Drugs have always been a thing in rock and roll. The bands that I grew up with, from The Beatles to The Stones to The Velvets, Iggy, Bowie, etc. all were well versed in drugs. It’s funny for me, someone who has never done any drugs in my life (alcohol is a separate story, kids) to think of some of the better cover songs I sing in my band Babylon. There’s Lou’s ‘Waiting For The Man,’ The Beatles ‘Tomorrow Never Knows,’ Big Black and ‘Racer X’ (a paean to speed), Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust,’ and The Heartbreakers. Oh yes, The Heartbreakers with ‘Born To Lose’ and especially the Dee Dee Ramone penned ‘Chinese Rock’ (“all my best things are in hock”). I’ve always loved the Heartbreakers, more so than the Dolls, and I am firmly in the Johnny Thunders fanboy club.
It was with a lot of interest that I picked up this book by Walter Lure, the last living Heartbreaker (besides Richard Hell) entitled To Hell And Back: My life in Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers, in the words of the last man standing. Written with Dave Thompson, it is a slight book that covers a lot of ground. Walter is obviously the smart one in the group, having gone to college and minored in Chemistry, he gets a good job at the FDA. He offers a very unique take on ‘being there’ in New York in the early 1970’s, going to shows and seeing ‘That Kid’ at every show. When Walter goes to see the Dolls, ‘That Kid’ is, of course, Johnny Thunders.
Lure writes with a bit of a jaded eye about the scene in New York, saying what is now thought of as a ‘golden era’ was really just a few bands (Dolls, Suicide, a few others) and a very insular scene. He doesn’t have much good to say about CBGB’s, and once joining The Heartbreakers their venue of residency would be Max’s Kansas City. His induction into The Heartbreakers starts off the book with Jerry Nolan cutting his hair, and Johnny shooting him up. Dee Dee Ramone was always around as well.
This Heartbreakers' story, mostly, is a junkie story. There are endless descriptions of scoring dope. Johnny Thunders is portrayed as a genuinely nice guy who is already riding on his Dolls coattails, his career derailed by his love of dope. This is a story of a band of junkie brothers. Once they jettison Hell and get Billy Rath in on bass, they get plucked for the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy’ tour along with The Clash and The Damned. The day they arrive in London is the infamous day that the Pistols swore on TV at Bill Grundy…’The Filth And The Fury.’ Most of the gigs are cancelled, but a few are played, with all the other bands in awe of Johnny due his stature as a Doll alumnus.
Lure offers some real insight about the band. He realizes they were much better musicians than the UK punks, and that their music is straight rock and roll and not really punk at all. He seems to understand that The Heartbreakers will have a limited shelf life and don’t really fit in. To that effect they can’t get a record deal - no one wants to be involved with a bunch of junkies. They finally do get hooked up with Track Records, owned by ex-Who managers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, and the sessions for L.A.M.F. go well. But this turns out to be the record that can’t get a proper mix. It ends up muddy and horrible sounding, after many attempts at mixing, and all involved are disappointed. They are back to playing gigs basically for drug money.
The Heartbreakers’ wheels start to come off, Jerry Nolan quits, then comes back, Billy and Walter go to New York to find a new drummer, and Johnny Thunders starts a new band. It all falls apart quickly and without much drama. Lure writes:
I didn’t doubt that Johnny would survive. The time he had spent in the United Kingdom had done nothing to diminish the power of his mystique nor the fervor of his most besotted acolytes, Journalists, musicians, anybody who had ever considered, in a wholly unironic way, the purchase of a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend “too fast to live, too young to die”- they clung to Johnny like bats in a belfry, desperately hoping that just a few scraps of his glamour would rub off on them.
Walter is there for everything that happens in British punk, but he’s not a big fan. He’s dismissive about most of the bands. They are friends with Siouxie and The Banshees, and there is a great story about seeing early Buzzcocks in Manchester. He is also quite open about his bisexuality, having no problem sleeping with whomever he fancied, although his long term relationships in the book are all with female partners.
It takes Walter a long time to get off dope, but he does it, gets back to New York, and gets in on a job at a stock trading company, learning how to use computers. He continues to play occasional Heartbreakers reunions, and with his own band, The Waldos. There is a long trail of death and sadness, however. Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, Billy Rath all dead, Walter’s younger brother gets caught up in dope and dies suspiciously in rehab. Many lives are broken. In some sort of a happy ending, Walter connects with his son, now nineteen and entirely raised by his mom, they become friends, and with a real, steady job and a healthy music outlet, now sober Walter Lure can get on with his life. It is a heartwarming end for the otherwise sobering Heartbreakers junkie’s tale.
Thanks for dropping by. This blog is part of zubrecords.com, an indie label run by people who make and love music! Check out Alert for blogs on music, films, books, and more! Our podcast, Singles Going Steady, is on all major podcatchers and at tinyurl.com/SGSPodcast Lots of cool things to read and listen to at zubrecords.com