Glass speaks to writer and author Nina Antonia

BACK in 1987, anyone who was a fan of the short lived but hugely influential New York Dolls in general, and the of the Dickensian wraith-like tortured genius of Johnny Thunders in particular, was delighted to have Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood, an A4 format “coffee table” book for people who probably didn’t have coffee tables. What we did have was a meticulously researched and extremely well-written biography of Johnny Thunders, full of photographs and almost diary like, precise text by his friend and biographer Nina Antonia, at first a devoted Johnny fan and soon after, a biographer and confidant. She was his Boswell to his rock excess Johnson, recording material that was perhaps not that important to him, (though he approved of the project and encouraged Antonia) but massively important to his fan base.

Her text reads almost like a life-tour-itinerary diary, gathering information not only from Johnny himself, who seemed to remember a great deal no matter how messed up he was on drugs, and of those who worked closely with him or managed him. To Antonia’s credit, she pulled no punches, but without ever saying, in one way or another, “This guy can be … unreliable, hard to work with …” because so many other people said it. She saw, and portrays, a softer side of Johnny.

The one who bought groceries for Antonia (a single mum) and her daughter when he saw her cupboards were bare. She could see, and report, a vulnerability few saw in him, for all his guitar and style swagger, and his addiction, which, to those who knew him as a musician, a style icon and, most surprising of all, one of the good guys in a world dominated by not good guys, comes as a bit of a surprise.

Johnny Thunders and Nina Antonia (1986). Photograph: Jon “Boogie” Tiberi. Courtesy of Jungle Records

Having read the original version over 30 years ago, I was struck how Antonia never inserted herself in the story, never taking umbrage at those who found the songwriter, vocalist and guitarist for the Dolls, The Heartbreakers, and solo artist a bit of a nightmare to work with. Somehow, his sheer musicianship and charisma, sometimes negative charisma – that thing where the artist seems to scorn the audience and the more they do, the more the audience lap it up-is captured perfectly in Antonia’s reportage-style prose.

In this sense it is the perfect biography, written by someone who clearly recognised his weaknesses, flaws, and sometimes just NY attitude, but always balanced by an (unseen by the public) tenderness and fragility. In other words, once you got to know him, as Antonia did, as his partners and friends did, he was a talented musician in the right place at the right time, but also, drawn to the wrong places and the wrong times. This gives him, historically, an air of another great musician destroyed by drugs, and even superseded by the addiction aspect by fans who love the tragic muse element. More of which, later.

Now the book is released in E-book format, which is helpful in the sense that it can reach people who are unable to get hold of the rare and expensive original book, (currently selling for £45 on Amazon)  and great in that, as Johnny Thunders is no longer with us, Antonia gives us her measured and most accurate take on the probable cause of his death was not by overdose but by the more pedestrian – cancer, specifically leukaemia. His death is a conspiracy theory magnet. However, Antonia to the best of her knowledge, sets the record straight. It was cancer that spread too much, too soon, in a cheap hotel room in New Orleans.

Though he did raise concerns about a lump in his neck, it is not clear if he chose to ignore medical advice or just deal with it, at some point in the future. Antonia feels that stars like Johnny burn brightly and intensely, and that this level of intensity is not compatible with a long life. That said, he packed more into his brief life than most do, and this is a cause of celebration, not sadness, though Antonia still clearly misses her friend.


Johnny Thunders in Japan. Photograph: Kasahiro Kobayashi

Does the E-book format capture the essence and wild ride of the original version? For those of us old enough to remember those early days, and prefer the physicality of books, it’s a bit fiddly. However, if this is the smartest and most economical way to get one of the best rock biographies of all time out to a wider public, who will be at ease with the format, then it’s a good thing. Just as you can’t really know about hip hop unless you make it your business to find out about Sugar Hill Gang, you can’t really know about the origins of Punk unless you read this, or listen to The Dolls,  The Heartbreakers,  The solo Johnny Thunders LP So Alone, and ( one of my personal favourites) – Copy Cats, a covers version LP by Johnny and Patti Palladin.

Antonia, having added text and photos to the original version, (re-issued and updated in 2000 by Cherry Red, after his death) is obviously pleased that the book is out again, (and optioned for a film as well) but so much older and wiser. Now, of course, still missing her friend, those times, those heady days when the NY and London punk scenes were emerging simultaneously (though both cities claim to be the first).

Given that the reader will be either a devoted Johnny Thunders fan who got into the music via the usual circumspect ways, when the artist you adore was dead before  you were even born, or though personal research and devotion, or, like me, someone who WAS there at the time but slightly too young to get into actual gigs, I do wonder if the reader will feel he or she missed out on one of the most exciting times in rock and roll. I start up an email correspondence with Antonia, who is frank, intimate, and clear headed enough to recount those days when she started the book, at the tender age of 22. This after being a fan from a very young age. So how did she hear about them?

You were very young when the Dolls made their first two records. How did they come to be on your radar, and what drove the particular fascination with Johnny?
I was 13 in 1973, which was when their eponymously titled debut LP came out – just to set the scene. Due to an unfortunate childhood, I daydreamed continually about leaving home – which was Liverpool, note the subliminal Beatles reference. Music provided a window which appeared to be open, an escape route from pain. My father had a good recollection and I got early into Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, so by the time I was 10, I was hooked on American old school rhythm & blues. Before The Dolls tore the roof off my imagination, I’d adored Marc Bolan who conjured the same flash and swagger into his guitar playing as Chuck n’ Bo. It was that raw excitement laced with an idea of freedom.

My upbringing was desperately strict, you virtually had to ask permission to breathe. I always used to be fascinated by the US teeny-bop magazine, 16, which was available on import and my big treat. Glam clarified, it was sometimes called Freak Rock and 16, being ahead of the times and much more fun than the regular music press, did a Freak Rock special and there was a tiny picture of The Dolls included with a single paragraph write-up promising the album.

I knew from the tiny black and white image how they would sound: The Dolls were so immersed in their vibe; they practically wore their music – but it was Johnny who really galvanised me. He looked so amazing with that raven black hair and dark, gypsy eyes, he had this whirlwind appeal and the strings of my heart went zing. It sounds crazy from just one image but when you are that young, you pick up on things far easier, your radar is at its peak.

Johnny Thunders and Nina Antonia (1986). Photograph: Jon “Boogie” Tiberi. Courtesy of Jungle Records

It’s clear you spent a lot of time with Johnny and his various bands. But in real terms, again, thinking about your age at the time, were you able to follow them around, go on the road?  If you did, were you aware that by hanging out you were sort of becoming mates, Johnny specifically, and if this happened did you feel you needed to hold a lot back, to not cross those biographer-friend boundaries?
Very occasionally in life, everything slots into place as if it’s meant to be. Johnny had a European renaissance that commenced in the very early 1980s. He had a German manager and, at the time of writing the book, Johnny was in London a great deal so I was able to hang out with him or go to the studio. One of my happiest memories was when he’d just come back from Japan, this must have been about 1983. Johnny was in good spirits because he was always treated with love and respect there.

Also in attendance was my daughter who was probably about three or four at the time, it was a big treat for her – Johnny showed her how to use chopsticks. I can’t think of any artists other than Johnny who would see it as a bonus that his biographer was a struggling single mum, because he’d been raised in a single parent family so he could relate and I think that’s what brought out the genuine character of Johnny in his real incarnation of Johnny Genzale. That was the bonding process, it wasn’t as straight forward as just becoming mates.

Lovely though the “”I’m writing about this band and travelling with them in their plush tour coach’ idyll is, it wasn’t like that, I just got to hang out with Johnny while he was in London. There was no plush tour coach. Only a hired van now and again, with paint over the rust. The sweetest thing he did was buy a load of groceries for me and my daughter, he’d called round and seen that the cupboard was virtually empty.

Johnny Thunders & Nina Antonia seated crop_crJohnny Thunders and  Nina Antonia seated (1986).
Photograph: Jon “Boogie” Tiberi. Courtesy of Jungle Records


There is a still a big cult thing around the Dolls, their influence, and Johnny’s in particular, the elegantly wasted but still able to play (in the main, not always, and you say that) which you know, has always been the way with certain stars Keith Richards, the Libertines and so on. Does it worry you that some kids start to follow these legends for the darkness, not the music, for the lifestyle, not the lyrics or riffs?  Sort of an unwitting glorification of drugs, unwitting because I don’t think they wanted to get other people on them?
Nothing is ever really straightforward, is it?  An artist can influence a fan and imbue substance misuse with a desirable mystique – Keith Richards was Johnny’s role model. However, a great deal depends on the person/fan themselves – if they are troubled or traumatised, they would find a way to substance misuse, regardless of their anti-heroes.

By the time I met Johnny in the early ‘80s, he had seriously wised up about drugs. He kept drugs out of my radar and had a two-tier set of friends and associates which was split between those who used and those who didn’t. Towards the end of his life, Johnny had a motto: “Do as I say, not as I do.” He meant it too.

Why do you think Johnny’s legend endures? By even your account he was not the nicest of guys when he was using, but you do hint at a tenderness and fragility most of us never saw. We saw the guy passing out on stage or looking like death warmed up. Towards the end it was just sad. Was there a point when you, in the closeness you had with him in order to write the book, knew it probably would not end well, and how did you deal with his death, personally. You don’t give much away in the book about your reaction.
Why does Johnny’s legend endure? He was active at a very vital time and although he was a classic rocker, his attitude was punk, so historically, he’s important because he heralded a new era in music. He photographed extremely well usually and knew how to give some vital spark to the camera, so there are loads of memorable images of him, plus he was very creative with clothing – he had learned early on from a girlfriend who worked in fashion, how to put a look together. He was a dandy, whether he was just slouching down to the shops or playing a gig, he generally looked amazing.

People like anti-heroes, Johnny was kind of like the James Dean of rock n’ roll, burning up with some kind of fever – you can’t thrive at that level of intensity, it’s like that poem by Edna St Vincent Millay, where the candle burns so bright and beautifully but it only lasts a night. I always knew he was going to die young, he wasn’t meant for old bones, he put his poor body through some tortures and he was only a slip of a thing.

With the bad boys, it’s always easier for people to love them after they are dead, when they are no longer a threat, when they are unable to beg, steal or borrow from you and there is something especially enticing about the ineffable, that which can’t be reclaimed but is easily evoked through the music, photographs, footage. Johnny may have been damaged, but he also exuded a potent romance and ragged glamour which is still tangible. The other reason for the endurance of Thunders – The Legend is that he came from a wilder and freer time, unlike now where everything is seems so regimented on the one hand yet utterly fleeting. The current appetite for novelty, for young stars to be fresh has made them seem very disposable.

I was devastated when he died, I went numb. You think you know how you will be when something you’ve always dreaded finally happens. It wasn’t like it was unexpected and there had been so many scares, some that were nothing more than malicious rumours that he’d died, others relating to incidences when he had overdosed but survived.

In the book, I call him “Johnny Nine – Lives” it was like he’d been ticking them off, so mortality was always part of the equation but you learned to deal with it. It took me about 10 years to get over his death and I still have to monitor certain situations

He always knew he’d be more popular posthumously, there’s been a steady flow of reissues, repackaging, I hear someone is writing another book although the trail has long since grown cold. People put forward their own theories of Johnny, without having known him. It’s astonishing, it really is. When I started writing In Cold Blood in the early 1980s, Johnny was a music business pariah, no one wanted to know anymore. Obviously, there was always going to be the devotees, he could have carried on touring until the end of time, but precious little else.

All his bridges were smouldering, piles of ashes. But he could still play and on good nights, there was no one better.

A radio interview with Nina Antonia on BBC Radio can be accessed here:

by Michele Kirsch

Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood (Jungle, £8.99)

Link to the accompanying sleeve-notes book

For more on Nina Antonio’s past and future projects, see here

Michele Kirsch’s book Clean is published by Short Books