Johnny Thunders: Thy Will Be Done
The Death of Johnny Thunders
by Bob Mehr
Reading time 30 Minutes
Ace reporter BOB MEHR performs a new autopsy on the mysterious death of JOHNNY THUNDERS!
Johnny made his choice, or lived out his destiny, and he had a right to it. He always went to drugs to be able to face the day, and he always went to his guitar to be himself. There's no judging to be done. – Richard Hell
The first official word out of New Orleans
The first official word out of New Orleans came from the Associated Press on April 29, 1991, five days after his body was found.
“Johnny Thunders, a founding member of the 1970s rock 'n' roll band the New York Dolls, died of an overdose of cocaine and methadone, according to the coroner's office.”
"He died at his own hands by taking too much drugs," noted John Gagliano, chief investigator for the coroner. Gagliano told the AP that preliminary autopsy results revealed “substantial amounts” of the two drugs in his system.
“Thunders, whose real name was John Anthony Genzale, was found dead April 24 in a French Quarter hotel room littered with methadone packets and a syringe floating in the toilet,” continued the brief news report.
"Some people just keep taking drugs, they just don't know how much their body can stand," offered Gagliano.
He might as well have said Thunders died because his father abandoned him as a child, or because he’d been given too much too soon by rock and roll, or because he’d become a prisoner of his own fame, or rather, infamy. All the clichés were true -- and yet, none of these were the truth. Not even the coroner’s report.
As the later toxicology report would reveal, Gagliano was wrong. Thunders had not died of an overdose—only small amounts of coke and methadone were found in his system—though it was understandable why many would jump to the conclusion. As a member of the Dolls, leader of the Heartbreakers, and a solo artist, Thunders had reveled and rutted in his role as a guitar slinging junkie outlaw, unafraid to tempt fate daily. It was easy, then, to make assumptions about his death.
Almost from the moment Thunders’ body was found in room 37 of the St. Peter House hotel, his passing would launch a cottage industry of conspiracy theories. The lurid, mysterious circumstances fueled the speculation: He’d come to New Orleans fresh from travels in Europe and Asia, carrying wads of cash, and a large supply of methadone, as he continued to battle his well-documented addiction to heroin. He’d also arrived, as would later be revealed, in the advanced stages of leukemia (a disease possibly brought on by sharing needles indiscriminately for years).
By the time the cops responded to a hotel maid’s discovery of Thunders’ contorted body beneath a dresser, the room had already been ransacked and burglarized. Thunders’ clothes, cash, and guitars, even his passport, were all gone – vanished for good. The only witnesses to his final hours were a pair of young French Quarter dwellers with shady criminal histories.
“No one knows exactly what happened – that’s the mystery,” said Walter Lure, Thunders’ running buddy and bandmate in The Heartbreakers. “But really, there’s no mystery. I mean, when you live like Johnny did, you’re always a step away from oblivion.”
In the aftermath, Thunders’ family – his sister Mariann Bracken and mother Josephine Genzale – never got the satisfaction of a proper police investigation. “They weren’t told anything,” said Nina Antonia, author of the definitive Thunders biography, In Cold Blood. “They felt it was a mixture of the police not doing their job properly, and not knowing or caring who Johnny was -- they didn’t even think of it as a possible crime scene. To them, he wasn’t ‘Johnny Thunders,’ but just another junkie John Doe.”
Even Thunders’ reason for being in New Orleans has been a subject of speculation. To those who knew him well, the Crescent City and its music had long been a personal beacon. For two decades, Thunders had talked about wanting to travel there, steep himself in the music, and start an R&B band.
“New Orleans first came up in conversation with Johnny, I’m guessing in the early ‘80s,” said Peter Perrett, a Thunders pal and frontman of U.K. post-punk combo The Only Ones. “It was obviously a place of romance and mystique to Johnny. He said he wanted to go there and form a band with a bunch of old, black, blues musicians. It was like he was sharing a secret ambition. At the time, I assumed it was just a momentary aspiration that would disappear with the dawn. I learned much later that Johnny had spoken of this desire on many other occasions.”
Thunders had come chasing a dream, seeking a mythical, musical New Orleans. Instead, he would find and die in the real city – a town that by the early ‘90s was awash in vice and corruption from the top down, where the cops were crooked, and the crooks lived to prey upon the weak, upon the dreamers.
“When I heard the news of Johnny’s death, the shock was accompanied by an other-worldly feeling, the fact that it happened in New Orleans,” recalled Perrett. “I wrote the first verse of a song called ‘Thy Will Be Done.’”
You always wanted to go there someday
You always wanted to get there somehow
We’ll have big fun in New Orleans
Thy will be done in New Orleans
“I think it was a sort of pilgrimage,” said Antonia. “Johnny was a bluesman in his own unique way. He was incredibly pure in his musical vision. Though, sometimes, I wonder if he wasn’t like a cat that crawled away to the place he wanted to be…if he’d gone to New Orleans feeling as if his time was almost over.”
Long before he’d founded proto-punk band the Dictators, before punk rock even existed, Andy Shernoff knew Johnny Thunders -- or John Anthony Genzale, as he was then known.
“We went to the same elementary school in the early 60s. He wasn’t in my class but one of the kids in the school yard,” said Shernoff. “We’d play city games – stickball, punch ball. It was all about sports and was a very casual relationship.” What Shernoff remembered most, what marked Johnny as different from the start, was that he came from a broken home. “No one I knew came from a broken home. The kids in my class, I don’t remember anybody – everybody had two parents in the house.”
Thunders’ father Emil Genzale was a sharp-looking womanizer who’d left his wife Josephine, and children Mariann and Johnny, early on. For Thunders, that paternal rejection left a hole he would seek to fill the rest of his life.
“If you spent time with Johnny and sensed the person, you could see that underneath the bravado there was a very hurt child. A child that had felt abandoned by his father,” said Nina Antonia. “People who have that experience often feel there is something lacking in themselves because of that.” (During the height of Thunders’ fame with the New York Dolls in the ‘70s, Emil Genzale would reenter his son’s life briefly, but he died in 1985, before ever really reconciling with his son.)
Antonia’s research further suggests that a young Thunders “may have been abused in some way – but I don’t want to go into realms that we can’t be certain of… I do know that the absence of a father, the pain of that, seemed to be very real. He was a very emotionally insecure person. I don’t think he ever felt secure. I think the drugs became his security.”
Johnny’s mother Josephine had to work two jobs to make ends meet, and they often didn’t. “It had been so hard for them financially when he was growing up,” said Antonia. “He knew what not having enough was. Although he was very [emotionally] spoiled, too, by his mum and his sister. He was properly adored. Which I think led to him becoming a right little performer.”
In 1964, the timing became perfect. “We were totally into sports, that was what we did, until the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan,” said Andy Shernoff. “That changed my life and his life. Girls loved the Beatles and so we loved the Beatles. We were like twelve years old, just coming into puberty. Suddenly rock and roll became a lot more important in everyone’s life.”
Thunders picked up bass, then later guitar, and worked through a series of teen bands, all the while devouring the flourishing rock culture of the late ‘60s.
Thunders’ future Heartbreakers bandmate Walter Lure would frequently encounter a young Johnny on the scene. “Between ‘66 and ‘70 I was in college, and I would go to concerts all the time – the late show at the Fillmore almost every weekend, I went to Woodstock, all the pop festivals,” Lure recalled. “All through this time, every show I’d go to I’d always see Johnny there. He always had the expensive British clothes, the clothes the British musicians wore. He’d always be dressed in the velvet pants and high-heeled shoes.”
By 1971, Thunders was well on his way to stardom with the New York Dolls. He’d started the Dolls with a group of fellow downtown scenesters: guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, drummer Billy Murcia and bassist Arthur Kane. They cajoled David Johansen, a harmonica-playing frontman from Staten Island with a resemblance to Mick Jagger, into fronting the band. Drawing from blues, girl groups, glam rock and the Rolling Stones, the cross-dressing crew of New York “Dead End Kids” became the toast of the town. Their residency at the Mercer Arts Center made them a sensation, and even Murcia’s death from an overdose during an early U.K. tour in 1972 – he would be replaced by Jerry Nolan -- couldn’t slow their momentum.
They signed to Mercury Records, releasing 1973’s eponymous debut and 1974’s Too Much Too Soon. But the group crumbled under the weight of unmet commercial expectations, Thunders’ battles with Johansen, and his and drummer Nolan’s increasing use of heroin.
After the Dolls split, Thunders formed the Heartbreakers, with Nolan and Lure, and briefly Richard Hell. The band’s break came in 1976, when latter-day Dolls manager and Sex Pistols impresario Malcolm McLaren brought the band over to the U.K. for the infamous Anarchy Tour with the Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash.
Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols found Thunders a likeable character, but a man lost in his addiction. “He was like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, but a bit slicker and better looking. He was friendly with me, he was cool. Though I wouldn’t fuckin’ leave me wallet lying around with Thunders,” said Jones.
“There weren’t many times he wasn’t high. I didn’t know what dope was at the time. I’d find out meself later. But you’re really not living like a normal person. You’re in this other space, just bullshitting your way through things, being charming for the sake of it. There wasn’t no one real there – that’s what I got from him, looking back. It was just about dope -- when junkies are junkies they’re not that great to be around.”
In England, the Heartbreakers recorded a classic LP, L.A.M.F. in 1977. But disputes over the album’s mix felled the group, with an unhappy Nolan leaving the band and hassles with the label further sinking any serious commercial prospects.
Thunders’ time in the U.K. marked what Lure viewed as his full descent into heroin. “By the time we left England, he couldn’t go a few days without it anymore,” he said.
In 1980, after the Heartbreakers’ demise and the release of his solo debut, So Alone, Thunders partnered up with Wayne Kramer, the former guitarist of Detroit rockers the MC5, in a short-lived band called Gang War.
“Gang War was supposed to be this meeting of New York and Detroit,” said Kramer, who’d just been released from federal prison on drug charges. “It sounded romantic and we did a couple tours, but they were utter nightmares. Johnny was always having to find drugs and he couldn’t do anything without copping. To say it was a sideshow is putting it mildly.
“Johnny believed the myth,” observed Kramer. “He wasn’t able to separate his romanticism of the rock mythology from what the reality -- what his reality -- was or had become. It made for a tragicomic performance sometimes. But mostly it was a tragedy.”
Though there were periodic reunions with the Heartbreakers throughout the ‘80s in New York – what Lure described as “rent money gigs.” Thunders spent the decade putting together different projects, new combos, ad hoc groups, whatever he needed to do to make it to the next gig, make a few bucks, and get enough for a fix.
“It got to be crazier and crazier,” said Lure. “I don’t know how people could tour with him. He’d be ripping them off, or showing up late or missing shows. Or he’d be pawning his guitar and someone would have to get money to get it out of the pawn shop so he could play the show that night. Just endless madness.”
To survive, Thunders kept on the road, following commercial opportunities, often abroad, wherever they led -- even as his addiction worsened and his health deteriorated. “Those gigs provided his income, but they also exhausted him,” noted Antonia.
The only reprieve during the decade came in the mid-‘80s when Thunders relocated to Sweden to be with girlfriend Susanne, who gave birth to a daughter Jamie, the last of his four children (with three sons coming from his former wife Julie).
Even this window of domestic bliss wasn’t enough to turn Thunders around from drugs. “He couldn’t stop. He’d been to rehab like, three or four times at least,” said Lure. “In Sweden with Susanne he was pretty much together when he was staying with her, but it wouldn’t last. Couple weeks back on the road, soon as he got into the music scene, he’d go back to his old ways.”
As the 1990s dawned
As the 1990s dawned, the final months of Johnny Thunders’ life found him in a shocking physical state.
“To me, that last year of him, it looked like he had AIDS,” said Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Jones ran into Thunders one night at the Rainbow Bar in Hollywood. “His fucking face, he had that look -- his eyes were sunken. That was what I thought – that it was AIDS.”
After the breakup of the Pistols and a move to America, Jones would follow Thunders into heroin addiction for several years before getting clean. “In the ‘80s when I was in New York there was shooting galleries, they used to have buckets with fucking used needles in them and all junkies used to use them,” said Jones. “This is because they didn’t know what AIDS were. And Thunders was one of them dudes, he wasn’t cautious.”
Walter Lure, who’d also stopped using by this time, continued to play with Thunders periodically, including a final Heartbreakers reunion in 1990. He, too, was increasingly disturbed by Thunders’ appearance. “Sometimes I’d see him on the street and he’d look green in the daylight – just so unhealthy,” said Lure. “It would be 98 degrees and he’d have these socks or these cut off sleeves covering his arms, ‘cause there was so many track marks. Between his legs and his arms, he looked like a pizza. So many track marks.”
A 1989 story in the New York Times reported a worrying linkage between IV drug use and the HTLV-II virus which caused AIDS and, more significantly in Thunders’ case, leukemia. One study suggested that the virus had affected as much “10 percent of a group of drug users in New York.”
When Thunders developed a series of lumps and bruises on his body in early 1991, it seemed to confirm there was something seriously wrong. His former Dolls/Heartbreakers partner Jerry Nolan feared it was cancer. Nolan’s girlfriend’s mother had died from leukemia and evinced the same physical symptoms as Thunders was showing. “Jerry begged him to go to hospital when he saw the lumps and the bruises,” said Nina Antonia.
Despite his friend’s pleas, Thunders was adamantly against checking himself into a hospital. “Hospitals are not kindly to junkies, they judge them,” said Antonia. “What is the junkie’s worst fear? That they are not going to be able to get their drugs, that no one’s going to get their methadone, and that the doctors are going to judge them. They fear hospitals and the system, and Johnny certainly did.”
Instead, Thunders spent his final weeks abroad, gigging and recording. On March 30 he headed to Japan for a tour, where he was still venerated by audiences. He was so sick upon arrival that he was forced to visit the hospital; doctors told him to cancel his dates and rest, but Thunders refused and the shows went on. After Japan, Thunders stopped in Thailand for a short respite. He got himself fitted for some new silk suits and had a fresh tattoo added to his forearm – an image of Jesus on the cross.
Thunders then traveled to London to see a doctor who provided him a supply of methadone, enough to keep him going for a while. Afterwards he headed to Germany, making a nice payday playing some acoustic shows in Braunschweig and Berlin. Then a final stop in Cologne, to add vocals to a new version of his Heartbreakers classic “Born to Lose” with the German band Die Toten Hosen and a group of punk all-stars.
From there he was off to New Orleans on a musical mission. He’d been inspired by his friend Willy Deville’s 1990 album Victory Mixture. Deville had relocated to New Orleans and recorded the album with some of the city’s top talent, including Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Eddie Bo. Thunders wanted to try something similar. He’d already been assembling a group of New York players, including Nolan and guitarist Stevie Klasson, to help him realize his long-held vision for a Crescent City-styled R&B big band.
He arrived in in town hoping to soak up a little atmosphere, maybe find a few more cats to fill out the group. It was a dream of sorts – but one he’d never get a chance to fulfill.
After returning to the U.S. and changing planes in Chicago, Thunders finally arrived in New Orleans on the evening of Monday, April 22. He made his way to the French Quarter somewhere after nine thirty and checked into the St. Peter House, at the corner of St. Peter and Burgundy. The front desk clerk noticed he was sweating profusely, dressed in all black, with a ghostly white pallor.
Thunders had arrived carrying guitars, his silk suits and a significant amount of cash – somewhere between $10,000 and $20,000 -- from his German dates. “He was a street person,” said Antonia. “Because he feared the system, or paying income tax, he did at times carry around huge amounts of money. The money would be in bags, just crumpled up like autumn leaves.”
In the hours after he checked into the hotel, Thunders made the acquaintance of a pair of young brothers, Michael and Mark Ricks, who were also staying in a neighboring room at the St. Peter. According to Antonia, Thunders and the brothers smoked a couple joints and adjourned to a nearby bar.
“Johnny arrives in what is a strange town, with its own underworld, its own network of connections,” she said. “He meets these characters, and they probably thought, well he’s got nice clothes, he’s got money. When Johnny was a little bit high, he could be careless… I don’t mean that he flashed his money around. But if you were on the make to perhaps take advantage of someone you would’ve noticed those things.”
As to whether she felt the Ricks brothers had seized on Thunders as an easy mark, Antonia demurs. “I don’t want to say any more than that.”
At some point in the early hours of the morning, Thunders and the Ricks brothers returned to the hotel. According to Antonia, the brothers said they fell asleep in their room only to be awakened around 8 a.m. by a series of loud noises coming from Thunders’ room. The front desk clerk called to check in on Thunders and the sounds. He offered to come speak with her, but never showed – and was not heard from again.
Sometime after 3:30 p.m. on the April 23, Thunders’ body was found by housekeeper Mildred Coleman, who’d let herself in with a passkey after getting no response to her knocks. Police and paramedics descended on the room, which was in disarray, with most of Thunders’ valuables missing. There was nothing to be done. Thunders was pronounced dead, age 38.
The later theories – mostly based on a combination of rumor and conjecture – ran along a few different lines. One version was that Thunders had been given LSD unwittingly, and in an effort to come down from the unpleasant lysergic effects had overdosed by taking too much of his methadone. Another suggested that he’d been given a “hotshot” – a lethal dose of heroin -- so he could be incapacitated and relieved of his cash and belongings.
Or perhaps, most likely, somewhere in the morning hours he simply began retching – his body finally giving out from years of drugs, illness or some combination of the two – and was robbed and left for dead. “The nightmare scenario is that he’s lying there dying,” said Antonia. “And instead of people calling the ambulance they’re just helping themselves to his possessions.”
For all the speculation that would come up about foul play or even an overdose – the latter spurred by coroner’s office investigator John Gagliano’s initial statement to the Associated Press -- the true causes of Thunders’ passing became clear three weeks later. On May 18, the full autopsy and toxicology results were completed for John Genzale, case number CO-372.
An anatomical diagnosis noted the presence of leukemia, as well as signs of narcotism, and indications that he was an AIDS risk (further tests for HIV or hepatitis were, for some reason, not conducted). Samples of Thunders’ blood, urine and vitreous fluids were taken. He tested positive for cocaine and methadone, but only small amounts of the substances were found in his system – not enough to be lethal.
The report’s “Final Diagnoses” ultimately focused on four possible causes. Though the presence of coke and methadone were included among them, the coroner’s written opinion put more of an emphasis on a pulmonary edema – fluid in the lungs, caused by a weakening of the heart, in this case likely from long term drug abuse – as well as malignant lymphoma (of the lymph nodes, lungs, liver and spleen) and early cirrhosis of the liver.
Among Thunders’ friends and bandmates, reactions to his passing were met with shock – both that he was gone but that he’d survived so long. “It was like -- it finally happened. It seemed inevitable,” said Walter Lure. “Still, it was sad, you know?”
Services for Thunders were held in New York on April 29 at the St. Anastasia Church in his native Queens. It was a packed memorial, filled with punk peers and rock and roll celebrities. Despite the pomp, a heaviness hung over the funeral procession to St. Mary’s cemetery where Thunders was buried. His former bandmate Richard Hell would note the scene in his diary.
“Words are spoken over the coffin, and flowers dropped on it, out in the dreary day, finally tapping into the sadness,” wrote Hell. “Like the sadness is a dimension that is always there but we have developed over the years such a way of avoiding. Sort of like the way in his last concerts, in the light, he looked scary, like an accusation or a reminder you'd rather not get.”
The mystery of Johnny Thunders death would endure – in part because of the circumstances of his passing, and in part because of the local constabulary’s apparent disinterest in the case.
“Johnny’s family were angry with the New Orleans police department,” said Antonia. “They felt they made no effort. Why didn’t they seal off the room and [dust for] fingerprints? If there was somebody there when Johnny was dying, why were they not prosecuted? Who stole his things? Those questions did eat away at them.”
Thunders’ sister Mariann Bracken eventually hired a local investigator herself. “She got somebody in New Orleans to have a look around, a proper private detective but they couldn’t come up with anything,” said Antonia.
“There were so many different theories, of course. I always end up going back to the autopsy report -- there was such a small amount of drugs in his body, it wasn’t enough to have killed him. They have to legally report if there are drugs in someone’s system, and there was, but it wasn’t a lethal amount. Simply put: he was a terribly sick man. He was dying…from leukemia and years of accumulated [drug] use as well. That’s the thing that no one seems able to accept.”
As to the company he was keeping on that final night, as far as is known, Mark and Michael Ricks were never seriously questioned by police.
In 1992, just months after Thunders’ death, Michael Ricks was charged and eventually convicted, along with a partner, on two counts of first degree robbery. Ricks portrayed it as a drug deal gone bad, but prosecutors said he’d braced a pair of tourists in the French Quarter -- just outside the St. Peter House hotel -- with a gun after they’d refused his offer to procure them LSD and prostitutes.
The Ricks are perhaps the only people who might be able to shed light on Thunders’ final hours. It seems unlikely they ever will (Michael Ricks remains in prison; attempts to reach both Ricks brothers were unsuccessful).
“Johnny was very vulnerable on the last night of his life to predators,” said Antonia. “Had there been kinder people around him then he might’ve gotten the support to get him to a hospital. Are people implicit in his death? In that way, then yes. He wasn’t cared for in his last hours. Obviously, that’s extremely tragic and upsetting to anyone who loved or cared for Johnny.”
The death of their beloved Johnny would take a devastating emotional toll on Thunders’ mother and sister, and linger through their remaining years. Josephine Genzale died in 1999; Marianne Bracken followed in 2009.
For Antonia, the strange duality of Thunders – a shy little boy and a defiant hellraiser, a gentleman and a rake, a giving soul and a libertine – all flows from the same source.
“I think he had terrible self-esteem from childhood. He was the most confrontational artist that I’ve ever seen and the most riveting as well, but I don’t think he really knew how great he was,” she said. “He may have acted like he did know, especially around other males -- and was a feisty little geezer. But it was all probably hiding a terrible insecurity.”
To Walter Lure, there were always two Johnnys. “It goes back to Johnny Thunders and Johnny Genzale,” said Lure. “John Genzale was a nice quiet guy, meek even. The more John was fucked up on drugs, the cockier, the crazier, the more obnoxious he got. And he’d become Johnny Thunders. Thing was, he felt more comfortable being Johnny Thunders than he did being John Genzale.”
Thoughts of what might’ve been are tantalizing when it comes to Thunders. If he’d somehow managed to survive addiction and illness, could he have benefited commercially from the post-Nirvana reverence for punk’s progenitors? Would he eventually have taken on the mantle of recovered, revered elder statesman, like his rock peers Iggy Pop and Lou Reed? Would he have ever found stability and success in the music business?
“Sadly, I don’t think Johnny would’ve ever been forgiven by the industry, not in his lifetime,” said Antonia. “He always felt that he would get greater glory when he was gone. He knew he would be mythical after his death… and he is.”
An updated version of Nina Antonia’s In Cold Blood – The Authorized Biography of Johnny Thunders, has just been published as an ebook by Jungle Books. Special thanks to Curt Weiss, author of Stranded in the Jungle: Jerry Nolan's Wild Ride -- A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls and Punk Rock. Richard Hell quote from Hot and Cold, Powerhouse Books, 2001.
Bob Mehr is the author of the New York Times bestseller Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.