Down To Kill - Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers (Jungle)
Let’s be honest: John Anthony Genzale Jr.’s reputation as a pharmaceutical repository often threatens to overshadow the scraggly legacy he left behind with the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers as the toxically charming Johnny Thunders. Taking Keith Richards’ lead by spiking up his blue-black hair and taking up smack, Thunders surprised absolutely no one nearly 15 years ago when his ticket was punched in a manner that came nowhere within sniffing distance of “natural.” He. Was. A. Donkey.
The repackaging, reshuffling, remixing, and regurgitation of The Heartbreakers’ only studio album “L.A.M.F.” has reached obsessive compulsive proportions since its release back in 1977, completely understandable given a knob job rivaled only by the Bowie mix of The
Stooges’ “Raw Power” in terms of inner ear infection clarity. Considering the magic of digital technology, it’s probably safe to say that Todd Rundgren and Shadow Morton’s legacy on “New York Dolls” and “Too Much Too Soon” respectively is somewhat less than bulletproof as well.
“Down To Kill” is a double-disc, single-DVD Pandora’s box of supposedly previously unreleased material, but with the glut of Thunders/Heartbreakers loss leaders out there, I lost track of it all years ago and can’t really vouch for how much of this collection actually qualifies as new. And this is coming from someone who has fallen hard for just about every “remastered w/bonus tracks” compendium on God’s green earth. A pox on Rhino, Castle, Sanctuary, Razor & Tie, Captain Oi, et al.
Disc 1, subtitled “Raw & Rare,” features a brace of studio recordings from not only the Heartbreakers, but Walter Lure & The Ramones, Heroes (Walter Lure, Billy Rath, Henri-Paul, and Steve Nicol), and The Heartbreakers with ex-Clash drummer Terry Chimes sitting in for Jerry Nolan. There’s even a track (“Flight”) recorded with the band’s original line-up, with future Voidoid Richard Hell on bass, that sounds alarmingly pleasant, welding a slithering guitar figure to surprisingly lovelorn lyrics about punctual airport departures.
The 1976 demos, recorded at Nap Studios in Staten Island, besides being ground zero for the band’s most notorious line-up - the one that would get blamed for everything from off-loading narcotism and Nancy Spungen on wide-eyed, unsuspecting London kids to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby - are tough, no-nonsense, floggings of several songs that ultimately wound up on “L.A.M.F.,” Lure purportedly responsible for many of the licks that were passed off as proof of Thunders’ genius.
The Riverside demos, recorded in December 1977 with Chimes on parole from The Clash, is where everything comes together in a nimbus cloud of dubiously-lined Chuck Berry riffs and questionable manners, Thunders and Lure revving their guitars like post-apocalyptic lumberjacks and muscling through “London Boys” and “Too Much Junkie Business,” seemingly guided by a mission statement crafted with input from some of New York’s scurviest dope peddlers and inspired by the gauntlet thrown down by the Sex Pistols’ “New York.” Unfortunately, there was nowhere else to go from here but downhill - in Thunders case like an avalanche – the band eternally suspended between genius and a dribbling nod.
Live, the Heartbreakers resembled nothing if not a closed-head injury support group and whether their shuffling, mumbling, sleep-walking
countenance was authentic or a complete piss-take is anyone’s guess. To those who subscribe to the popular, grain-of-truth notion that Thunders greedily swallowed, smoked, or snorted everything he could lay hands on, it will come as no surprise that Disc 2, which spreads the disease over two sets captured in 1977 at London’s Speakeasy, veers dangerously close to “Metallic K.O.” territory due to his special brand of barbed eloquence and audience diplomacy acumen.
Twenty-two years on, the live DVD footage, filmed in London at the Lyceum and Marquee in 1984, looks surprisingly sharp, Thunders approaching every second on stage like a shootout at the OK corral. Despite his diminutive stature, the guy had balls the size of a bull elephant, but was apparently only half as smart. How best to explain challenging anyone and everyone at the Lyceum to a dust-up, lobbing a few casual asides in the general direction of everyone’s mum, and never bothering to look back to see if Lure, Rath, and Nolan had his back (they didn’t)?
The Greenhouse Studio segment depicts a kindler, gentler Thunders fumbling his way through four acoustic tracks and if you think it’s difficult to slot “kindler,” “gentler,” and “Thunders” into one sentence, try sitting down and watching it. The most amazing thing here, though, bordering on revelatory, is a short, unidentified French film clip (perhaps from "Mona Et Moi"?) of Thunders entering a Parisian café, ordering a glass of milk and a pack of Luckys (no filter), and engaging one of the locals in semi-coherent small talk about the relative dangers of Chicago and New York. Who would’ve guessed the guy was hiding an uncanny, seemingly natural knack for acting, exuding the type of greasy, scruffy charisma which wouldn’t have been entirely out of place on something like, oh, “The Sopranos.” No, I haven’t been drinking. Had to give it up.
Compared to true believer and liner notes compiler Nina Antonia, who’s laboring under the impression that Thunders and Nolan now claim pearly gates mailing addresses, my love of the band is decidedly less weatherproof. Without Lure performing on-stage CPR many nights, Thunders’ wheels would have come off long before they finally did and when they did, like the last time I saw him back in 1989 at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit, it wasn’t pretty, exhibiting all of the down-home charm of a methamphetamine lab. Fortunately, “Down To Kill” finds all members of the choir freshly scrubbed and dressed in their Sunday best. Aside from the “L.A.M.F.” two-disc special limited edition (also on Jungle), this is all the Heartbreakers you’ll ever need.