Some albums just make you want to write them a love letter. No matter how imperfect they might be, they hooked you in at some point, and never let you go. I probably have a dozen or so of those albums. The really special albums. This is one.
The New York Dolls were a mystery to me in the pre-internet days, the breadcrumbs of information found in magazines offering only hints about a long-gone band… A passing mention in a Guns n Roses review… An utterance of fandom from one of the guys in Poison Idea… Never actual discussions of the band, just implications that their existence was significant, that they were something to be pursued further. That pursuit lead me to the New York Dolls’ second album, …In Too Much Too Soon. Great though it is, that record was too ragged, and to camp for me to fall in love with at 16, but it piqued my curiosity enough for me pick up guitarist Johnny Thunders’ solo debut So Alone a couple of years later – an album that was so exactly what I was after at 18 that I couldn’t help but fall in love with it.
Johnny Thunders was a New York Doll
Cared so much he didn’t care at all.
- Demolition 23 Scum Lives On
If Thunders were to be remembered for one album, it probably would (and should) be the New York Dolls self-titled debut from 1973 – sharp-tongued, raw, fun, even powerful after a fashion, its place in the pre-punk progression from the Velvet Underground through to The Sex Pistols is well, and rightfully, established.
Some, though, might suggest that the high-water mark of Thunders’ career was in fact his post-Dolls band, The Heartbreakers. After all, the stripped back, straight-forward rock n roll of that outfit showed an even clearer link to the world of British punk than the Dolls had. Besides, if nothing else it was the Heartbreakers that apparently introduced the Sex Pistols to both Nancy Spungen and heroin (to equally disastrous effect).
However, as good as some of the Heartbreakers’ tunes were, their LAMF album was a comparative one-trick pony compared to the Dolls, and it had the muddiest production/engineering jobs you could ever wish (not) to hear. The reverence attached to it in certain circles has always seemed to me to be more a product of timing and reputation to it than of its innate quality. It’s a solid album, but it suffers in comparison to the albums bands like The Saints were delivering at roughly the same time.
So for me, it has always been So Alone which stands as Thunders best work. Having shifted from the over the top swagger of the Dolls through to the streetwise punk rock n roll of the Heartbreakers, So Alone always seemed like an attempt to establish Thunders as something of a serious artist. A rocker, to be sure, but a singer-songwriter as well. Maybe he wasn’t that calculating about it, but it was the first album to really show he aspired to something more than just piss and vinegar.
It’s also an incredibly flawed album.
Everything that was wrong with Johnny Thunders the solo artist is on display on So Alone. For a guy apparently looking to go his own way as a solo artist, there are almost no new songs. Of fourteen tracks (on the expanded reissue), well over half are either covers or reworked Dolls/Heartbreakers songs. This would plague the rest of Thunders’ stumbling career, with ensuing albums too often grab-bags of reworked tunes, too seldom offering anything of real impact.
Songwriting was certainly not beyond Thunders, but finding the appropriate headspace in which to perform the task was, I suspect, difficult for the man who became a poster boy for heroin as a lifestyle choice. Add to this a thin production, and an even thinner nasal whine masquerading as a singing voice and you’ve got an album that… Well, we’re a long way from Quadrophenia here.
Somehow though, the guy who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with both the Dolls and the Heartbreakers manages to pull it off. In part of course, it’s because the album’s title is a complete misnomer. Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook and Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott play on many tracks, while both Steve Marriott and Chrissie Hynde also make appearances. It’s the first album I owned to feature any of those artists, which on its own makes this a landmark album for me, but the mix of players also served as a signal of the esteem in which the New York Dolls were held.
In larger part though, it’s the reality that, So Alone is a great set of songs, regardless of where those songs came from. Take You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory. It’s a fantastic tune. Simple, heartfelt and hopeless. Perhaps the only moment of Thunders solo career that really got recognition as a songwriting achievement.
And London Boys. A Heartbreakers-style rock n roll throw-back, it’s a hilariously pointed response to Johnny Rotten’s anti-Thunders/Dolls invective on the Sex Pistols’ New York. Consensus seems to be that the Pistols song is a more effective shot across the bow, but I’ve never understood why. Rotten was undoubtedly the cleverer of the two, but Thunders has always seemed a more convincing character to me. Besides, delivering your riposte with two of the Sex Pistols in your backing band has got to count for something, right?
Despite London Boys, the whole point of So Alone is that it’s not really a punk album but a nihilistic attitude does permeate even the more refined tunes nonetheless. (She’s So) Untouchable is another heartfelt track, but the sneer with which the chorus is delivered, the palpable disenchantment it purveys, makes the tune far more than it might have been coming from a more capable singer.
Meanwhile the reworked dolls songs like Leave Me Alone and Subway Train, take on a new tenor with Thunders at the reins. Not better than the Dolls’ versions by any stretch, but good nonetheless. Throw in a over-the-top soul-punk run through of Daddy Rollin’ Stone in which Thunders’ first verse is eclipsed by Phil Lynott’s second before he too is blown off the record by Steve Marriott, and you have an album that offers plenty of variety and at least a few surprises. That Thunders and Marriott would die within three days of each other in 1991 (Lynott having passed away five years earlier) only adds to the doomed air that pervades the album. It’s easy to say with hindsight that So Alone charts the beginning of the end for Thunders, but I suspect a blind man in 1978 could have seen the same.
Ultimately, the appeal of So Alone lies in the fact that it is New York rock n roll without sounding a thing like the Ramones – a fusion of vulnerability and self-destructiveness that would provide a baseline for bands like the Replacements in years to come. Punk with a heart. Or a singer/songwriter with some swagger. I’m not going to pretend it’s up there with the all-time greats, or insist that everyone should love this album. It’s a niche classic at best, and I can see plenty of reasons why it might not appeal. I hardly think that ‘not getting’ Johnny Thunders is the black mark some might suggest it is.
After a decade and a bit of personal and musical turbulence, Thunders’ would die in 1991 in New Orleans hotel room as a result of years of self-abuse and the late-stage leukemia almost nobody knew he had, and if that isn’t the definition of being ‘so alone’, I don’t know what is. That he never achieved what So Alone hints he might have, if not a tragedy, then at least a great shame. What we’re left with though is one great album before the laws of diminishing returns and realities of heavy duty drug abuse ate away his talent and his personality to the point that he was already gone by the time he died.
End note: Whether you’re a fan or just curious, you could do worse than checking out the documentaries Looking for Johnny (about the life and career of Thunders) and New York Doll (about bassist Arthur Kane and the surviving Dolls’ 2004 reunion) – the latter is particularly fascinating.
Radio Nowhere is a new initiative here at Off The Tracks – a fortnightly guest column by Michael Ross. Record-collection reflection and other stray thoughts associated with music purchasing, collecting and listening.