Born To Lose

Andrew Hultkrans on Looking for Johnny

Danny Garcia, Looking for Johnny, 2014, color, sound, 90 minutes.

“BEST REVERSE Keith Richards I’ve ever seen.” This is how Television’s Richard Lloyd, who knows something about the subject, describes the inverse trajectories of junk and (in)fame lived out by doomed New York Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders in Danny Garcia’s comprehensive new documentary Looking for Johnny (2014), the story of how a Richards manqué from Queens grew up to consume exponentially more heroin (with exponentially less money) than the smacked-out Stone while midwifing glam, punk, and hair metal simply by being himself.

While there are a million junkies in the naked city, there’s a reason why, beyond his mercurial musical talents, Thunders remains uniquely iconic: As the film reminds us, he was a strangely beautiful man—all nose, cheekbones, and bulging, soulful eyes, a love child of Adrien Brody and Thom Yorke—with an effortless, sui generis sense of style and charisma to burn. There’s also a touch of Robert Blake in Thunders—the moody, Brando-ish punk of In Cold Blood (1967) and the blanched-out, bug-eyed ghoul of Lost Highway (1997). Both compact men of Italian descent, Blake and Thunders were haunted by demons far larger than themselves and had thousand-yard stares to prove it.

Born John Genzale Jr. in 1952, Thunders was fatherless almost immediately, his rakish dad having left to pursue other women when he was still an infant. In the film, numerous friends, colleagues, and exes attribute the guitarist’s attention-seeking performativity, lost-boy persona, and retreat into the warm embrace of dope to this loss, which left him love-starved and rudderless for most of his life. He showed an early aptitude for baseball, and was encouraged by his high-school coach to cut his hair and aim for the major leagues. It being the ’60s and Johnny being Johnny, hair and music won out, first in the band the Reign, and later Actress, which with a few personnel changes became the absurdly influential New York Dolls, a foundational inspiration for such disparate acts as Kiss, the Sex Pistols, the Replacements, the Smiths, Mötley Crüe, and many others in between.

The Dolls were the talk of downtown New York in 1972 and 1973, with a residency at the Mercer Arts Center that established their reputation as an outrageous, shambolic live act and eventually earned them a deal with Mercury Records. With their trashy camp aesthetic and sloppy musicianship, the band polarized the industry and audiences, earning the titles of Best and Worst Band of the Year in a 1973 Creem magazine readers poll. In some ways they were the fulcrum point of ’70s rock, pointing a way out of the gilded bowels of prog with a focus on unhinged fun, attitude, and Brill Building songcraft—all propelled by Thunders’s unholy squalling on his Les Paul Junior, which one reviewer compared to the sound of a lawnmower.

Thunders was the perfect foil for frontman David Johansen’s draggy Jagger parody, out-Keefing Keith at his own game and amping it up to 11. While Richards was known to stand fairly still onstage at that point, Thunders was an electrified Muppet, likely an inspiration for Animal on Sesame Street, with his hair—the hair that launched a thousand rockers—extremely long, thick, and in his face, but also teased up tall and spiky on top. Surely this hairstyle could still be obtained at some junkie barber’s on Sunset Strip. Countless hard rock/metal bands from the area have availed themselves of it over the years. It’s actually embarrassing today to look at an early Dolls performance, with Johnny in full pomp, and then call up a Guns & Roses, Mötley Crüe, or Poison video from the ’80s. They all have Johnny’s hair, but none of his taste.

After two albums and several tours, the Dolls fell apart, drugs and egos having taken their toll, but not before Malcolm McLaren briefly got involved as their last manager, dressing them in red patent leather with a communist flag backdrop, sending them on a five-borough mini-tour, and taking notes for what would become the Sex Pistols. We have the Dolls to thank, indirectly, for Nancy Spungen, a fan who followed drummer Jerry Nolan to England but ended up with Sid Vicious instead. After the breakup, Thunders and Nolan hooked up with punk scenesters Richard Hell and Walter Lure to form the Heartbreakers, an even more shambolic group with a repertoire primarily concerned with heroin and failure. Hell’s ego soon clashed with Thunders’s, and the former left to form the Voidoids. He was replaced in the Heartbreakers by Billy Rath, and this quartet joined the legendary 1977 Anarchy Tour, playing on bills around the UK as punk godfathers of sorts with the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned.

By this point, Thunders was as infamous for his junk habit as he was famous for his music. While the Heartbreakers could be an exhilarating band on a good night, often at Max’s Kansas City, half the audience was there to see whether Johnny would keel over and expire onstage, mid-lick. A Replacements song from their debut LP in 1981 captured this period succinctly: “Johnny’s Gonna Die.” Thunders craved the audience’s love, and he wanted them to love his music, but he had become a freak show of his own devising, a sad spectacle, more of a “candle in the wind” than Marilyn Monroe could ever be, with less light and more wind.

This would go on, to varying degrees, for the rest of his relatively short life. He lived in England, Paris, and for years, Sweden, where he married and had children. He made several solo records, toured sporadically, usually when he needed money, and even dabbled in reggae and acoustic singer-songwriter material (Bob Dylan has said that he wished he’d written “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” the best of Thunders’s “quiet” songs).

He died in New Orleans in suspicious circumstances. Found under a table in his hotel room, which had been ransacked and his possessions stolen, his body was contorted like a pretzel from rigor mortis. While there were traces of methadone and other substances in his system, it wasn’t enough to kill a toxic waste dump like Johnny Thunders. The New Orleans police closed the books on the case without investigation, despite the periodic efforts of his sister and others. They suspect he was murdered and rolled for money by some local drug kids. “Nobody knows who I am,” Thunders says quietly but purposefully in a relatively early post-Dolls interview cut into Looking for Johnny. He may not have known himself. But by presenting Thunders’s living social network in cinematic form, as Garcia has done here, the film leaves us with a finely detailed matrix of a fragile, fatherless man who in some small way changed the world.

Looking for Johnny is currently playing various film festivals and venues worldwide.