Friday, July 16, 2010

The Day I Met Johnny Thunders

In the summer of 1989 I was both the Music Director and the Interim General Manager of WDCE (90.1 FM), the campus radio station at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA.  I had been appointed to the Music Director position at the beginning of the previous school year, and had been hosting a weekly three-hour Saturday night radio show for the better part of three and a half years by that point.

Among my duties as MD was the responsibility to arrange on-air interviews with bands who might be passing through Richmond, and matching those artists up with the DJs whose shows would be best suited and who had the ability to conduct a somewhat intelligent interview. (I remember my sophomore year roommate's spot-on impersonation of "every college DJ everywhere:" in a perfectly deadpan monotone voice, "OK, that was a song by The Cure, and now here's another song by The Cure...")

One day around mid-summer, I was in the station's office perusing the newest shipment of material to determine what would make the station's playlist, when the office phone rang.  A woman on the other end of the line introduced herself as Johnny Thunders' manager, and said he was going to be playing in Richmond that weekend, and were we interested in doing an interview with him?

Johnny Thunders!  Johnny Thunders of The New York Dolls! Johnny Thunders of The Heartbreakers! Johnny Freakin' Thunders!  The epitome of New York glam-punk-rock-n-roll guitar greatness! THE Johnny Thunders? Nah...couldn't be...had to be a joke, right?

No, she insisted, this was a last-minute deal, here's his room number at the hotel where he'll be staying, give him a call on Friday and set it up.  I asked her what name he'd be staying under, and she said, "Just ask for Johnny Thunders."  Of course my next call was to the club where she said he'd be playing.  They verified that, yes, Johnny Thunders would be there, with next to no promotion because it was a last-minute booking.

That Friday, I called the hotel and asked for Johnny Thunders. The nasally New Yawk accent that answered was unmistakeably him.  He'd love to do an interview, he said, but he needed a ride to the station from the hotel, and by the way could we get him to the club also?  I called a friend of mine and told her, "We're chauffeuring Johnny Thunders around tonight!"

He hadn't come to town with a big entourage.  It was just Johnny and his saxophone player, Jamie Heath.  From the moment we shook hands, Johnny Thunders was among the friendliest people I've ever met in the music world.  "Hey, can we play a couple songs from my demo tape?" he asked as we drove across town to the radio station, shoving an unmarked cassette toward me.  Turns out he was between labels at the time, and was shopping some new solo stuff around.

The interview went well.  The regular Friday night DJ and Johnny Thunders and me, talking music and having Johnny cue up his own demo tape live and having a great time.  I wish I had a recording of that interview, but I don't.  The only thing I do have is a recording of the station promo he did for us:


From there we headed downtown to a little hole-in-the-wall on Grace Street where Johnny played - just guitar and saxophone - a mix of his newer stuff and a few classics.  Maybe fifty people showed up that night. We hung out with Johnny all night. I'd like to think he was clean at the time.  I can say that I saw no drugs that night, and Johnny was lucid; in fact, he was great to talk with and very funny.  But with Johnny's addictions were well known - the stuff of legend, as they say.  All I can tell you is, if there were any drugs there that night, he kept them hidden from us.

When the time came to drop Johnny off at the hotel, he made a big production out of thanking us for our hospitality and insisted that "if you ever come to New York, you look me up!"  He took his demo with him, it being the only copy he had, but he promised he would send a copy to the station the first chance he had.

No copy of the demo ever arrived, and I never heard from Johnny Thunders again.  Within a year and a half, he would be gone, found dead in a hotel room in New Orleans of what some people claim was a methadone overdose, although a lot of mystery still surrounds the event and many feel foul play was involved.

Yesterday would have been Johnny Thunders' 58th birthday.  To this day, when people ask me for my greatest "brush with rock and roll greatness" story, this is the one I tell them.  Hard to top Johnny Thunders buying you a beer.