The last-known filmed performance of Johnny Thunders captures the punk icon playing April 3, 1991, just weeks before he passed away. Backed by the Oddballs, the ex-New York Doll is in form throughout the 90-minute concert.
Emerging from the smoke of junkie legend, Johnny Thunders reached the 1990s in surprisingly fine form. Free of past malign associations, the original New York Doll had assembled a solid five-piece backing band, the Oddballs, and returned from his long train-wreck era of sloppy, audience-baiting caricature: “rent” party gigs where he would sing “Can’t Keep My Eyes on You” as “Can’t Keep My Cock in You” for morbid thrill-seekers wondering if this would be the night his borrowed time ran out.
Through some miracle of methadone, by decade’s end he was a sturdy entertainer who could reliably manage a proper money’s-worth performance of genuine New York gutter rock. In the spring of 1991, he and the Oddballs undertook a brief Japanese tour, which brought them to Club Citta in the city of Kawasaki on April 3. Having accumulated loads of musical baggage during his 20-year voyage from outrageous scene-setter to doomed punk icon to road-ready journeyman, Thunders was playing the same mash of drug-inflected originals and generic Top 40 oldies I’d seen him do at the Ritz in New York two years earlier.
In this great-sounding but blurry long-distance film, Thunders sticks to the setlist, leads the band, shoots off the same lead guitar lines that powered the Dolls nearly 20 years earlier and sings lyrics largely as written. Yes, he returns from a three-song powder — leaving statuesque backup singer Alison Gordy and Swedish guitarist Stevie Klasson to take incongruous spotlight turns — in a somewhat downshifted gear, but he makes it to the end of the full-length set on his feet and cogent.
It was a paradox of punk that the bands busy inventing rock’s future in the 1970s were not self-conscious about their debts to its past: the wildly transgressive Dolls respected their elders enough to cover old R&B numbers like “Stranded in the Jungle” and Bo Diddley’s “Pills.” Early Sex Pistols sets included songs by the Small Faces and the Who; the B-side of the first Damned single was the Beatles’ “Help!” While the blueprint for Thunders’ smeary guitar style is clearly imprinted in Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” you could drive a van through the cultural chasm that separates the daring decadence of “Too Much Junkie Business” and “Personality Crisis” from the gormless garage-band fun of “Hang on Sloopy” and “Wipe Out.”
It was a paradox of Thunders’ solo career that this paradigm of live-fast/die-young punk myth wrote thoughtfully sensitive reflections about loneliness and loss.
Thunders lived too far outside the law to be any sort of ordinary rock ‘n’ roll revivalist, but Jamie Heath’s ferocious sax work nails his show to the bump-and-grind gristle of ‘50s jukebox jive. It was a paradox of Thunders’ solo career that this paradigm of live-fast/die-young punk myth wrote thoughtfully sensitive reflections about loneliness and loss. (His greatest composition, “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” is an absolute melancholia classic.)
In addition to “So Alone,“ “Born to Lose” and “Sad Vacation” (a tribute to Sid Vicious), Thunders puts down his Les Paul Special long enough to croon “Society Makes Me Sad,” a new original in the same vein. The wistful “Disappointed in You” includes the lines “I feel so lucky to be alive/I had so many friends who lost their lives… We all get our chance to beat the odds/But who beats the odds?” No truer words were ever sung. In fact, the past was just about to catch up with him. A handful of gigs and three weeks later, Johnny Thunders, 38, was found dead in a New Orleans hotel room.
Johnny Thunders “Who’s Been Talking?” Setlist
In Cold Blood
(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone (Monkees cover)/Hit the Road Jack (Ray Charles cover)
Blame It on Mom
Disappointed in You
I Can Tell
Little Queenie (Chuck Berry cover)
You Can Walk My Dog
Pipeline (Chantays cover)
Who’s Been Talking?
Crossroads (Robert Johnson cover)
I Can’t Go on Without You
Louie Louie (Richard Berry cover)/Hang on Sloopy (Vibrations cover)
Society Makes Me Sad
Too Much Junkie Business
Just Another Girl
Wipe Out (Surfaris cover)
Gloria (Them cover)
Born to Lose
I Wanna Be Loved
Ira Robbins first encountered rock ‘n’ roll in 1962 and began writing about it in 1972. Trouser Press magazine, which he co-founded in 1974 and published for a decade, is now online at www.trouserpress.com. He has served as pop music editor for New York Newsday, written for dozens of publications, supplied liner notes for 50 albums and edited five Trouser Press record guides. He has authored two novels — “Kick It Till It Breaks” (2009) and “Marc Bolan Killed in Crash” (2020) – and is currently preparing to publish an anthology-cum-memoir titled “Music in a Word.”