Disturbance in Your Mind
A French Quarter rock-n-roll tragedy
Although tragic and certainly premature, Thunders’ death at thirty-eight wasn’t unexpected. He’d spent years in the throes of a heroin and cocaine addiction so vicious it was notable even by the standards of the New York City punk rock scene in the ’70s and ’80s. (Even the infamously heroin-dependent Dee Dee Ramone, who co-wrote the junkie anthem “Chinese Rocks” for punk supergroup Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, had stopped speaking to him.) By all reported accounts, at the end of his life Thunders looked like hell—gaunt, clammy, and greenish, and plagued by lumps and bruises that many suspected were caused by a retroviral form of leukemia, which is, like HIV, transmittable through blood-to-blood contact like needle-sharing between IV drug users. Which he was still doing plenty of by the end of his life. For a recent piece on ByNWR.com, his Heartbreakers bandmate Walter Lure told rock writer Bob Mehr that “between his legs and his arms, he looked like a pizza. So many track marks.” Films like Lech Kowalski’s 1999 Thunders investigation Born to Lose: The Last Rock n Roll Movie, as well as the 2014 documentary Looking for Johnny, show a sunken, haunted, very sick man.
Born John Anthony Genzale in Queens, New York, Johnny Thunders made his name with the New York Dolls, the influential and iconic glam-punk band that somehow lasted, in a maelstrom of drugs and glitter, for four years and three albums in the early ’70s. He went on to play in the Heartbreakers with Lure and Richard Hell as well as in a short-lived collaboration with the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, Gang War, before recording a run of surprisingly gentle solo albums as the ’70s exhaustedly slid into the ’80s. His last studio project, 1988’s Copy Cats, took on girl-group, soul, and R&B tunes from his ’50s and ’60s childhood (including “Crawfish,” from the 1958 Elvis movie King Creole). And his unhinged, careening guitar style, with its early rock-and-roll influence, stands as a bona fide for why he was in town in the first place: he wanted to make a record in the fertile crescent of American popular music.
Willy DeVille, Thunders’ hip Lower East Side paisan, had done that very thing. His 1990 Victory Mixture was a collection of New Orleans R&B standards produced by local musician Carlo Ditta at Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint Studios with an all-star cast: Earl King, Ernie K-Doe, Dr. John, and more. DeVille stayed in a French Quarter apartment whose front stoop, where he liked to drink beer and play guitar, offered a clear view of the St. Peter Guesthouse. In an interview for Kowalski’s film, he sat there with a six-pack of Heineken and pointed at the doorway he’d watched the coroner’s office carry Johnny’s body bag out of in 1991, “bent like a pretzel” from rigor mortis.
“The tragedy is in the ground here,” DeVille explained to the filmmaker. “Something can happen. If you think you can come down here and things are gonna go your way . . . this is New Orleans.”
It’s cryptic language for discussing a rock-star overdose—a sad story, but one that gets told often. Here’s the rub: the final toxicology report, pictured in the two films and cited in Mehr’s piece, showed only small amounts of methadone and cocaine in the guitarist’s system—contrary to what coroner’s investigator John Gagliano told the Associated Press in a news brief that ran April 29, 1991. So he hadn’t OD’d. What happened?
Kowalski’s footage goes down a rabbit hole of interviews with street-level Quarter characters who interacted with Thunders during his short time in town, including one guy credited only as “Danny the Coke Dealer.” Among these are brothers Mark and Michael Ricks, who were staying at the St. Peter with their friend Stacy, an escort who worked the bars on the lake side of Bourbon Street—a part of the Quarter that, during New Orleans’ crime-plagued early ’90s, was more the domain of hustlers than tourists. On April 23, with seventy dollars Stacy had made that day, the quartet went to Pat O’Brien’s and Kagan’s nearby for drinks and then parted ways; the brothers didn’t, they said, see Thunders alive again. In the morning, Mark Ricks told Kowalski, “his room looked like he was trying to get out of it, or he was in a struggle . . . his stuff was just laying on the floor.” The brothers were questioned by NOPD, DeVille said, but released promptly.
The Times-Picayune’s report on Thunders’ death, double-bylined to music writer Scott Aiges and crime reporter Walt Philbin, ran Thursday, April 25. It’s likely the origin of details that have trickled down through the years in the world of Thunders fandom: that there were empty methadone pill packets scattered around the room, and a syringe floating in the toilet tank. He, or somebody, had been making enough noise at 8:00 a.m. for another guest to call the front desk and complain. When a clerk phoned up Thunders answered, but he wasn’t seen until the housekeeper, Mildred Coleman, let herself in to room 37 at around 3:30 p.m. and found his body crumpled up partway underneath a dresser—hence DeVille’s observation that the body bag was “bent like a pretzel.”
The Times-Picayune didn’t run the Associated Press’s item, nor did it conduct any follow-up—perhaps because, as MTV reporter and rock photographer Bob Gruen told Aiges, everyone had reason to believe it was an overdose. On the other hand, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine (and over the years, many have) that in the Quarter’s dark alleys, Thunders—who was rumored to be carrying lots of cash from recent shows in Europe and Asia—met with foul play.
But for every explanation, there always seems to be complicating evidence. There weren’t enough drugs in his system to kill him. According to the Times-Picayune, there were still guitars and cash in his room when his body was discovered. If he had crossed paths with someone who meant him harm, why would they leave valuables behind?
“When you live like Johnny did, you’re always a step away from oblivion,” Walter Lure told Bob Mehr. It reads like he meant it cosmically, but the sentiment was literally true: Thunders was as sick as he looked. The autopsy report confirmed that he was weakened by the suspected leukemia, as well as cirrhosis, lymphoma, and a pulmonary edema that was probably a consequence of long-term drug abuse. It wouldn’t have taken a lot to make his body give out for good.
After the renovation that turned the St. Peter Guesthouse into the Inn on St. Peter, room 37 became room 7, averaging about 125 dollars per night (not counting festival season). The only ghosts there are now the ones of the music that never got made.
Alison Fensterstock writes about American culture for outlets including NPR, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and others. She has served as the music critic for both Gambit and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and was the founding program director for the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation.