Johnny Thunders/So Alone – 40th Anniversary Release

“The only heroic rule is to be alone, alone, alone…” – Cesare Pavese

“What did Johnny’s guitar sound like? It was the sound of the…incommensurable.” – Rene Ricard

Pleasure is No Fun

The music on So Alone is the color of black hair; it is the sound of machines being manipulated by addicts and criminals under conditions of destitution. All love is wretchedness. We listen to rock and roll to escape the terror of history, to escape its fragmentations and ceaseless changes. Johnny’s music does not impart anything approaching ‘truth’ but instead offers a profound sense of the ‘Real’ – the morbid, the uncontrollable, the unwholesome.

Let us dispense with a detailed list of who played what, where and what a toxicology report of each of the (at the time) living bodies might have revealed. All rock music is palimpsest just as is ‘rock journalism’, with its endless recitation of the same words and events. It would be a waste of time to illustrate this point by citing fact after banal fact, so let’s instead simply attempt to situate Johnny in a different milieu, a different light.

Johnny Thunders, like many rock musicians – of a certain, perhaps vanishing ilk – was a consummate sufferer; he cultivated the deepest level of suffering and picked the perfect career to exploit it. A surface examination of this statement would seem easy to confirm. He was a junkie who wasted every opportunity that came his way. A man in revolt, he lived in a permanent state of bad faith. Ignored, of course, is the fact that there was a metaphysical yearning in his search for oblivion, in his self-laceration. With that in mind we should consider placing Johnny Thunders in a tradition alongside Jean Genet, Simone Weil, and Antonin Artaud.
Jean Genet has stated that crime, sexual degradation, even murder were threshold experiences that led to the highest glory. Simone Weil believed that the proof of god’s existence was in His absence, and that the most dire affliction was evidence of this absent God’s love.

Up until quite recently, the heroes of our liberal, affluent society have been its opposite; anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois. They’ve been obsessive, ill-mannered outsiders who used violence in all its variety to leave their mark. Think of Lucien Freud with his spurned mistresses, multi-million-dollar gambling debts and sizable complement of illegitimate children. Sanity to such artists was a form of cowardice. Their impact was to achieve by the extremity of their personal lives and their intellectual points of view, a totalizing vision that went against the grain of our supposedly polite, civilized world. These violent, profligate, destroyers of the self have been considered (perhaps until now) the true heralds of ‘the Real’.

“The body of work Johnny left behind is little more than fragments, shards of black glass strewn here and there, mostly overshadowed by the physical, spiritual and moral wreckage of his life.”

The body of work Johnny left behind is little more than fragments, shards of black glass strewn here and there, mostly overshadowed by the physical, spiritual and moral wreckage of his life. Perhaps, in our own decentered, disjointed time, this can be considered a success; fragments after-all, are the art objects par excellence of the 21st century. As such, So Alone is his masterwork, his one complete statement – a compendium of jagged, melancholy yet perfect fragments.
I had one opportunity to see Johnny perform – in Hartford of all places – and was reminded (in retrospect of course) of Hegel being thunderstruck by the sight of Napoleon entering Jena on horseback: “To see such an individual – this world-soul – who, concentrated here in a single point, reaches out over the world and masters it.”

Antonin Artaud – Man Ray

Yet, watching Johnny’s subsequent performance, an event more primitive ritual than concert – one understood that beauty was never given a second thought. Tragic jubilation was his goal – readily apparent in his brutal, minimalist guitar playing and impromptu scabrous, psychosexual monologues. During those excruciating, tedious yet somehow terrifying digressions, his misgivings about being a performer attained the highest degree of tension. Though it is an article of faith that Johnny never read a word of Antonin Artaud’s writings on the Theatre of Cruelty, the parallels are jarring. Artaud – a frequent inmate of the sanitarium – would stalk the stage; muttering, whispering, staggering as if drunk, like a boxer on the verge of being knocked-out. Then, galvanized either by theory or madness, he would come alive and harangue his audience, using language that any Johnny Thunders fan would immediately recognize. “Is there anyone here young enough to get a hard-on? You smell of syphilis. You smell of the outhouse. Of the lunatic asylum.” Johnny even looked like Artaud. Both men died young, of drug overdoses after disappointing careers that uneasily mixed together horror and joy.

Perhaps the time of the artist/visionary as extremist is over. Perhaps there will be no more Johnny Thunders; no more near-penniless, globetrotting drug-addicts continuously traversing the capitals of the world, pockets brimming with narcotics, trailing an ever growing arrest record. Such a scenario seems impossible to imagine in 2018.

Simone Weil described the contours of our created world: restless necessity, distress, wretchedness, the crushing burden of poverty, unending labor that wears us out, cruelty, torture, violent death, constraint, disease. She described all these as the hallmarks of divine love.
The same centrifugal forces that compelled Johnny to inject heroin into his arm, to abandon his wives and children, also compelled him to pick up the guitar and leave a permanent mark on the world. Perhaps Simone Weil was right. God can only love himself.


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William Carlos Whitten

William Carlos Whitten was the founding member, principal songwriter and singer/guitarist for the bands St. Johnny and Grand Mal. Whitten has recorded for Rough Trade, Caroline Records, DGC, No.6 Records, Slash/London Records, Arena Rock Recordings, Iheartnoise among others. He does not deny responsibility for seven albums: Speed is Dreaming, Bad Timing, Pleasure is No Fun, Clandestine Songs, Maledictions, High as a Kite and Burn My Letters.
More of his music and writing can be found here: www.speedisdreaming.blogspot

1 CommentLeave a comment

  • When he was on his game, rocknroll couldn’t be better. Maybe some were just as good but nobody was better. Most of his fervent cult experienced this, and that’s why he has a fervent cult. I used to wonder if it was possible to feel it without ever having seen him live; clearly it is possible and that’s great. I just wish that people would stop glorifying his junkiedom. Heroin never helped him, it ruined him.

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