Album Rescue Series: Johnny Thunders ‘So Alone’

One of the beauties of music is that it’s impossible to hear it all; no matter how long you live. Despite being a life long addict to perfect pop tunes, I still come across pieces of music that stop me dead in my tracks. Earlier this week my niece Amber posted the Johnny Thunders’ song You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory on her Facebook page; this was one of those stop dead in your tracks moment. Hearing this track again after so many years made me realize that if ever an album needed a rescue its Johnny Thunders and his 1978 release So Alone. It’s about the only thing I can do for Johnny and boy does he need it. The title of the album says it all – So Alone.

Johnny died 24 years ago on April 23rd April 1991. Gone but never forgotten. The cause of death was recorded as “drug related causes”. Rather ironically huge amounts of LSD where found in his system despite rumors that he’d quit the smack. But this does not explain the many rumors surrounding Thunders’ death at St. Peter’s Guest House in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Fellow kindred spirit and troubled troubadour Willy DeVille lived in the hotel room next door to the one Johnny died in and described it thus in Dee Dee Ramone’s 2009 book ‘Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones’, “I don’t know how the word got out that I lived next door, but all of a sudden the phone started ringing and ringing. Rolling Stone was calling, the Village Voice called, his family called, and then his guitar player called. I felt bad for all of them. It was a tragic end, and I mean, he went out in a blaze of glory, ha ha ha, so I thought I might as well make it look real good, you know, out of respect, so I just told everybody that when Johnny died he was laying down on the floor with his guitar in his hands. I made that up. When he came out of the St. Peter’s Guest House, rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U shape. When you’re laying on the floor in a fetal position, doubled over – well, when the body bag came out, it was in a U. It was pretty fucking awful”. Apparently his place was ransacked, what few belongings he had all gone including his passport, makeup and clothes. There was also talk of him having acute leukemia. Whatever the true story there’s no denying it was a very sad and lonely end.

The really simple and lazy way to tell this story is to deliver the archetypal rock star drugs story. You know the troubled misunderstood genius, blah blah blah. Such lives tend to be littered with self-destruction and the concept of rock ‘n’ roll may indeed be defined by variable degrees of self-destruction. This is already well-trodden territory, and by far more qualified people then I. Take a look at Nick Kent’s 1995 book The Dark Stuff where he does an excellent job of de-glamourizing the drug cult heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. Kent provides a sobering insight into the tortured lives, dysfunction and general unpleasantness of many key figures of popular music. Anyone with a voyeuristic interest in the self-destructive lives of rock ‘n’ rollers will love this book. There is no denying that Johnny’s story is a heroin related one. But please don’t judge heroin addicts unless you’ve lived it yourself, have an open mind. If you haven’t lived it yourself then good job, you definitely made the right decision. Heroin eats up your soul, destroys creativity and spits you out; things are never quite the same again after you’ve lived your life with heroin. Heroin is a solitary friend and when it’s gone your life is empty and worthless, you’re so alone. Its pure conjecture but its highly unlikely that Thunders ever conquered his drug addiction. What is up for discussion is that he did leave us with some incredible music and that will last forever.

In 1790 the German founding father of modern philosophy, Immanuel Kant, wrote Critique of Judgement, where he investigates the possibility and logical status of “judgments of taste”. In the chapter Analytic of the Beautiful Kant states that beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of the pleasure that attends the ‘free play’ of the imagination and the understanding. So is So Alone an artifact of beauty, worthy of critical reappraisal? Even though it appears that we are using reason to decide what is beautiful, that judgment is not a cognitive judgment, and is consequently not logical, but is aesthetical? I would argue that our objective judgment is impaired or swayed here. This album is heavily tarnished because of who made it and not because of what it is, which is a thing of beauty and passion. I believe that anything made out of passion or love must be inherently good.

The wreckage that peers out of the front cover of So Alone suggests Thunders is a man on the edge, both mischievous and vulnerable. The music contained therein seems to confirm this. An incendiary cover of The Chantays’ instrumental, Pipeline, mixes with the grind of Daddy Rollin’ Stone, the Pistol-punk of London Boys and the nonsense of the Spector girl-group, Great Big Kiss. The standout track is the fragile You Can’t Put Your Arms Round A Memory. The title was taken from a line in the Better Living Through TV episode of the sitcom The Honeymooners, and was written for his close friend Fabienne Shine. Considered by many to be his signature song, the ballad is said to be about Thunders’ heroin addiction. However, according to Nina Antonia’s 2000 biography, Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood, the song was written before he was even a member of the New York Dolls, and years before he became addicted to the dark stuff.

But back to Kant and how can we objectively measure if this song is any good or not? How about some scientific comparative analysis here, an item-by-item comparison of two or more comparable alternatives? Compare the original to versions by the Manic Street Preachers, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Giant Sand, Blondie or the sublime version by Ronnie Spector on her 2006 album The Last of the Rock Stars, now that’s definitely a good tune. I’ve never met Sopranos TV series producer Todd A. Kessler but he must have a similar music taste to me. He uses You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory to great effect on the closing scene and titles of episode 11 (House Of Arrest). This is not the first song from one of my album rescues series that Kessler has used. As a point of reference check out how Martin Scorsese also uses this song on his 1999 film Bringing Out The Dead; it’s superb.

Thunders wanders from one style to another, sometimes shambolic, very often with a Jaggeresque vocal. Sometimes energetic and often melodic, Thunders’ music is always a little wayward but it could never be described as dull. It isn’t perfect; his duet with the Only Ones’ (definitely a future album rescue) lead singer Peter Perrett, for instance, is an absolute shambles. Throughout this album rescue series I continually use the metric of who plays on this record to measure if its any good or not e.g. lots of great players equals a great album. So Alone is not so different as there are some superb players on this record. Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) on bass, Paul Cook (Sex Pistols) on drums, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) on guitar, Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Steve Marriott (Small Face & Humble Pie) on guitar and vocal, Walter Lure and Billy Ruth of the Heartbreakers and all pulled together by super-star producer Steve Lillywhite. This is an album that should appeal to anyone with a penchant for the basics of rock ‘n’ roll. This album is one of the loosest, coolest, sounding rock n’ roll records I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to.

The last time I saw Johnny Thunders play live was at The Marquee Club in Soho, London. I turned up with the rest of the voyeuristic ghouls mainly to see if Johnny could make it through the show without dying on stage. Painfully thin, even by my standards, with a ridiculous amount of eyeliner, Thunders chain-smoked throughout the gig. He was truly fucking awesome; I couldn’t keep my eyes off him. This boy looked at Johnny and was truly mesmerized. If I remember correctly he closed the set with a raucous version of the classic Heartbreakers’ song Born To Lose. Thunders was a unique songwriter who drew upon real life experience and sang from personal experience. Granted this was material of the darkest type but it made for a great album. If you haven’t heard So Alone, you need to because it’s a great post-punk masterpiece.