You Can’t Put Your Arm Around A Memory

In May 1984 I ran into Johnny Thunders in Paris. He was playing at the Gibus club outside Republique. His manager was a German drug dealer. I owed Chris $200 for an 8-ball I had bought in 1982. It hadn’t been half-bad.

“You have to pay me.” The German thought he was a tough guy. “Or else.”

“Fuck off.” Paris was my city.

“You think I’m joking.”

“No, but fuck off anyway.” I had a black gang backing me. The Buffaloes came from the concrete suburbs. Johnny liked that I had told his manager to piss off. “Fucking kraut.”

“That’s right, you don’t owe nothing in Paris for dope you bought in New York.” We went to a cafe on the Canal St. Martin. A dealer gave us a couple of bags. The powder was brown. China White was impossible to find in Paris.

I was never friends with Johnny, but I loved YOU CAN’T PUT YOUR ARMS AROUND A MELODY. At dawn we bid each other farewell with a nod. He went his way and I went mine.

Several years later I was saddened to hear of his death in New Orleans. I suspected foul play. Johnny was a cold stone junkie. Nothing could kill him.

Certainly not drugs.

Two years ago I found this posting on Facebook from Patricia Jarozynski.

“Many rumors surround Thunders’ death at the St. Peter House in New Orleans, Louisiana in April 1991. He apparently died of drug-related causes, but it has been speculated that it was the result of foul play. According to the autobiography Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, Dee Dee Ramone took a call in New York the next day from Stevie Klasson, Johnny’s rhythm guitar player. “They told me that Johnny had gotten mixed up with some bastards… who ripped him off for his methadone supply. They had given him LSD and then murdered him. He had gotten a pretty large supply of methadone in England, so he could travel and stay away from those creeps – the drug dealers, Thunders imitators, and losers like that.”

What is known for certain is that Johnny’s room (no. 37) was ransacked and most of his possessions were missing (passport, makeup, clothes). Rigor mortis had set in with his body positioned in an unnatural state, described by eyewitnesses as “like a pretzel”, underneath a coffee table. Friends and acquaintances acknowledge he had not been using heroin for some time, relying on his methadone prescriptions. The police did not open a criminal investigation.

Singer Willy DeVille, who lived next door to the hotel in which Thunders died, described his death this way:

“I don’t know how the word got out that I lived next door, but all of a sudden the phone started ringing and ringing. Rolling Stone was calling, the Village Voice called, his family called, and then his guitar player called. I felt bad for all of them. It was a tragic end, and I mean, he went out in a blaze of glory, ha ha ha, so I thought I might as well make it look real good, you know, out of respect, so I just told everybody that when Johnny died he was laying down on the floor with his guitar in his hands. I made that up. When he came out of the St. Peter’s Guest House, rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U shape. When you’re laying on the floor in a fetal position, doubled over – well, when the body bag came out, it was in a U. It was pretty awful.”

An autopsy was conducted by the New Orleans coroner, but served only to compound the mysteries. According to Thunders’ biographer Nina Antonia as posted on the Jungle Records web site, the level of drugs found in his system was not fatal. And according to the book “Rock Bottom: Dark Moments in Music Babylon” by Pamela Des Barres who interviewed Thunders’ sister Marion, the autopsy confirmed evidence of advanced leukemia, which would explain the decline in Thunders’ appearance in the final year of his life. This also sheds light on the interview in Lech Kowalski’s documentary “Born To Lose: The Last Rock and Roll Movie”, where Thunders’ sister Mary-Ann’s husband says, “Only Johnny knew how sick he really was.”

In a 1994 Melody Maker interview Thunders’ manager Mick Webster described the efforts of his family, “We keep asking the New Orleans police to re-investigate, but they haven’t been particularly friendly. They seemed to think that this was just another junkie who had wandered into town and died. They simply weren?t interested.” Marion claims that the original police report is largely missing and Webster further explains that the Coroner who conducted the autopsy was fired for falsifying a report in another case.

Thunders was survived by his ex-wife Julie and four children, sons John Genzale, Vito Genzale, Dino Genzale, and daughter Jamie Genzale. His oldest son Vito is serving a prison sentence in the Southport Correctional Facility in New York for drug dealing, having completed a previous sentence in Attica.

Like father like son.

Only these times ain’t like the 70s.

Johnny Johnny we miss you now.

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