I’ve been taken with Blank Generation by Richard Hell & the Voidoids for seventeen years, since I first heard it freshman year of college. It’s romantic and imaginative and jazzy and poetic without being dreadful or pretentious. I often struggle with the fact so many consider it an esoteric work; to me it’s just as accessible as anything by Elvis Costello or Radiohead.
Then I remember every time I’ve put on Blank Generation with the sincere hope of converting someone only to watch their face contort in confusion in response to the opening song.
“Are they saying ‘hot dogs in space?'”
No…but they may as well be.
By the way, I just finished reading Richard Hell’s autobiography, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp. Some interesting nuggets in there. Did you know Johnny Thunders supported Jesse Jackson for president? What a campaign rally that would have been.
Bootlegging The Bootleggers
“I looked at this book one day, right? And it was like, fuckin’, uh, 65 Bootlegs Of Johnny Thunders. So I said, ‘Fuck it, all these dudes makin’ all this money!’ So what I did, myself, I had the idea that I would take a song from here, a song from there, off these bootleg records, and fuckin’ bootleg the bootleggers! HA! You assholes thought you put one over on me? I’m making more dough than you thought you could ever make!”
So sayeth Johnny Thunders at the end of Bootlegging The Bootleggers, the most energetic and solid collection of Thunders live tracks these hairy, wax-plagued ears have ever heard. You just can’t argue with this cross section of New York’s favorite deceased rail-thin underground guitar bozo: there’s peppy pop punk (“M.I.A.”), shuffling blues (“In Cold Blood”), maudlin Dylan covers (“Joey, Joey”), maudlin originals (“Sad Vacation”), and the requisite Dolls song Johnny can never seem to sing and play at the same time (here, it’s “Personality Crisis”). Per the latter, you have to wonder if JT ever practiced those tunes, or if he just thought, Fuck it. I was IN the fuckin’ New York Dolls. I’ll be able to play that shit no problem.
Bootlegging naturally includes a run-through of the Thunders standard “Pipeline.” Johnny’s versions of this old surf chestnut were always several megawatts better than the original and his expected concert highlight; while “Pipeline” is no disappointment here, the real standout tracks are JT’s acoustic renditions of the Stones classic “As Tears Go By” and his own heartfelt ballad “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” (which Scorsese famously dropped into that Nic Cage ambulance movie, if anyone else remembers 1999 like I do). Yes, when really he put his mind to it, the scrawny little dope addict born John Anthony Genzale, Jr. on July 15, 1952, in Jackson Heights, Queens, could slice right through your heart like it was a hot calzone.
Yet Johnny couldn’t stop at merely assembling a dozen stellar live performance for his fans (all of which were recorded between 1985 and 1989 in such varied places as Tokyo and New Jersey). Oh no – Johnny had to personally introduce each number in that quivering and sinewy speaking voice of his, often employing ridiculous jokes to get by (over-the-top Louie Armstrong impression? Check! “Wild Kingdom” references? Check! Hacky foreign accents? Double, triple, and quadruple check!). In some alternate universe, a version of Casey Kasem’s “Top 40 Countdown” is currently being hosted by Johnny’s sniffling ghost, offending listeners with his jagged Brooklynese and inability to sound anywhere near sober.
I take shots at the general messy, unkempt, and strung out nature of the late J. Thunders, but honestly, he wouldn’t be better any other way. Rock needs its grimy, heroin-addicted sewer rat legends. Besides, the guy had a quite a penchant for pounding out addictive, beer-soaked, sneer-inducing, flip-’em-the-bird “rawkinfuhkin’rawl” music. That’s commendable in any hemisphere.
FINAL SCORE: Four terrible Louie Armstrong impressions (out of four).