watching johnny die: born to lose – the last rock & roll movie

I realize my folly; coming here, expecting some sort of closure; expecting Kowalski to wrap things up in a neat little package and offer a convenient reconciliation of Johnny’s sordid legend with the undeniable impact his incendiary fretwork has on the world; to shed a tiny ray of light and show Johnny as something more than the unrepentant, selfish, junk-addled wastrel up on the screen…”


by john richen


The Beatles triumph of music, film and spirit, Hard Day’s Night, finishes it’s second strong week, playing to packed houses of cheering fans young and old alike. Five blocks uptown, Lech Kowalski’s 1998 Johnny Thunders film Born To Lose (The Last Rock and Roll Movie) plays a solitary show in January. For Johnny, a small crowd gathers outside the Guild Theater in Portland, and shivers, waiting in a cold winter mist. Kowalski’s 1981 Sex Pistols film D.O.A. remains the stuff of punk legend to this day. But even were I unaware of Thunder’s slow burn, from the opening frames of Born To Lose it’s clear this is going to be a descent headfirst into someone’s personal hell. Jayne/Wayne County sets the table in the film’s opening moments, squirming her way through the greasy beat’s of Rock & Roll Resurrection. Fingering and poking her pale flesh, pointing out curves and valleys I don’t want to give much thought to… Johnny Thunder’s “grotty” maiden Aunt… a far cry from the clean old grandfather wrestling the spotlight from the Beatles down the street in Hard Days Night.

So here I am. A bottle is kicked over and rolls slowly, loudly down the theater’s cement floor. Laughter. A couple, very drunk chew their popcorn so loud it sounds like splintering wood. The smell of Jack Daniels brings back distant memories of boozy summer days gone, listening to the Heartbreakers LAMF over and over again, until every one of Johnny’s million sloppy notes have left sharp scrambled imprints on an impressionable mind.


What is it about Johnny that intrigues? What is it about tragedy that compels? Certainly the New York Dolls figure prominently in the development of the entire punk movement as it took root in New York City and spread overseas like germs stuffed in the pockets of Malcolm McLaren’s fancy pants. To understand the Dolls and Heartbreakers is to understand the development of the New York punk scene and then in a major way, the Sex Pistols. In particular, guitarist Steve Jones, a player hugely influenced by Johnny Thunders.  A reluctant visionary and an even worse role model; a guy who can pull oily sounds from his beat-up guitar who has a taste for the spoon. And that tarnished spoon comes to define Johnny as much as any musical contributions he ever made.

Isn’t that why I’ve come tonight?  To watch Johnny die? When I listen to his smack-addled mumblage on Live At Max’s Kansas City, or the vocals of Too Much Junkie Business and laugh at his antics and the stories that I hear, aren’t I really listening to the sound of Johnny exhaling his agonizingly long last breath?

 “Johnny did what he did because that was a choice he made long ago…the power of what he did and how he lived is what I tried to interpret in the film, but I didn’t want to say that this is bad or good. That stuff is boring. We have too much of that shit in our media anyway. That’s not the point of the films I make.”

–Lech Kowalski*

This film, it’s impossible to compare to anything else. It’s been shown and remixed countless times since it originally screened, and the idea of watching a prior 4 hour version is incomprehensible to me. The early concert footage is at times unwatchable: choppy, jumpy and disjointed. In and out of focus. Gritty? Okay, I guess so. Interesting perhaps from an archival standpoint. I can’t understand half of the dialogue. The soundtrack is either way too loud or inaudible. Music blares over Dee Dee Ramone’s supposedly provoking commentary. Maybe that makes sense in a weird way. Dee Dee’s one of the few characters in this mess that has anything insightful to say, but you can’t hear him over the roar of Johnny’s guitar.

His friends, it seems they’ve all got a story of Johnny doing something rotten – stealing shit, fucking somebody over, pissing people off. They laugh about it a lot. Like: Johnny, yeah he’s a real asshole, but we love him ya’ know? Johnny’s brother in law talks of the guitarist’s disdain for the twelve hour workday; and of kicking the shit out of him one time when Thunders comes home loaded on Quaalude powder he got from his buddy, Heartbreaker Walter Lure. His sister drives around in a car with a license plate that says “JT Sister.”  Vocal punks in the theater hoot derisively.  Yell “fuck-off”.


“You see his physical progression from being a young stud superstar, who believed in the rock and roll dream, to what he became in the end. That arc is pretty strong.”

–Lech Kowalski*

Do you like watching people shoot dope?

I am moved by this simple, undeniable truth: I pay my $6.50, and make my choice to watch Johnny die. Any other way to look at it is a lie. Everybody in this room knows how this story ends. The 10 years since his 200 year old body was pulled from the confines of a cheap New Orleans flop has softened only the memories, the narrative remains the same. I realize my folly; coming here, expecting some sort of closure; expecting Kowalski to wrap things up in a neat little package and offer a convenient reconciliation of Johnny’s sordid legend with the undeniable impact his incendiary fretwork has on the world; to shed a tiny ray of light and show Johnny as something more than the unrepentant, selfish, junk-addled wastrel up on the screen.

And much to his credit, Kowalski, like Thunders will have nothing to do with any of it. The job of pulling Johnny’s musical legacy from the ruins falls to his musical contemporaries, survivors and ex-mates — Dee Dee, Walter Lure, Wayne Kramer and Sylvain Sylvain, all of whom seem to have numbed themselves and moved beyond Thunder’s subhuman trajectory I now lie witness to. Their sense of loss is palpable. They can’t offer much.

On the surface it appears his companions look at Thunders as a kind of rock and roll lion, heir apparent to some toxic badge of honor. But a more careful look reveals the ruse. Wistful expressions, in spite of accommodating words, divulge that they aren’t crippled enough to believe that there is anything noble about the narcotic self-destruction of Johnny Thunders. If for no other reason then that they miss him. The survivors all hint at the same truth: Learn from our mistakes. If you can. They say this all the while knowing that folks that tick like Johnny will have to learn this truth on their own. If they can.

In my mind are images. Faces of Gram Parsons, Bob Stinson, Andrew Wood and Brian Jones. I’m visited by the memory of my own old friends, gone but not forgotten.

“I is what I is” a friend once tells me, “Why try and hide it?”

It is said that Thunders invents Junkie Rock. The drug is eternal, but nobody flaunts it like him. Johnny doesn’t make any bones about who he is, in fact he insists I know this about him: I am who I am because I want to be.

And as I watch heroin kill a rock and roll hero I have to wonder about that.


“I don’t want to see Johnny talk about anything, because he talks to me with his music, and that’s enough.”

–Lech Kowalski*

Johnny’s walking around with a cheap acoustic guitar and a syringe stuck in his matted black mane. He’s singing a song to some smiling ladies reclining in his room, higher than a fucking kite. His voice is more uneven than usual and his playing is rough, but strangely, he seems lucid. In a film filled with tales of Johnny’s two-bit hustler antics and images of blood-splattered shooting galleries, here he’s honest and free. In this fleeting moment he doesn’t look tortured, pensive or angry. It’s the only time in the film he appears at peace….

He is punk’s reigning stoned iconoclast.

Johnny’s gonna die.

Thunders expires in a shriveled shell.  The carcass too fit for a 200 year old man but he dies in his 39th year. Johnny Thunders lives hard — but he dies even harder.

Downtown, Beatle’s fans clap in the warm glow of the film’s optimistic finale and cheer as the fab-four and a very clean old man rise towards the heavens in a white helicopter. Here at the Guild the crowd is silent as the image of an unclean Johnny Thunders’ wretched, emaciated carcass is pushed on a slab into the jaws of a cold black hole.

The last rock and roll movie.

I am haunted by the contrast.


Originally published:
Issue Six
February 2001


*Lech Kowalski in Free Williamsburg/NYUFF 3/2000

“A legion of musicians have attempted to emulate his stance and attitude but haven’t come close and never will. It’s not too hard to play the way that Johnny did and guitarists have tried and will go on trying but they can’t make it sound the same: a pact between persona, warmth and power that built to an extraordinary crescendo. When Johnny was on form, he could charm a snakepit of a crowd, snapping out of drugged lethargy to deliver all that rock ‘n’ roll ever promised to be: Freedom, Subversion, Style and Release. Johnny Thunders was the last embodiment of a broken perfection that was true rebel culture before commerce married creativity and stifled the bride.”

— Nina Antonia
from the Johnny Thunders bio “In Cold Blood



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