Welcome to With Guitars’ ‘In Cold Blood’ Special Edit. Kindly submitted to us by Jonny Thunders official biographer, Nina Antonia, We start by finding out more about writing a detailed account of the New York Dolls guitarist and Heartbreakers frontman; before we plunge head first into 1983 London, Soho and one of the hottest Augusts on record…
With Guitars wanted to know more about the sadly missed guitarist of not one, but two, incredible bands,Then our luck changed. Nina Antonia was more than obliging in helping out With Guitars, with a Special Edit from an In Cold Blood, a chapter, in which, even though things were good in 1983, amongst some great gigs and laughs backstage, you can see the cracks starting to appear.
Before that, we find out more about the talented alternative author and spoken word performer. With at times, predictable, mandatory questions that were all met with glorious expanded answers by the author of In Cold Blood and also wrote wrote ‘The New York Dolls – Too Much Too Soon’ which I can heartily recommend, but back to Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood. the music title is available from Cherry Red, the book publishers, and all good , as they say, book stores and via Amazon, Here then, an interview with the book’s author, Nina Antonia; and if your looking for someone to potion the blame – Steve Janes with the questions.
Was In Cold Blood difficult to write?
”Geographically it was. When I first started working on ‘In Cold Blood’, I was still living in Liverpool so I’d have to travel to London whenever Johnny was in the U.K. Had to sell a lot of records so I could afford the coach fare !! (smile) but it was worth it. I started writing the book in 1983, way before the internet and I hadn’t yet met Johnny so it was hard in terms of accessing information, all I had was some press cuttings and articles but where there’s a will there’s a way. I remember I tried calling New York Rocker to see if anyone would talk to me but whoever answered the phone thought it was an improbable story. It was also hard because I had to write it using tiny portable typewriter. Sounds like ancient history doesn’t it? Eventually I sent the first couple of chapters to Jungle Records who’d just signed Johnny and the rest is history. I met him shortly afterwards. Once Johnny was involved, it became a lot easier, apart from the typewriter that is.”
Are you surprised that Johnny is so fondly remembered?
”Johnny Thunders was someone who always had devotees but it was pretty underground. Of course he could play any major city and pack out medium sized clubs but you have to remember that Johnny couldn’t get a deal for his last album. He was a cult legend but he wasn’t a mainstream figure prior to his death. I remember the NME absolutely damning him in the late 1980’s. In one of his last songs ‘Disappointed In You’ Johnny sings ‘The only way you get respect is when you die’. I think he sensed that in death his myth would grow. Outlaws generally gain acceptance when they’re no longer around. It’s safer that way. Another reason why Johnny is remembered fondly these days is that we are living in an age when there are few outlaws so people are hungry for something more dangerous. Johnny is a classic rebel and yes he is fondly remembered. His story endures.”
“Any surprises while researching Thunders life? I think if Johnny did say that line about ‘Children’s Books’ he was probably just winding your mate up! (smile) He didn’t like being interviewed all that much and hated answering the same questions over and over again. One of the nicest surprises was meeting Johnny’s baseball coach in Queens, when I went to stay with his sister. He spoke so fondly of Johnny.”
Was writing In Cold Blood an emotional journey?
”I wrote the original version of In Cold Blood in the early to mid 1980’s, that was my apprenticeship and getting to know Johnny and hang out with Jerry Nolan was a dream. I learned a great deal from them about style, charisma, showmanship, how difficult it is survive when you’re a star but you don’t have the money to maintain it but you have to play it like you do. After Johnny died in 1991 and I updated the book, it was incredibly sad. I’m sorry his story didn’t have a happy ending but how could it have done? He’s left an indelible mark on my life and continues to influence a great many people.”
“There’s plenty more books I’d like to write but I’ve always been off kilter with the mainstream.”
New York Dolls/Heartbreakers legacy
”I think by now, everyone is aware of how important the New York Doll’s were. They kick-started the 70’s and had a genuinely punky attitude way before anyone thought up the Sex Pistols. There is an entire pantheon of bands influenced by The Dolls/Thunders. Where should I start……The Pistols, The Clash, The Cramps, Hanoi Rocks, Motley Crue, Morrissey, Peter Doherty, The Skuzzies etc etc etc amen”
Any more books in the pipeline?
“At the moment I’m working on a new project entitled ‘Jeunesse Brulee’ (Burned Youth) I’m not particularly enamoured by mainstream artistes, as you might have gathered by now! (smile) If people can give their all to one film, one song, one moment in time then that is somehow more precious. ‘Jeunesse Brulee’ comprises four full length studies of Michele Breton, Nancy Spungen, Nico and Peter Doherty, who has also written the introduction. Essentially, the book is about the price of transcendence, people who soar above life’s constraints. It will be available by Spring 2012 via Camion Blanc in France and The Ship’s Cabin in the UK. There are a couple of other territories showing interest as well, so I’ll keep you updated. For more info contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.theshipscabin.blogspot.com“
The photo for Nina Antonia is from the Ace Stories Event earlier this year. Spoken word it appears is starting to come more into latter day vogue. Since the early 1960 is well recorded; 1970’s anyone that caught the early Stooges gigs were normally treated to an intense improv spoken word by a breathless Iggy Pop that lasted, 10-15 minutes! Lou Reed was no stranger; but perhaps, I was more familiar with Henry Rollins spoken word performances and a little later even darker and got to say, disturbed spoken word of Lydia Lunch, fair to say, the local women’s Institute will never be the same again…
“I enjoy doing spoken word events, I do prose pieces and poetry set to music. Believe me it’s not cute, I don’t do cupcake literature that’s for sure. I always work with Jerome Alexandre (from The Skuzzies) he sets the tone, usually moody, to the words. It gives it an edge. The last reading I did was at Ace Stories at the Hotel Pelirocco in Brighton. The Pelirocco is Brighton’s premier rock n’ roll hotel and Ace Stories do the best literary events I’ve ever been involved with. The last one was sold out, as packed as the Cavern in 1963. It isn’t just a matter of throwing random authors and bands together, it has to gel and hold the audience. I’d love to do more spoken word events but like everything there is a hierarchy and the literary world can be incredible snobbish about rock n’ roll but I shan’t let that deter me!!”
With Guitars’ ‘In Cold Blood’ Special Edit…………..’
In Col Blood’s author, Nina, introduces the extract and the times, from, this point onwards I leave you in the safe hands of Nina Antonia author of Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood.
“I’ve chosen this particular extract from ‘In Cold Blood’ because it summarises the eternal precariousness of Johnny Thunder’s life. By 1983, Johnny had started working with an enigmatic German manager, Christopher Giercke. Reminiscent of Gomez Addams but with the bite of Bela Lugosi, Mr Giercke was able to balance business with a creative eye. They made a fascinating double act. Beelzebub and Lucifer or Morecombe and Wise guys? Take your pick. Through Giercke’s efforts, Johnny enjoyed a considerable European renaissance. It was great to see him back in the game and taking on the whippersnappers that had profited from his inimitable style, but there was always the underlying sense that disaster could befall Thunders at any given moment. This was one of them………… “
‘The small Chinese restaurant is hot and without ventilation. Christopher Giercke obviously has more on his mind than dehydration as he toys with his chop-sticks. From the outside, it might almost seem that with every live concert and record release, Thunder’s public stature continues to grow. From his manager’s point of view, things are far from black and white and it’s his job to hold them together with a mixture of tact and (subtle) tyranny. Christopher waves a black draped arm in the general direction the Marquee club that is playing host to Thunders and two of the Heartbreakers for the duration of the week: “Of course it’s good that things are going well”, he explains “but it can also get complicated very quickly. At the moment I have enough business problems without having to worry about the personal lives of the people whose careers should be my fundamental responsibility. Right now I’m structuring deals for Johnny in Italy, Japan and Spain. Also an English tour with Hanoi Rocks is being set up.
Christopher Giercke is a strange mixture of manager, artist and philosopher. While more than able to keep pace with the various sharks that infest his financial waters, he still has the nature of the individualist and looks on his charges with a humane yet abstract gaze. “So” he continues “That is more than enough for one man. Johnny and the Heartbreakers still have to be considered a problem. Of course, it can be surmounted but Johnny thinks everything is fine. He’s a ‘Big Star’ but whenever things are going well they have a tendency to get greedy. Today, they didn’t want to pay for batteries for a tuner, yet they are on $150 a day. Now Johnny doesn’t want to play Dingwalls, he thinks it will spoil his reputation. OK, it’s not a great place but it’ll pay some bills. They don’t appreciate money. It may be their ruin. I try and present things in a diplomatic way to make them understand that they have to be quick and able like everyone else on the planet. Yesterday they were supposed to go to a club in Carnaby Street. They were given taxi fares and people are waiting to see Johnny – a different Johnny – journalists, press agents, fans, and what happens? Johnny doesn’t want to go.”
Most people assume that The Heartbreakers have more faith in illicit substances than themselves. Giercke nods:” Drugs are always such a danger. Three years of hard work to make sure everything goes smoothly. Then, one single shot and Out! Tours broken up, health broken up, thrown out of the country, maybe for just $50 of smack. Are they out of their minds!!??? What I’m trying to do is teach Johnny leadership, standards and certain rules.”
What Johnny didn’t need teaching was rock n’ roll. That week, he owned Soho. Outside the Marquee club, the ‘House Full’ sign is up but people are still pushing to get in. It’s the hottest August on record for years and the overpowering stench of sweat and beer in the club isn’t helping. The tiny dressing room offers no respite. By 20.45, the usually tranquil Mr Giercke keeps taking frequent glances at his wrist watch. Of course The Heartbreakers are late. Suddenly the dressing room door swings open. Johnny clad in an undertaker’s frock-coat strolls in and politely instructs security to clear the room of liggers. Jerry Nolan follows, dressed like a priest who decided to become a pimp. He sticks to his customary pre-show regime, finding a quiet corner and staying in it. Only the most foolhardy would dare to approach him. A few tense moments pass until Billy Rath wanders in seemingly unaware of his surroundings until someone hands him his bass. His eyes suddenly snap into focus. Nobody talks very much. It’s hard to say if the silence is brought on by nerves, drugs, surly dispositions or all three. To my surprise, Jerry comes out of his corner to ask me how the book is coming along. He also confides that he’s thinking of writing one himself but confesses to having a terrible memory. With everyone present, Christopher finally relaxes and regales the assembled with tales of adventures in the Amazon. Maybe it’s the heat. Someone makes it backstage to report that Hanoi Rocks are out in mass to see Johnny and company but no one budges. The club is too full to contemplate leaving the relative safety of the backstage area. A copy of ‘Red Patent Leather’ circulates the room. A live Doll’s album, it used to have a certain charm as a bootleg but now it’s available with a Sylvain Sylvain remix and a brand new cover. Neither Thunders nor Nolan give it a second glance.
The house lights out front have dimmed to a dull red glow adding to the tension and the crowd’s mounting excitement is tangible. Untroubled Johnny goes through his pockets slowly and comes up with a cigarette which he ignites and straightens his shirt inside his black and purple spangled trousers and just like every night, he pauses to his give his girlfriend, Susanne a kiss before leading Billy and Jerry on to the stage.
Make ‘em wait. Thunders stands with his back to the crowd for the longest minute, sending crushing, unfamiliar notes spinning out into the club. He turns, his long black coat curling around his ankles and prowls to the centre microphone. ‘Well if you lookin’ for trouble, you come to the’ right place…I’m telling you baby don’t waste my time…’ Johnny surges through ‘Countdown Love’, ‘Who Do Voodoo’, a couple of bars of ‘Alone In a Crowd’ and a wall-shaking ‘Personality Crisis’ before pausing long enough to tug loose his tie and toss coat to the side-stage. “Man”, he gaps, “It’s so fucking hot. Holy shit.” Thick clouds of cigarette smoke filter sluggishly through the stage lights giving his skin a moist translucency. While Thunders grabs a few seconds to breathe, a guttural chant for ‘Jet Boy’ starts up. Johnny teases his guitar into the opening notes and then drops it. “Uh, this is about a guy I usta know. S’called ‘Too Much Junkie Business’.
These words together with the chords that accompany them produce an acrobatic psychosis in the audience. Burly blokes spray sweat in every direction as they hurl themselves forward in a convivial attempt to drag underfoot as many as possible. One of the athletic lemmings actually makes it to the stage where he goes into a frenzied spin until a large roadie sends him somersaulting back into space.
The Italian restaurant while still within the clichéd corners of Soho is a lot more up-market. At least its bill was. Christopher muses over it briefly, before returning to more pressing matters. He is still worried about drugs. Thunders is for the first time in many years free of heroin. His methadone intake is also decreasing. Christopher would like to keep it this way. “Some equations are obvious. If you drink ice water you get a stomach ache and if you shoot up with dirty needles you get an infection. Johnny is very talented and that gift takes away the right to indulge in self-pity. Once you have a talent you also have an obligation to express it. You c can’t go out on stage and not know where you are. You can’t. You can maybe get away with it for a short time but in the long run………….there may be a time to bring all that beauty together and if you can’t do it, then the gift might be taken away.”
“Was Johnny very ill when you met him?”
“A while back I took Johnny to a bullfight. It sickened him so much he almost passed out. Every thrust from the matador’s sword was more wounding, more terrible to the animal. It was in great pain but it would not fall. Does that answer your question?”
“What made you decide to manage Johnny?”
“It was his birthday and I thought I could help him.” He smiles and lights a cigar. “Johnny is much more critical now and that is good. As an example, when we filmed the Lyceum show, March 25th, 1983, we had a 24 track unit so they could see and hear what they were doing. On the Saturday everybody is using junk. On the Sunday, the night of the concert, the dealer does not show. So Johnny drinks eight large vodkas and goes on. Now when he watches the video of it, he’s critical. You have to learn to know your weaknesses. The process of change is slow. The first step is to be aware and curious. You can’t do that with heroin. I think Johnny knows that now.”
We step back into rush hour Soho. For the first time in days, it is slightly cooler and the air smells of oncoming rain. Something has given. It has to. Christopher decides we’ve spent too long over dinner and dashes half a block to the Marquee club, dodging traffic and tourists. He slows down once he sees Johnny and Susanne sitting quietly on a car outside the club. They look like something out of ‘American Graffiti’. Once again, the Marquee’s ‘House Full’ sign has already gone up.
As always ‘Sad Vacation’ is dedicated to Sid Vicious. Dozens of flash cubes explode in sequence, marking the show’s traditional gentle moment. Thunders refuses to let the Instamatic onslaught deter him as the Heartbreakers bring the gig to a close with a run of classics until ‘I Wanna Be Loved’. He lets the bass carry the tune as he mops his brow and says goodbye: “Thanks a lot, kids. It’s been wonderful but it’s hot. We had a really good time…I’m hot, you’re hot….everybody is hot. We need a little fire to cook up some ‘Chinese Rocks’ for you now and we’ll see ya.” Everybody has been screaming for this song from the moment Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers took the stage and nobody is disappointed. If anything, it’s even better than when they first released it. ‘Can’t Keep My Eyes On You’ and ‘Pipeline’ serve as encores and then it really is all over.”