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02.05.10

Dead Cool: Johnny Thunders

As another season of American Idol revs up, Simon Doonan says we’d do well to remember the immortal New York Doll, who was a rock god from his mop-top down to his methadone.

Posh Spice gave it a whirl. Mary J. Blige and Shania Twain have also glued on their lashes and gone at it. I’m talking about The American Idol audition caravan, which is currently trundling across the country in search of the next yodeling Carrie or Kelly, the next Fantasia soul-sister and—drumroll—the next ROCKER!

The impulse to seek out a little Bo Bice grit in the mainstream-pop Idol milieu is a strong one. However, before we rush to anoint the next Daughtry, let's try to remember what a REAL rocker looks like. Let’s remember Johnny Thunders, the Ratso Rizzo of rock.

In the pantheon of self-destructive, shambolic, rock-star dandies, Johnny Thunders is the ne plus ultra. He is the yardstick against which all aspiring bad-asses should be measured.

In the pantheon of self-destructive, shambolic, rock-star dandies, Johnny Thunders is the ne plus ultra. He is the yardstick against which all aspiring bad-asses should be measured. Endowed with jaggedy black hair, jutting cheekbones, and a wicked way with a guitar, he was so gritty and subversive that he makes Pete Doherty look like one of the Jonas Brothers. He also, as if all of the above were not enough, possessed the largest penis in Rock….allegedly!

John Anthony Genzale, Jr. was born in Queens, New York on July 15, 1952. He showed a precocious penchant for baseball and music, fronting a high-school band called Johnny and the Jaywalkers. Early notoriety came when he joined a band called Actress, which subsequently became the legendary glam-rocking, rouge-wearing, hair-spray consuming New York Dolls.

In the early '70s it was totally normal for hetero musicians to wear lipstick and a feather boa and stomp around on stage with male camel-toe. (Don’t blame me: That’s just what happens when boys wear girls’ satin jeans and no foundation garments.) With his jet-black mane, aggressively applied maquillage and wiry speed-freak body, Johnny Thunders took that fey sequined glamrock aesthetic—Adam Lambert take note—and gave it a jolt of menace.

The Dolls broke up in 1975, after which Mr. Thunders scraped off the maquillage, whipped his hair into a loose 1950’s quiff and fronted Johnny and the Heartbreakers. This unique combo of rockabilly seediness and (young) Frank Sinatra glamour, fit Johnny like a Pleather glove.

During the 1980s his ongoing passion for writing and performing was matched by a passion for dope. He was a seriously unapologetic nihilist who had a knack for simultaneously glorifying his lifestyle while being relentlessly straightforward about it:

Well you go down to the corner to see if you can cop
You buy some for your sister but you take yours off the top

What made him cool?

First, Johnny was talented. He wrote You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory—one of his best—when he was only 19.

Second, he had innate panache. There were no Rachel Zoes back then pulling Johnny’s look together. He was his own changing stylistic invention.

Last, but most important, Johnny was one of the great rock 'n' roll influencers of all time. His performance style and guitar playing provided the underpinnings for the whole Punk Movement and then some. From The Sex Pistols to Aerosmith, the list of bands and musicians who fell under his spell is long and diverse. Kiss even named themselves after the Thunders’ song Looking for a Kiss.

In 1991, kissable Johnny was found in a New Orleans hotel with a horrible case of rigor mortis. As with Marilyn Monroe, mystery and rumors of foul play swirled around his demise. Who stole his methadone? Was he murdered? According to Nina Antonia, his official biographer, the cause was less tabloid-friendly and rock-legend-appropriate: Johnny was in ill health and suffering from leukemia. Regardless of what did him in, he is sorely missed and the ersatz Idol rock of today—David Cook seems like such a total pussy by comparison!—could use a little thunder.

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Writer, fashion commentator, and window dresser, Simon Doonan, is known for his provocative "Simon Says" column in the New York Observer. He has written four books: Confessions of a Window Dresser, Wacky Chicks , a memoir titled Nasty and a tongue-in-cheek style guide titled Eccentric Glamour to be published in paperback in mid-April. Nasty is to be re-released as Beautiful People . A comedy TV series entitled Beautiful People , produced by Jon Plowman, will debut on LOGO in May.