Revisiting JohnnyThunders and the Heartbreakers's 'L.A.M.F.' Live at Bowery Electric
Members of Blondie, Guns 'N Roses, MC5, and The Replacements gathered at Bowery Electric to pay tribute to the New York Doll's most iconic moments.
In 1975, Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan would emerge from the ashes of the New York Dolls and form the Heartbreakers. They'd also recruit Walter Lure, a confederate from the miniscule glam rock circuit in NYC, as well as a post-Television Richard Hell for a brief couple of seconds. (He'd shortly leave to form the Voidoids, and Billy Rath would take his place.) The Heartbreakers fled to the UK, where they were instant heroes to all the young punks who were just beginning to get their acts together. They opened for the Sex Pistols on the Anarchy In The UK tour, and developed a larger following than they could have garnered back home, with the closed circuit of the early days of American punk rock.
The band were signed to Track Records and began work on their first album, the star-crossed, ill-fated, now-legendary L.A.M.F. The acronym (for "Like a motherfucker) was allegedly taken from the street gangs Thunders (aka John Anthony Genzale of Queens, New York) ran with as a teenager, and matched the band's reputation perfectly, as did the cover photo, the four band members standing in the doorway of an abandoned building, perfectly capturing their bad-boy, keep-your-daughters-away image. The songs are flat-out great, near legendary: sharp slices of rockabilly/50's infused punk, glorious guitar riffs, and actual hooks everywhere you turned. But what killed the record and made it fall flat on its face was the production and the mastering: murky, impenetrable, it smothered the life out of everything that was good about the music and render it near unlistenable. This was due to the band's dodgy record deal, a revolving door of recording personnel and facilities, and, well, drugs. It was the final straw for Jerry Nolan, who left the band. The Heartbreakers would break up in 1977, and Thunders would rescue the tapes and remix it in 1984, with a much more palatable result, but at that point it was too late to save the band. He would keep his solo career going until 1991, when he died of drug-related causes (it's complicated) in New Orleans.
It probably goes without saying, but the Heartbreakers' junkie chic was absolutely not image. For every blindingly brilliant gig, there were more that started late or were cut short, and they were almost all full of Johnny letting himself be baited by the morons who came to see the junkies onstage. (When they switched to speed for a while, it was actually a good thing, as evidenced by the last year's Live At The Village Gate, which is a nonstop blur of energy and riffs and precision.)
L.A.M.F. may have been a disappointment, but there were enough live records that captured the Heartbreakers' genie in a bottle and showed the world how great these songs actually were. D.T.K.: Live At The Speakeasy is probably the most infamous; it was a great way to clear the room at the end of a party in college, between the burning lava guitar riffs and the heckles back at the crowd in a grating, unmistakably Queens accent that Johnny never lost.
"Don't you fucking kids dance? What the fuck are you doing here? You come to fucking just stand around and look funny? Why don't you fucking dance? For our next tune, for you boring motherfuckers…"
Decades later, this is the legend that causes a group of greying punks to get together and perform the record live. This week, Tommy Stinson (The Replacements, Guns 'N Roses, Bash 'N Pop), Wayne Kramer (MC5), Clem Burke (Blondie) and OG Heartbreaker/NY Doll Walter Lure got together to perform the album at the Bowery Electric. The show sold out instantly, and the band were able to put together four shows last week. The audience was a mix of grey hair and green hair, the now-older kids who remember Thunders from back in the day, and the actual kids who (in some cases) weren't even born yet when the record came out.
The band let slip that there had only been two days of rehearsal, but that's two days of rehearsal with Tommy Stinson, who at this point is the poster boy of a journeyman rock and roll musician. He ran the show during the Replacements reunion gigs, reminding Paul Westerberg of the lyrics and the chords, and kept his compatriot from going off the rails, and performed the same function at the Bowery Electric Wednesday night, holding the bottom down fiercely along with Clem Burke. Burke was almost too good for this gig: not because Jerry Nolan wasn't a great rock and roll drummer, but because Nolan was more straightforward of a drummer. Stinson and Burke created a strong enough backbone for Kramer and Lure, whose hearts were in the right place, even if their performances weren't as intense as the rhythm section. Kramer's contribution to the evening went beyond his role as an early punk grandpa: he teamed up with Thunders in the late '70s to form Gang War, a punk rock supergroup that never got off the ground;
And from the first note, the audience was full on with them, a mixture of nostalgia and remembrance tinged with the excitement of getting to hear those songs you've heard so many times, played live right in front of you, surrounded by people who feel the same way about those songs that you do. No one had to be invited to singalong, which had mixed results on songs like "Chinese Rocks": It felt more than a little disingenuous in 2016 to be part of a group chorus singing along to an ode to heading down to Chinatown to score cheap heroin. Lure made sure that they ad-libbed the lyric changes Thunders was so fond of that make the live albums things you shouldn't listen to in polite company, such as the charming "I'm still sucking a Chinese cock" substitution. Thunders gigs were rife with these, along with Johnny's delight in ribbing the crowd and admonishing them for their reaction (or lack thereof). Tommy Stinson would tell the crowd to go fuck themselves at one point, saying that he was told he needed to do that.
Vocal duties were shared by Stinson, Jesse Malin, and Walter Lure, with cameos by ex-Dead Boy Cheetah Chrome, as well as the Dictators' Handsome Dick Manitoba, who would provide the most truly heartbreaking moment of the night. Manitoba was advertised as part of the original lineup for these gigs, but was conspicuously absent. When he did appear towards the end of the night, he explained that he'd just come from the wake for Norton Records' Billy Miller, who just passed away earlier this week. His tribute would end up being not a Thunders song, but rather a version of the MC5's "Kick Out The Jams," which was frenetic and heartfelt, Manitoba throwing himself into the crowd and making eye contact as far as he could make it. The crowd lovingly added the harmony counterparts to the verses, completely uninvited. Nostalgia or not, there is something about being in the same room as the guy who played the guitar on the original song, and getting to see him play it; your imagination gladly filled in anything that Kramer might have missed. It fit into the evening because Kick Out The Jams, like L.A.M.F. was one of those records whose very existence you used to find the members of your tribe back in the day; it probably (hopefully?) serves the same purpose now.
The songs on the record were presented faithfully, enthusiastically, some stronger than others, the reaction the same to everyone, the audience singing along with the kind of precision one earns from singing along to the song over years or decades (and that included Messrs. Stinson and Malin). There was obvious delight from the crowd and from the people on stage to this particular reaction; the tribe these days is larger and not as closely gathered, but it's still there. For the last number of the night, the crowd boisterously joined in on a decidedly jolly and regrettably—but—absolutely to this group of people--anthemic "Too Much Junkie Business," not part of L.A.M.F. (you can find it on 1982's In Cold Blood) but one of Thunders' trademark tunes nonetheless, and therefore vital. Even if it felt somewhat hypocritical to participate in this particular ritual, there was too much energy and leftover goodwill from the evening to not let yourself join in. It may be the last time you get to do such a thing.
Band photos by Tracy Ketcher
Setlist photo by Margaret Saadi Kramer
Caryn Rose is kicking out the jams on Twitter.