Johnny Thunders, 38, rock guitarist/songwriter and founding member of punk rock prototypes the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers, died April 23 in New Orleans of an apparent drug overdose.
Thunders recently wrapped tours of Japan and Germany, and had moved to New Orleans only a day before he died.
Thunders, born John Genzale, became nearly as well-known for a long heroin addiction during the ’70s as for his groundbreaking work with the Dolls and the Heartbreakers. The guitarist maintained a sometimes jocular attitude about his drug problem, titling a 1983 solo collection “New Too Much Junkie Business.”
The New York Dolls were formed in the early ’70s in Gotham, performing in a confrontational style that prefigured punk. Group is generally credited with spawning such later N.Y. punk outfits as the Ramones, Blondie and Television.
Group, fronted by singer David Johansen (now Buster Poindexter) and also featuring guitarist Syl Sylvain, recorded its first, eponymous LP with producer Todd Rundgren in 1973. Follow-up disk, “In Too Much Too Soon” (actually the only other proper LP the Dolls recorded) took more of a twisted r&b approach, and is considered less influential.
After the group collapsed following an abortive link with manager Malcolm McLaren (who would later copy the basic formula to much greater success with the Sex Pistols), Thunders formed the Heartbreakers with former Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan and ex-Television bassist Richard Hell. Following Hell’s departure for a solo career, the Heartbreakers traveled to London in 1977 to record their debut album, “L.A.M.F.”
Nolan quit the group, ostensibly over the poor sound quality of the album, and the group returned to New York to play a number of “farewell” concerts. Various live and compilation disks have appeared over the years.
Thunders’ first main solo effort was 1978’s “So Alone,” featuring former Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones, Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott and Humble Pie’s Steve Marriott. Records of varying quality followed, including a cassette-only release, “Stations Of The Cross,” recorded in 1982 during Mudd Club concerts filmmaker Lech Kowalski shot for a junkie pic “Gringo.” Footage subsequently was discarded.
Thunders’ last new recording, “Copy Cats,” was released in 1988. A collaboration with former Snatch vocalist Pat Palladin, disk featured freewheeling takes on covers by a wide-ranging assortment of artists, including Dion and Elvis Presley.
Survived by his sister, three sons and a daughter.