Thursday, June 17, 2010

Johnny Thunders Dead in New Orleans

Back in 1999, I was speaking at a medical conference in New Orleans, and I hit a few cemeteries to photograph while there. In addition, one of my stops was the "St. Peter Guest House," destination death spot of one of my guitar heroes, Johnny Thunders of the New York Dolls.

Back in 1977, after the Dolls crashed and burned, Thunders left the band to eke out a living as a solo artist as well as fronting various other bands. Toward the end of his life, he took up permanent residence at the St. Peter Guest House on St. Peter Street, near the French Quarter of New Orleans. In 1991, he was found dead of a heroin overdose in his room. Rock and Roll lost a minor deity that day.

So anyway, I was walking to the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 to see Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau's tomb, and decided to stop in the Guest House, just because I could. I walked into the tiny lobby and was face to face with a woman at a desk. I explained that I didn't really want anything, that I was just a New York Dolls fan and...she cut me off and said, "Oh, that Johnny Thunders." I nodded and she said, "Wait here, I'll go get Royce. He found the body."

Imagine my surprise...I said thanks, and waited tentatively a few minutes until Royce, the maintenance man, came in. He was about 60, tall and lanky, and just started talking to me about Johnny. He said rock and roll fans check into his room all the time. Royce explained to me that he felt it was murder, not suicide, because when he went in and found the body, all Johnny's guitars and clothes were gone. He felt that one or more of his "friends" (not meaning members of the Dolls) most likely shot him up with a lethal dose and made off with his belongings. Truly, the man was "Born to Lose," as he sang in one of his best solo pieces. (You can hear this on Thunders' best of album "Born to Loose: B.O..")

Royce found Johnny on the floor next to his bed with the bedsheets crunched in a deathgrip by his stiff hands. By his solemn tone, I could tell he was affected by this experience, and was quite mistrutful of the media's and law enforcement's handling of the incident. Warm and friendly, Royce invited me to stay at his home in the French Quarter next time I came to town. Unfortunately I've never been back, but my next trip happened to be to NYC, where Manhattan's Hard Rock Cafe had one of Johnny's Les Paul Jr.s hanging on the wall. Strumming the strings as I walked by made me think of his song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," a song the Dolls would sing in homage to him after the band regrouped in 2004.

For a good read on the Dolls and demise of Johnny Thunders, check out Nina Antonia's book, "The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon (Omnibus Press)."