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Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers

Biography

Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images Images

After the original New York Dolls broke up, Johnny Thunders —who had been the Dolls' Keith Richards to David Johansen's Mick Jagger —and Jerry Nolan formed the Heartbreakers, first as a trio with former Television bassist Richard Hell, who soon left to lead his own band, the Voidoids. If the New York Dolls were a precursor to punk rockers, then the Heartbreakers served as a living bridge to it —updating classic Rolling Stones-style, sneering two-guitar rock in prototypical fast-and-furious style. With Thunders' shambling, drugged-out, foul-mouthed onstage charm, and songs like "Chinese Rocks" and "Too Much Junkie Business" celebrating the heroin-junkie lifestyle, these Heartbreakers could not be confused with Tom Petty's backup band.

The Heartbreakers built a following with a year of East Coast club gigs, but drew no offers from record companies. Sex Pistols' impresario Malcolm McLaren, who had been involved in the Dolls' final days, invited the Heartbreakers to tour England, where they joined the Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, and the Slits on the historic 1976 Anarchy Tour. (Jerry Nolan later claimed he and Thunders first introduced Johnny Rotten and other punks to heroin during this time). Heralded by punk rockers who'd been inspired by the Dolls, the Heartbreakers stayed in England for over a year, recording their debut album, L.A.M.F. (from an obscene graffiti used by the teen gangs of which Thunders and Nolan had been members). It was so poorly produced that Nolan quit the band in disgust and formed the short-lived Idols back in New York, while former Clash drummer Terry Chimes took Nolan's place briefly before the Heartbreakers drifted apart in London.

Thunders stayed there, and in 1978 recorded a critically acclaimed solo album, So Alone, with backing from Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, Peter Perrett of the Only Ones, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, and ex-Small Faces/Humble Pie guitarist Steve Marriott. The album included a rare glimpse of Thunders' tender side in the classic "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," as well as nods to his musical roots in girl-group sass ("Great Big Kiss") and surf music (an amphetamine cover of the Chantay's "Pipeline"). Thunders returned to New York in late 1978 for the first of many Heartbreakers reunion/farewell gigs, which was captured on Live at Max's Kansas City. In 1980 Thunders formed Gang War with former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, while Lure and Rath started the Heroes with Lure's younger brother Richie (a guitarist in the late '70s punk band the Erasers). Thunders formed another short-lived band, Cosa Nostra, before reconvening the Heartbreakers again in 1982. By this time Lure was working as a stockbroker. In 1984, with former Generation X guitarist (and future Sigue Sigue Sputnik leader) Tony James, Thunders finally remixed L.A.M.F. for Revisited. The Heartbreakers (with Nolan) held a final New York City reunion show in 1990. A year later, Thunders, just back in the U.S. from a successful tour of Japan, died of a lethal mixture of methadone and alcohol in a New Orleans hotel room.

This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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