Thanks to a lengthy and ultimately fatal addiction to heroin, Johnny Thunders has been relegated to also-ran status in the history of guitar heroes. That’s unfortunate, because Thunders possessed almost as much talent and charisma as he lacked self-control. Born John Anthony Genzale, Jr. in 1952, Thunders’ closest brush with fame came in the early 1970s as the lead guitarist in the New York Dolls. Although the band’s rowdy mixture of Stones-like swagger and outrageous glam style didn’t look or sound much like what punk would become, it helped set the movement in motion. After the Dolls’ breakup, Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan formed the Heartbreakers, a band that, with classic songs like “Born to Lose” and “Chinese Rocks”, was nearly as influential as its predecessor and even more notorious in its excesses.
Although the Heartbreakers occasionally reunited throughout the years, the band was effectively over when Thunders issued his first and most lauded solo effort, So Alone, in 1978. The album’s highlight and Thunders’ finest post-Dolls moment is “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory”, a plaintive ballad about loneliness and addiction that seemed to sum up the sadness of Thunders’ short and largely wasted life. Thunders’ reckless lifestyle ensured that his recording career would be erratic, and he recorded just two more official studio albums—1985’s Que Sera, Sera and 1988’s Copy Cats (with Patti Palladin)—before his methadone-related death in 1991.
Thunders’ former bandmate Jerry Nolan, also a longtime heroin user, passed away in 1992, but the deaths of two-fifths of the band didn’t stop the remaining New York Dolls from staging a reunion at London’s Meltdown Festival in 2004 at the request of longtime fan Morrissey. Although bassist Arthur Kane died of leukemia shortly after the reunion, singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain have continued to tour under the Dolls name. This begs the question, how many members of a band does it take to constitute a “reunion”? If two people can claim to be the New York Dolls, then couldn’t the new DVD credited to Thunders, Kane and Nolan just as logically be called a Dolls reunion, since it features three band members? The trio, along with Barry Jones on rhythm guitar, reunited at the Roxy in Los Angeles for this January 1987 show, which features material by the Dolls, the Heartbreakers, and Thunders, as well as a lot of classic covers.
This release should be of interest to any Thunders or Dolls fan because it captures the guitarist, who was unsurprisingly known for erratic performances, in fairly lucid form. The musicians sound good if occasionally sloppy, and for a recording of a club show, it’s decent quality. The 90-minute show was filmed with a single camera to the right of the stage, but that one camera works at getting both long and tight shots, even if Thunders gets most of the screen time. The band rips through the Chantays’ “Pipeline” (the opener on So Alone) and Booker T. and the MG’s “Green Onions” as if it owns them, leaving no doubt that Thunders could be a powerhouse when he set his mind to it.
While the hipster audience starts off in a subdued mood, it perks up, oddly enough, when the band exits mid-show and Thunders plays five songs on acoustic guitar. “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” gains even more poignancy in this stripped-down form, but the surprise of the set is Thunders’ bare-bones cover of “Eve of Destruction”, which rouses the crowd into a sing-along. After decisively winning the crowd over with the acoustic set, Thunders is rejoined by his bandmates, and launches into the rest of the set with considerably more confidence. While he’s nowhere near the front man David Johansen is and his nasally voice could at best be called an acquired taste, Thunders shows here that his guitar chops, rock star preening, and genuine love of rock ‘n’ roll could carry him pretty far.
Despite an overreliance on covers, low-tech film work, and some grating backing vocals from Kane’s wife on a couple of songs, You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory is a don’t-miss DVD for fans of the Dolls or the Heartbreakers. It’s also a bittersweet viewing experience, because in it you can glimpse the potential of Thunders, Kane, and Nolan even as you can see that their time was past.