JOHNNY THUNDERSIn the Flesh (Amsterdamned)
The late Johnny Thunders wasn’t the world‘s fastest or slickest guitarist, yet his thick power chords, reckless hara-kiri thrusts up the ax’s neck and distinctive twist on Chuck Berry‘s style — bending the strings with an extra fat and deliberately lazy juiciness — influenced just about every subsequent punkhard-rock soloist, from the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Aerosmith‘s Joe Perry, to Jeff Dahl and the Stitches’ Johnny Witmer. He was also a severely underrated lead singer, with a sneering bravado that turned guilelessly into mournful vulnerability, and ultimately more soulful than David Johansen, his ex-partner in the New York Dolls, the band now credited with Starting It All. Thunders‘ post-Dolls career was even more thrilling, if unpredictable, especially his abrasively exhilarating work with the Heartbreakers (L.A.M.F. Revisited) and his classic 1978 solo album, So Alone, an unforgettable collection of boisterous pub rockers and poignant balladry augmented by guests Patti Palladin, Phil Lynott, Chrissie Hynde, Steve Marriott and two of the Sex Pistols.
The previously unreleased, well-recorded live CD In the Flesh documents a rare reunion with reclusive former Dolls bassist and longtime West Hollywood denizen Arthur “Killer” Kane at the Roxy in 1987, four years before Thunders’ death in New Orleans. “I‘d like to welcome my man Arthur back to the real world,” Thunders announces at the beginning of the set, before launching into his trademark monolithic brutalization of “Pipeline,” which replaces the Chantays’ sublime but subdued keyboard chimes with an absurdly loud and vulgar guitar fuzz that more accurately evokes the unstoppable crush of big Hawaiian waves. The rest of the 63-minute concert is a satisfying mix of Dolls standards (“Lonely Planet Boy,” “Personality Crisis”), leering Heartbreakers blasts (“Can‘t Keep My Eyes on You” and the anthemic “Born To Lose”), and cover songs transformed charismatically by Thunders’ playful whine and subversion of lyrics (P.F. Sloan‘s “Eve of Destruction” becomes “Eve of Seduction”). Halfway through the show, there’s a contrastingly sweet unplugged solo miniset that includes an ominous, haunting take on the Stones‘ “Play With Fire” and one of Thunders’ prettiest ballads, “You Can‘t Put Your Arms Round a Memory” (which so perfectly captures a certain New Yawk wistfulness that it was used in a recent episode of The Sopranos and in Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead). When he breaks off dramatically midway through another lovely reverie, “It‘s Not Enough” (which isn’t listed in the credits), the second-generation glam-rocker crowd howls with so much dismay that Thunders has to calm them down with several more acoustic tunes.
The rest of the band returns for five explosive closing salvos, including a version of “Green Onions” that kicks off with ex-DollHeartbreaker Jerry Nolan‘s condensed BonhamMoon drum solo, sounding like the furniture-breaking chaos of a barroom brawl, before being consumed by the radiantly glowing drone of Thunders’ and Barry Jones‘ stalking guitars. Even now, 13 years later, the sheer force of Thunders’ larger-than-life personality fills a room, belying the lyrics to “Sad Vacation,” his sentimental ode to the misunderstood Sid Vicious: “Singing from the graveit‘s so very hard to do.”