One of Johnny Thunders' leading claims to a place in rock history is a song called "You Can't Put Your Arms Round a Memory," the affecting lament of a man who knows that the deck in life and love is stacked against him.
Erasing memories can be even harder than holding onto them. In Thunders' case, his audience's collective memory is full of images of an erratic performer known almost as much for his bouts with drug addiction as for the musical accomplishments in a career that began in the early 1970s with the influential glam-rock band, the New York Dolls.
"If I live 100 years, it's going to be there," Thunders, 37, said of his reputation as a walking heroin casualty. But, speaking over the phone recently from Philadelphia, Thunders, who once put out an album called "Too Much Junkie Business," said that he has been straight since 1986. He described the Oddballs, the five-member backing band he has been working with for the past two years, as "the band that, when I'm 80, I'll remember as the one that was the most fun."
Thunders hopes his current series of Southern California shows (including performances Sunday at the Coach House and Wednesday at Bogart's) will serve notice that he is out of the junkie business and deserving of a higher profile in the music business.
"I used to think I had to take drugs to be happy and to play. I was so wrong," Thunders said. "I want to invite the music industry down to the shows. I'd really like to call 'em out. Come to a show, and I'll show you what I can do."
Over the phone, Thunders seemed like a Dead End Kid arrived at middle age as he spoke in a worn voice that nevertheless was ready with a quip or a freewheeling opinion. The New York Dolls--something of a rock-and-roll version of the Dead End Kids--were a brash bunch of New York City rockers who got together in 1971 and gained notoriety (if not wide success) with their androgynous look and a sloppy but boisterous raunch-rock sound inspired mainly by the Rolling Stones.
Thunders was known as John Genzale when he was growing up in Queens. "I was going to be a baseball player," he said. "I made the varsity baseball team as a freshman. I was scouted by the L.A. Dodgers." He said his baseball career ended when "they told me to cut my hair and I (emphatically refused). I started a band then."
With their lipstick, platform shoes and feather boas, the Dolls were part of the glam-rock movement of the early 1970s that aimed to shock with gender-bending appearances and behavior (Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Marc Bolan were others who did it with a good deal more commercial success).
The band's rowdy, funny songs about life on New York's seamier side proved more enduring than its image, and the Dolls gained significance as a precursor for the punk-rock movement that came later in the '70s.
After leaving the New York Dolls in 1975, Thunders and Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan formed a band called the Heartbreakers. Thunders launched his solo career in 1978 with a strong album called "So Alone." By 1981, he was being prematurely eulogized by the Replacements, whose 1981 debut album included a song called "Johnny's Gonna Die" in which singer Paul Westerberg expressed affection for Thunders, mixed with pity and anger over what seemed to be his imminent fate.
"I haven't heard it," Thunders said. But a few months ago, he shared a bill with the Replacements and Westerberg approached him. "The singer's a nice guy. The rest of 'em should read some books," said Thunders. "He told me he wrote this song, and told me some of the words." Thunders said he didn't have much of a reaction to what really is a remarkable song. "I was yawning, actually," he said.
Thunders, however, sounds lively enough on "Copy Cats," a new album on which he shares billing with Patti Palladin, a fellow New Yorker based in London. The album features punchy cover versions of mostly obscure R&B; oldies, with Thunders using his thin, nasal voice to humorous effect with theatrical mannerisms. It's slightly reminiscent of his old Dolls partner David Johansen's popular new incarnation as Buster Poindexter, a comical lounge belter specializing in R&B; oldies.
Thunders, who returned to New York City about a year ago after spending most of the '80s in France and Sweden, said that some of his new songs take a more serious, socially conscious tack. He eagerly began reciting the lyrics to a song he has written about homelessness. "I'm not one to lend my name to causes, but in justice I intercede," he began. "Hurting the hurt--is this America? Tell me please."
"I also have a new song about battered children called 'Children Are People Too,' " Thunders said, as well as a gospel song singing the praises of Jesse Jackson. "And I have one about critics called "I Tell the Truth Even When I'm Lying.' " A few months ago, Thunders said, an offer came through for him to join two other former New York Dolls, Jerry Nolan and Sylvain Sylvain, on what would have amounted to a nostalgia tour for the alternative-rock set. But he couldn't see trying to put his arms around that memory, especially with Johansen not involved.
"I thought it was silly. I'd be a hypocrite if I did it. The only thing I've got is my music, so I can't see selling that out."
Maybe the Dolls will reunite in the year 2000, Thunders said jokingly. For now, he just wants to follow his own relatively modest goals. "As long as I can play and make records, that's all I want. I play to please my band and myself. If I can take kids' problems away for two hours, I did my job."
Johnny Thunders & the Oddballs play Sunday night at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, with Static Action opening at 8 p.m. Tickets: $16.50. Information: (714) 496-8930. Thunders also plays Wednesday at Bogart's, in the Marina Pacifica Mall, 6288 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Rattlin' Bones and Marshes of Glynn open, starting at 9 p.m. Tickets: $15. Information: (213) 594-8975.