JT died in a hotel room in New Orleans on April 23, 1991.
Appropriate as hell. His world famous syringe was found floating in the tank of the toilet. A bottle of methadone was nearby, somehow connected with the suspicious circumstances, but I don't know how. I don't know the details, but sleazy characters and their sleazy drugs are suspect. All to be expected.
New Orleans. He planned to stay. Maybe his ghost remains. His body is forever in NYC, of course, but the ghost of this persona of the drugs and rock 'n roll axis remains in the city of death. Remember: the city's second most famous ceremony is the jazz funeral, and its tombs float above the ground. The city spawned jazz and rock before sending it from the Mississippi River's last great muddy moments, from those myriad skeletal fingers, up river to Kansas City, St. Louis and Chicago, across land to L.A. and NYC.
JT played rock 'n roll at its source, but, like all centers or beginnings, like NYC and New Orleans, the dirt of experience, the entropy, the age, the decay was clear as hell. JT respected little. He respected the source of his music and its decay.
Everything about his death was appropriate except perhaps for its delay. Westerburg had to wait ten years before his prediction came true. Too fucking bad. JT made it to 38.
I knew JT. He was John to me. I was his waiter at Max's Kansas City for over a year. No other waiter could take him. He was definitively obnoxious unless you didn't give a shit about the frequency or illegitimacy of his demands. I didn't. I enjoyed the irreverence. He wanted a coke float with brandy mixed in, and I dared to enter the forbidden kitchen to steal two scoops of vanilla.
The most memorable occasion I had as his waiter was when John was allowed to charge some food. Usually he was way over his limit with the Deans, Max's owners. That day they must have been in an easy mood. Some kind of deal probably. Maybe that great live album. Anyway he was surrounded by an extensive entourage sitting at the famous round table in Max's famous back room (where Warhol stood court over his entourage more than ten years before). A particularly stoned out John (he must have come into some money, probably from the Deans) had ordered the stuffed flounder. After I had placed it before him, I watched as John slowly, at the rate of a heart beat, descended in a heroin nod nose first into the stuffing of the fish. Meanwhile he was responding to my questions. Remarkable. No matter how fucked up, John listened and responded.
These were the times, the late seventies, when the Heartbreakers played an endless string of final gigs. Often they were some of the best rock 'n roll shows I have ever seen. I would sneak upstairs (John always provoked the worst in me) and catch a portion. As rocking as some shows were, others were incredibly bad. It was always a matter of John's coherence. One night he came late (as usual) into the restaurant with a shoddy bandage over an elephantine wrist, claiming he'd been to Bellevue because he'd slammed his wrist in a door. In John's case, using the wrist for a shot was probable cause. Well, you know the show biz cliché. John stood wasted on stage. The guitar slung around him was unplayable, a prop, as he sang like a Bowery wino and badgered the audience incoherently. Terrible.
Those are the images most remembered: John's fuck-ups. Images which often brought audiences hoping to catch the show where he keels over dead. The same reason people watch those cars zoom 5000 times around an oval track. Except the shows were exciting. And the end was the worst part. Heartbreakers' shows always fell apart at the end like an old junker revved up only to sigh and whimper into oblivion.
When John was there to play, Heartbreakers shows were visceral and magnetic. John, Walter Lure, Billy Rath and whoever was drumming, especially if it was Jerry Nolan, pounded out quintessential rock 'n roll saturated with corruption. Intense, straight ahead rock with an attitude was the lesson John gave to punk culture through the Heartbreakers and the Dolls. The sound perfectly fit the black walls and the cool crowd. And we were all transfixed by them. Each musician had the clearest distinction of character. And John was at the center, exuding a short, long nosed, heavy eyed charisma as thick as the tone of his whining guitar solos. And he always looked sharp: black suit jacket, fluffy white dress shirt and Western bow tie. And on his guitar, his logo "LAMF". "Like a Motherfucker". That was the Heartbreakers. That was John.
John could be a terror. He could stomp and squeal like a baby until the Deans paid him an advance to quiet the spoiled brat. He could use the awed entourage for a door mat or squeeze them of anything he wanted. He hated being fawned over and had no respect for any fawning prey. I gained his respect when I came home a couple mornings and found him, uninvited, sleeping in my bed. It may have been cold of me, I don't know, but when I kicked him out, he became my friend.
Though I may not have been as close as many in his life, through my friendship I was able to see John in fullest light. I saw him sober in morning light. I found him warm and charming. John was a beast backstage with a whip-like tongue, often jousting with the savage, cutting wit of Walter. But in the morning he was sweet, with a true kindness. Those intimate, quotidian moments are why I have kept John's memory alive in my mind. Of all the musician friends I met through working at Max's, or in the years since, it is John who is closest to my heart. He's a legend. He deserves it. His soul was huge. Listen to his voice and his guitar and tell me I'm wrong.
Appropriately like an American myth, they say he died with his guitar in his hand. I don't know. He was great with it and without it. And whatever the truth is, he's got the guitar. Let him have the guitar.
Last thought: Midday on 1st Avenue in the East Village. John walks downtown hand in hand with John Jr. They are peaceful, innocent, cloud-like in their matching ice cream suits.
From The Johnny Thunders Cyber Lounge
Last modified: September 21, 1997
Managed by: Chris Ridpath