Johnny Thunders

Johnny Thunders, born John Anthony Genzale, Jr. (July 15, 1952 - April 23, 1991), was an Italian American rock and roll guitarist, singer and songwriter.

Though he disapproved of the term "punk rock", Thunders is widely recognized as a foundational influence on the genre, particularly for his penetrating guitar sound. ranked him #2 in its "Punk Rock's 10 Mightiest Guitar Gods" list.

He came to prominence in the early '70s as a member of the New York Dolls, and afterwards became a familiar figure in the New York punk scene, both with The Heartbreakers and as a solo artist.

Thunders struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and died under mysterious circumstances.


Early life and career

Genzale was born July 15, 1952, and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, in a second generation Italian family. As a boy he played baseball but could not join the Little League as it required the presence of the youth's father.

Under the name "Johnny Volume", Genzale began performing music at Quintano High School with "Johnny and the Jaywalkers".

In 1968 he started going to the Fillmore East on weekends and later a West Village bar on Bleecker Street, Nobodys. He got a job as a salesclerk at Da Nazz leather shop on Bleecker. It was on Bleecker Street that he met future Dolls Arthur Kane and Billy Murcia. He joined their band, "Actress", which eventually became the New York Dolls when David Johannsen and Sylvain Sylvain joined in 1971. At this time John Genzale renamed himself Johnny Thunders, after a comic book of the same name.

They recorded two critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums, The New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon. The band was managed, for a short time, by Malcolm McLaren and was an inspiration for the Sex Pistols.

In 1975 the original line-up for the Dolls broke up. Their early recordings are still in print today and continue to influence young bands with their trash/glam/punk attitude.

Post-New York Dolls

He formed The Heartbreakers with Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan, and Television bassist Richard Hell. Ex-Demons guitarist Walter Lure was soon added. After Hell unsuccessfully tried to usurp Johnny's place as lead singer, he left to form Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Hell was replaced by Billy Rath.

With Thunders leading the band, the Heartbreakers toured America and Britain, releasing one official album, L.A.M.F., in 1977. The group relocated to the UK, where their popularity was significantly greater than it was in the U.S., particularly among punk bands.

In late 1979 Thunders began performing in a band called Gang War. Other members included John Morgan, Ron Cooke, Philippe Marcade and former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. They recorded several demos and performed live several times before disbanding, with Zodiac Records releasing an EP in 1987. Bootlegs of their demos and live performances are circulating; One semi-official live/studio vinyl only LP was released on Zodiac in 1990, credited to Thunders and Kramer and titled Gang War.

Thunders recorded a number of solo albums beginning with So Alone in 1978. The notoriously drug-fueled recording sessions featured a core band of Thunders, bassist Phil Lynott, drummer Paul Cook, and guitarist Steve Jones, with guest appearances from Chrissie Hynde, Steve Marriott, Walter Lure, Billy Rath, and Peter Perrett of The Only Ones. After its release, Thunders and Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious played in the Living Dead for a short time. The CD version of the album contains four bonus tracks, including the single "Dead or Alive".

During the early 1980s, Thunders re-formed The Heartbreakers for various tours; the group recorded their final album in 1984.

In 1985, he released Que Sera Sera, a collection of new songs that showed he could still perform convincingly. Three years later he recorded Copy Cats, an album of rock and R&B covers with vocalist Patti Palladin.

Thunders kept performing and recording until his death in 1991, but problems with heroin addiction kept his output and song writing sporadic during the 1980s. These bands would be formed ad hoc, using Jerry Nolan as a mainstay.

His final recording was a cover of "Born to Lose" with German punk rock band Die Toten Hosen, recorded 36 hours before his death.


Many rumors surround Thunders' death at the St. Peter House in New Orleans, Louisiana in April 1991. He apparently died of drug-related causes, but it has been speculated that it was the result of foul play. According to the autobiography Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone took a call in New York the next day from Stevie Klasson, Johnny's rhythm guitar player. "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. He had gotten a pretty large supply of methadone in England, so he could travel and stay away from those creeps - the drug dealers, Thunders imitators, and losers like that.

What is known for certain is that Johnny's room (no. 37) was ransacked and most of his possessions were missing (passport, makeup, clothes). Rigor mortis had set in with his body positioned in an unnatural state, described by eyewitnesses as "like a pretzel", underneath a coffee table. Friends and acquaintances acknowledge he had not been using heroin for some time, relying on his methadone prescriptions. The police did not open a criminal investigation.

Singer Willy DeVille, who lived next door to the hotel in which Thunders died, described his death this way:

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's 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 was in a U. It was pretty awful.

An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, but served only to compound the mysteries. According to Thunders' biographer Nina Antonia as posted on the Jungle Records web site, the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. And according to the book "Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon" by Pamela Des Barres who interviewed Thunders' sister Marion, the autopsy confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which would explain the decline in Thunders' appearance in the final year of his life. This also sheds light on the interview in Lech Kowalski's documentary "Born To Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie", where Thunders' sister Mary-Ann's husband says, "Only Johnny knew how sick he really was."

In a 1994 Melody Maker interview Thunders' manager Mick Webster described the efforts of his family, "We keep asking the New Orleans police to re-investigate, but they haven’t been particularly friendly. They seemed to think that this was just another junkie who had wandered into town and died. They simply weren’t interested." Marion claims that the original police report is largely missing and Webster further explains that the Coroner who conducted the autopsy was fired for falsifying a report in another case.

Thunders was survived by his ex-wife Julie and four children, sons John Genzale, Vito Genzale, Dino Genzale, and daughter Jamie Genzale. His oldest son Vito is serving a prison sentence in the Great Meadows Correctional Facility in New York for drug dealing, having completed a previous sentence in Attica.


Studio Albums

  • So Alone - (1978)
  • Diary of a Lover - (1982)
  • In Cold Blood - (1983)
  • Hurt Me - (1984)
  • Que Sera Sera - (1985)
  • Copy Cats - (1988)

Official Live Albums & Compilations

Official Singles & EPs

  • "Dead or Alive" 7" - (1978)
  • "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" 7" & 12" - (1978)
  • "In Cold Blood" 7" - (1983)
  • "Hurt Me" 7" - (1984)
  • "Crawfish 7" & 12" - (1985)
  • "Que Sera Sera (Whatever Will Be Will Be)" 7" & 12" - (1988)

Unofficial / Bootleg Albums

Unofficial / Bootleg Singles & EPs

  • Proud to Be Pirate EP - (1983)
  • Ain't Superstitious 7" - (1987)
  • Critic's Choice 7" - (1992)
  • Daddy Rollin' Stone 7" - (1996)
  • Life Goes On 7" - (1996)
  • Countdown Love 7" - (1997)
  • The Fireball EP - (1999)
  • The Thunderbolt EP - (1999)
  • It's Great When You're Straight, Yeah EP - (2000)


  • The stage name Johnny Thunders was reputedly inspired by a song titled "Johnny Thunder" about a villainous biker character written by Ray Davies and recorded in 1968 by The Kinks for their Village Green Preservation Society concept album.
  • Johnny Thunders originally went under the stage names of Johnny Jaywalk and Johnny Volume.
  • Johnny Thunders played guest guitar on a track on Japanese glam rock band Ziggy's album Hot Lips.
  • Johnny Thunder is the name of the main character in the Legoland adventure Revenge of the Aztec Queen
  • "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" and a live cover version of "Pipeline" have been used in the closing credits of The Sopranos. The former also featured prominently in Martin Scorsese's 1999 film Bringing Out the Dead.
  • "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory", the song title was taken from a line from the television sitcom, The Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason. He spoke it to his TV wife, Alice.

Musical tributes

Thunders has had numerous bands paying tribute or mentioning him in their songs, while he was alive and after his death.

  • The Clash mentioned Thunders in the lyric from their song "City Of The Dead", singing "'Don't you know where to cop?'/That's what New York Johnny said/'You should get to know your town/Just like I know mine.'"
  • Recently, ranked Thunders #2 on its "Punk Rock's 10 Mightiest Guitar Gods" list.
  • Then-Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan wrote the song "So Fine", which was dedicated to Thunders. The song appears on the album Use Your Illusion II. Also, in 1993, Guns N' Roses covered Thunders' song "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" on their cover album, "The Spaghetti Incident?", with McKagan performing vocals.
  • Willy DeVille wrote a song called "Chemical Warfare" which appeared on his 1992 album Backstreets of Desire. "Chemical Warfare" was dedicated to Johnny Thunders with whom DeVille shared a long-time friendship. DeVille was first to arrive at the hotel the day of Johnny's death.
  • At their reunion shows, the New York Dolls have been performing "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory", with member Sylvain Sylvain singing the lead vocal and sometimes changing the title lyric to "I can't put my arms around you, Johnny."
  • On the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, Johnny Thunders is mentioned in the song "There She Goes my Beautiful World".
  • English rock band the Dogs D'Amour released a song about Thunders titled "Johnny Silvers" on their ...More Unchartered Heights of Disgrace album.
  • The Replacements included a song about Johnny Thunders, "Johnny's Gonna Die", on their first album.
  • Alex Chilton in his song "Bangkok" sings the lines "I'm not living on Chinese rocks, I'm in Bangkok." A small tribute and allusion to Johnny Thunders.
  • Die Toten Hosen paid tribute to Johnny Thunders by including the line "So lange Johnny Thunders lebt, so lang bleib ich ein Punk" ("As long as Johnny Thunders lives I'll stay a punk") in their song "Wort zum Sonntag". After his death Die Toten Hosen changed the lyrics to "Hey, Johnny kannst du uns grad' seh'n, wir vergessen dich nicht - wir werden überall von dir erzählen damit dein Name ewig weiterlebt." ("Hey, Johnny can you see us right now, we won't forget you - we'll tell everywhere about you for your name 'll live on eternally.")
  • The Murder City Devils named a song "Johnny Thunders" on their album Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts.
  • Iggy Pop wrote a tribute song for Johnny entitled "Look Away" on the album Naughty Little Doggie. It also involves his love affair with Sable Starr.
  • "Everything I Wanted" by Australian band Wallspace features the line "Don't you wish you had a name like Johnny Thunder".
  • Spanish label Munster Records released Again ... This One's For Johnny in 2001, a tribute record which includes bands as Ramones, Ronnie Spector, Nikki Sudden or Atom Rhumba
  • Vic Godard & the Subway Sect had a single titled "Johnny Thunders" which was released in September 1992 by Rough Trade records.
  • Slaughter & the Dogs had a track titled "Johnny T" allegedly about Thunders which was the b-side to their single "Dame to Blame".
  • In the "Call of the Yeti" episode of "The Mighty Boosh" Naboo tells Vince "Vince, you're a punk, stay punk! Think of Johnny Thunders, Mick and Keith!" when they are threatened to be raped by Hippy yetis.
  • Paul Westerberg released an album in August 2008 entitled "49:00" which contains a track about Johnny entitled "Devil Raised A Good Boy".


External links

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