, by Jungle in Europe, and MVD in North America.’ And there is more Thunders to come from Jungle. “There is another release that had to be postponed to avoid clashing with the film which we can’t announce just yet. There’s certainly ebbs and flows of interest in Johnny. We try to do our best to create interest with the catalogue we hold, like the box set version of ‘L.A.M.F.’ As time goes on the original audience may be more inclined towards nostalgia. I realise at this distance he becomes almost a mythological figure. Presenting the history of Johnny’s life is a responsibility we take seriously.”
Also at the Prince Charles was long-term Thunders fan Pedro Mercedes “A mutual friend introduced us whilst John was spending a week in London just taking a break. At that juncture Johnny was in an exceptionally great place, at ease with himself, relatively clean, and such mischievous fun to hang out with you just would not believe me. Johnny had no idea that I knew who he was, we just clicked initially thanks to a shared obsession with Scorsese films and the Stones, and for that week there was no reason for him to know he was my ‘hero’. At the time I co-promoted a club night called ‘The Pipeline’ located in a Soho basement club called Gossips. Six months after we met I asked Johnny if he’d do a short acoustic set at the club, which he agreed to do as a favour for chump change. I got the feeling he felt a bit awkward having to be ‘Johnny Thunders’ when I’d been around his carefree ‘John’ persona.”
Pedro has a new Thunders-related project, Remarquable Records. “Throughout the ‘80s I was amongst those who helped Alan Hauser with his various LAMF reissues – it remains my favourite album of all time. Around four years ago I found loads of Johnny stuff from ’78 which I had not looked at or listened to in decades. As soon as I checked them out I found myself as electrified as when I first heard them. If I rewind back to 1979, I was a frequent visitor to Real Records, on Floral Street, in Covent Garden, my favourite record label offices and the label that released Thunders first and best solo LP So Alone. Wendy Dancey worked there for label boss Dave Hill, and she always entertained me and was very sweet. I would have a hundred questions about Johnny, and the Pretenders – around that time they had a residency at the Marquee and I thought they were the best new band in the land. Wendy would give me promo stuff and I would see Dave Hill doing business and looking dapper, it was a really cool place. Members of the Pretenders would drop in and when they’d go to the States with the band they always brought back Thunders gig posters or somesuch for me which was just brilliant.”
“Around the time I had met Johnny, Real were in the throws of calling it a day from their offices in Broadwick Street, I was living round the corner in Wardour Street. One day when they were packing up I hounded Dave into submission and he let me hear some Johnny outtakes from ‘So Alone’ from the reels lying around his shelves. WOW! There were things I had never heard before. Whilst Dave lectured me in a fatherly way about being doe-eyed about Johnny, with stories of how Johnny had fallen over mid-take at sessions etc I really didn’t hear him. The tapes Iheard were incredible – different mixes with even more guitar licks and outtakes like ‘The Wizard’ and ‘So Alone’. When Johnny died his sister and her manager got in touch with me and I tracked down both those tracks for inclusion on the CD issue of ‘So Alone’. “
Remarquable’s first release will be previously-unheard Thunders studio tracks. “With the help of Bucks Music I contacted the people who had recorded with Johnny in 1978: Paul Gray, Steve Nicol, Dave Philp and Steve Lillywhite have all just been amazingly supportive with their time and recollections. Phil Lynott’s mate Paul Mauger pointed me in the direction of the particular tape that has the tracks on the first EP that’s coming out. By coincidence Bucks Music were formerly Essex Music, and the Heartbreakers’ first recording session in England took place in their company office basement studio in February 1977 – Leee Black Childers has photos from the session, with the band alongside Chris Stamp. “
“ ‘Never meet your heroes’ is the usual word to the wise, but I could not be happier that I did, it was just at the right time and in the right place for both of us. Johnny’s legacy orbits around the cliché that he incessantly turned people onto Stuff. I was no exception in that case, he turned me onto fresh rainbow trout. I’d never eaten freshly cooked fish until the day Johnny took me to lunch. I’ve never quite kicked the habit ever since. How rock’n’roll !”
Jungle Records will be releasing Looking For Johnny on DVD ( www.jungle-records.net).
The Thunders 1978 EP is due in August ( www.remarquablerecords.com).
Nina Antonia’s latest book is a new volume of Pete Doherty’s diaries entitled “From Albion To Shangri La” ( www.thinmanpress.com )