Photos by Jesper Larsson
Johnny Thunders time in Sweden was marred by scandals and headlines. But he also had family and friends here and lived a normal family life. Anders Dahlbom has talked to people who were close Johnny Thunders .
There are many parts of Thunders depicted in the current documentary “Looking for Johnny“, but Danny Garcia’s film only touches on, Johnny’s time in Sweden. Johnny and Sweden braided differently together the last turbulent decade of his life. He influenced many people he had to do with forever.
In Johnny’s head, Sweden became a pure and untouched place. A place where you can escape the common problems, says Thunders biography writer Nina Antonia in the documentary.
Johnny Thunders landed in Sweden on Monday, March 22, 1982 in company of bassist Luigi Scorcia and the drummer Jerry Nolan, who
just returned to play with his best friend again. On the schedule is a Scandinavian tour, to be launched the same evening at the live tv show, Mandagsborsen. The musicians came from a prolonged recording with the Rolling Stones producer Jimmy Miller and are delayed arraiving to Stockholm. Nolan is under the weather and must see a doctor – sound check is out of the question and the engineers at SVT are worried. In the end, the band was pulled from the live feed and got to play only after the cameras were turned off.
Both tabloids have Thunders as the main headline. “Drugged up artist stopped by TV” reads Aftonbladets front page. I was shocked when Thunders came into the dressing room. I felt sorry for this human wreckage that does not even seem aware that we exist, writes the magazine’s Jan-Olov Andersson. I have never been so pissed off of dope and shit like that today. All drug dealers should be incarcerated says Måndagsbörsens (the TV show) host Staffan Schmidt to Expressen.
A shocking example what heavy drug use can achieve. An artistic suicide. Johnny Thunders has been cheated on expectations, myths and himself, says Per Mortensen in DN. Live Clip from the TV show, a true drunken rock star who seems to have problems with balance and pretends to go sliding down from the stage, as he is chatting with the audience and sits down at a table.
– This is rock and roll, unlike the electronic shit you heard before, Johnny says at one point (in the same program Depeche Mode did their debut on Swedish TV).
Lotten Sunna is in place at the TV recording at the Grand Hotel. At the time she runs the fanzine ‘Heatwave’ and her interview with Thunders was cancelled. It was obvious that Johnny was not as he would be, says Sunna after the TV show. Afterwards she hangs with the band hoping to get the interview with Johnny. She did not know that the drummer in fact, was Jerry Nolan until she sees his suitcases in the hotel lobby. They sat down and talked all night.
The next day the group goes to Sundsvall for a drug-free gig. The saga continues in the tabloids. “A a rock star is falling” announces Expressen. The reporter Stefan Sjöström describes the audience in Hedebergska school as ice cold. Aftonbladet’s headline reads: “Success” and Jan-Olov Andersson meets a beatific smiling and completely exhausted Thunders in the dressing room.
The flight back to Stockholm causes new front pages and headlines: “Chaos on the plane from Norrland” and “Police arrested rock star” Thunders and Scorcia had taken the plane’s medical emergency bag to the bathroom because they had heard that it could contain drugs, breaking it up and tossed it in a waste basket. When the plane lands at Bromma airport the police are waiting for them.
– They probably thought it was pretty fun, says The Lotten Sunna. They did not mind that they broke against any rules, it suited both their self-image and image. After a cancelled gig in Norway (Johnny was too messed up) Jerry Nolan pops up outside Lotten Sunna’s door with a suitcase. – Three months later we got married, she says.
Guitarist MickeThimren was the one who really would have done the interview with Johnny Thunders to ‘Heatwave’. – After the fiddling with Måndagsbörsen (the TV show) Johnny could not understand the commotion. ” I’m just a fucking junkie from New York, what’s the fuss? “, recalls Thimren.
When Michael Thimren then hears that the band Hanoi Rocks is stuck in Finland the day after the gig in Sundsvall he sees an opportunity.
– I called the organizer and said I had a great band, Tenerife Cowboys, then I called around all night and fixed some people, says Thirmren who was also Sunna’s former boyfriend. Soon Jerry Nolan also started to play with Tenerife Cowboys. When Thunders later calls his old pal Jerry to come down to Paris and play, Nolan says to Johny that he found a really good guitarist, Michael Thimren.
The next five years Thimren was acting rhythm guitarist for Thunders.
– In the beginning he was in very bad condition, says Thimren. Johnny was often the case that when it was great expectations he could take too much drugs or pour into a bottle of liquor.
We would do a gig in London that was like a big comeback with great expectations and a big audience, he fucked up bad.
The Swede that matters most to Johnny Thunders during the eighties he sees from the concert stage at a gig in Södertälje, during a tour of Sweden in June 1983.
– We made eye contact even though we probably both had sunglasses. Something happened, says Susanne Blomqvist who was nineteen years old.
The next day she goes to his concert at Kolingsborg in Stockholm. They are presented to each other backstage. – Johnny was a very shy person, very fragile, says Blomqvist. He made no fuss if he was not in the mood. I think he was pretty bored of Sweden because of what had happened the year before with all the headlines.
That concert was really bad musically, Thunders was not in shape at all. However, it became memorable in a different way. Thunders refuses to go on stage if he was not allowed to bring his new Swedish acquaintance out on stage. She, who never stood on a stage, declines. An hour passes, Thunders stands by his requirements and the manager is becoming increasingly impatient. After a while Susanne agreed to go on stage with him.
– It was a pretty intimidating atmosphere, people booed. Johnny pulled me up on stage and introduced me as his “Swedish wife”. It was like he knew, says Susanne Blomqvist.
Just weeks later she moved to Paris with Johnny. She is then included on all tours the coming years, no more than 2 feet from Johnny’s side.
The tour in 1983 was booked by Nöjesbörsen, a tour company in which Lotten Sunna now works with the tour producer Lasse Lindros, who previously worked at the EMA Telstar. – It was really hard to work with Thunders, said Lindros over thirty years later when he was in the office looking a binder with Thunders old touring contracts and methadone prescriptions.
– What was he like to work with?
Lotten Sunna is the tour leader of the band that her husband Nolan plays, in conjunction with Thunders. It was Johnny who has suggested her.
– They were extremely difficult to handle on tour, she says. Johnny could be incredibly whiny and annoying backstage. He could refuse to go on stage for small things. Sometimes Jerry got real tired and told Johnny, put on the guitar and go up on stage, NOW! Johnny acted as a little boy. Jerry was the only one that could crack down on him and say things like that. Johnny never fucked with me, because he knew Jerry would come to my(Lotten) rescue.
– For Lotten, it was like taking care of the youngest group in kindergarten, says Susanne Blomqvist.
They were completely irresponsible, someone else could take care of everything. And they knew that someone else did. I was like a mom for them sometimes, absolutely. Much of the mess was about being punctual. – I had mostly worked with Swedish artists that weer always on time, says Lasse Lindros. Here, an American could still be missing an hour after the bus was supposed to leave. They seemed to have a completely different idea of order. However, it never went so far that any concert during the tour had to be cancelled.
When Johnny Thunders during the spring of 1984 returned to Sweden for a new tour he was denied a work permit by the federal agency AMS who believed that Thunders did not have a good cultural influence. This decision creates debate in the press, which now stands at Thunders side. The discussion went all the way to the parliament to debate the appropriateness of denying artists work on artistic grounds.
Thunders himself is posing with his guitar for the press in the harbor of Stockholm and announces that he intends to play for free on a Finnish Cruise ship instead. In June, he returns with a work permit for a highly acclaimed gig at Draken in Stockholm together with Jerry Nolan, Billy Rath from The Heartbreakers and Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Dolls. “Lightning and Thunder – he can play also” reads the headline the day after in Expressen(tabloid).
The following years Susanne and Johnny are living a wandering life based in Paris. Tours in Japan, USA and Europe. Sometimes with Thunders as a solo artist, sometimes with a reunited Heartbreakers. The relationship between Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan goes up and down. – They were like an old couple, says Susanne Blomqvist. There was a love-hate relationship between Jerry and Johnny. They became angry with each other and sometimes they didn’t talk to each other for weeks. Jerry was a bit like a father for Johnny, because Johnny’s own father had left the family when he was little. Jerry was a very nice guy, he never freaked out when I was with them.
– They had a special relationship, says Micke Thimren. There were many times Johnny came to me and said: – “Michael, Jerry does not talk to me, What Should I Do?
Jerry was a complex personality, he was resentful like hell. He could be angry for a long time. At the same time, he was not a party dude.
Jerry often said – The party was always in Johnny’s room.
Sometimes Johnny played on the audience’s expectations and lived up to the myth as junkie rocker. But he is rarely so fucked up as he looks to be. – People often expect that he would be a disaster, says Blomqvist. Already in the door you had to stop the fans who wanted to come forward and offer drugs. It was pretty tiring. But as fucked up as he looked like he was not. It was a little theater, he gave the crowd what they wanted. It was part of his humor. He pulled everything always an extra lap to see if it worked. – Johnny could easily have become a stand-up comedian, says Thimren. He had a great sense of humor.
A sharp New Yorker who knew your weak points. During a tour of France, I had been drunk and sat and talked up the phone bill for several thousand(Swedish crowns). The first thing Johnny said the day after when I came down for dinner a little delayed, were: – Been on the phone? There you have Johnny in a nutshell!
Then when the couple is expecting a baby in 1987 Susanne wants to move back to safety in Sweden and leave the drug life behind. The couple moves into Susan’s mother’s old apartment on Arvodesvägen in Hägerstensåsen, Stockholm.
During a period Susanne, Johnny and eventually daughter Jamie lives a normal regular lifestyle in the Stockholm suburb. When the daughter is six months old Susanne is starting to work and Johnny gets home staying dad. Not infrequently one can see a rock star with a hat and a purple-pink suit roll in with a baby stroller to the supermarket.
– He read a lot, everywhere and all the time, says Susanne Blomqvist. He plowed trough biographies about John F. Kennedy and James Dean. When he took it easy, he wanted to take it really easy. Eat pizza and watch a movie. Everybody knew that he lived here. We could not go into town without people recognizing him. He was very generous with it too, offered himself.
Both Nolan and Thunders are now living in Stockholm. The two pairs consisting of a Swedish girl and American rock star hangs out as friends do. Eat dinner together, go on holiday together. Lotten Sunna and Johnny Thunders are often out in Stockholm in the evenings because Nolan does not like to go out. Johnny was incredibly cute and warm, very nurturing and protective, says Sunna. He was social and babbling with people, played guitar with those who wanted to. At the same time, he kept people at a distance. He was very well aware that people wanted to get something out of being with him. It never quite clicks between New York guy Thunders and the Swedish mentality. He does not understand at all why Swedes must drink a lot to open up. – He never understood the swedes, says Blomqvist. It was not that he hated Sweden. Sure, I wanted him to learn Swedish but it was not on the map.
It was clear that he missed New York and his old friends. During this period Thunders meet a young guitarist named Stevie Klasson in Stockholm. That evening they got to know each other, they jammed the whole night with members of Kebnekajse on rock club Pipeline in Hammarby, Stockholm.
Just to jam with others was something Thunders always was happy to do.
– There are a lot of people who say they played with Johnny for five minutes. He was very generous that way, he liked to play, says Stevie Klasson which then toured with Thunders until the end. – If people wanted to play with him, he was cool about that, says Blomqvist. It was just Thåström who had problems with it. We were out on a venue and partied together before Thåström would play when Johnny suggested that he could get up on stage and play with him. “When I play, I’m the star, ok?” said Thåström. Johnny took no offense at all, he bought champagne for the whole crew instead. When we started playing, Johnny was in a very good shape, says Stevie Klasson. It was almost like people were disappointed that he was in a good shape. It was not what people wanted to see.
Although Johnny also liked to play on his reputation. At one point, he was 100% sober when a journalist came in, then he began to slur. It was like a game for him.
Micke Thimren remembers one evening when he and Johnny went to Thimrens little brother in Sollentuna where they sat and played Dolls Songs for a whole night. – Another time we were sitting in my apartment with my friends and played guitar to Stones albums. For me it was of course pretty cool to walk around in music storesand check out guitars with Johnny Thunders.
There are a few guitarists who can strike a chord and you hear directly who is playing. Johnny Thunders was such a guitarist. Technically, he was not so exaggerated, it was more about attitude and personality. – He is the only guitarist I know who had full draw on all controls on the amp and still made it sound good with his Gibson, said Mike Thimren.
He played entirely on sensation with a unique tone. And he was a damn good songwriter. – He wrote the book on how to play punk guitar, says Stevie Klasson. I can imitate most guitarists, but I can not get it to sound like Thunders. He was very rooted in the fifties rock with Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. Jimmy Page in the Yardbirds was his first great role model.
Later in New York we ended up at various lofts and was playing all night. He lived to play. Howlin ‘Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin was his favorite. One evening in New York we were at a club when suddenly an older black guy came up and started playing “Spoonful”, he knew the licks perfect. Me and Johnny just looked at each other. When we were introduced to Sumlin we got tongue-tied.
Johnny Thunders had an image that was not thought out. He dressed the same way as private as he stood on the stage. – He liked the clothes, hair, make-up, says Susanne Blomqvist. If he didn’t become a musician, I think he had been an actor. He liked to be seen and had such a strong charisma. He was a very outgoing person, while he was very shy in private. No stage fright at all. Thunders played with many during his period in Sweden, but only recorded with a few. The Nomads was the exception. The Garage rock band from Solna get him into the studio to put the guitar on it that will 1989 Single back, “Beyond The Valley of the Dolls”. For Nomads guitarist Hans Östlund Thunders was a big influence, in particular the album with Heartbreakers. – It sounded so different when Thunders played. His style is difficult to get to. He completed his solos go up and down with his finger, just as Hubert Sumlin. I copied that Östlund says.
Östlund saw many Thunders gigs during the eighties. – He had this arrogant persona towards the audience, but it was obviously a game. Then he had the movements from the Dolls time where he staggered sideways on stage and looked like he was about to fall. He was like a fuss, he could take over an entire stage no matter who he played with.
When Johnny Thunders arrives at Atlantis studios he was not happy with any of the guitar amplifiers standing there. In a corner, he finds an Ampeg which nobody used for a long time. – Afterwards we poked on the guitar he used as a small child, remember Hans Östlund.
Suburban Life does not hold for the pair in Hägerstensåsen. The heroin use as Susanne Blomqvist wanted to get away from is catching up for the family. – He tried methadone, she says. Sure, there was a desire in him to not be dependent on heroin. I think he wanted to overcome it but he did not know how. Finally, it’s over.
In early 1989 Johnny Thunders moves back to New York and then never returns to Sweden again. Around the same time Stevie Klasson is moving to the same city where he continues to play with Thunders, after a while, along with an expanded band where choirs and saxophone was included. – Johnny wanted to become more of an entertainer, he was wearing velvet suits and Dean Martin hairstyle says Klasson. But the crowd shouted after, Chinese Rocks and threw up loaded needles on stage. It was a freakshow.
In April 1991, a tired Thunders is flying a to New Orleans to record an album. Klasson, to come the day after, talking on the phone with his bandleader staying in a hotel – the same hotel where Johnny a few hours later dies. The police sees the cause of death as a suspected overdose. Later it turns out that he suffered from a form of leukemia. He is thirty-eight years old. – Shortly before he died, I promised him in Japan to live on my own merits, says Klasson. Ithink he felt that he was ill. I ignored it then, did not want to take it in. He said:> Stevie, I’m so proud of you. You I have managed to learn something well, you have not only taken over my bad sides. Many who played with Johnny Thunders also wanted to be like Johnny Thunders. It did not go so well.
Stevie Klasson over the years has declined to talk about the Thunders in interviews. – He did not want me to play his songs. “Record your own songs instead”. That promise I have kept. Playing with Johnny was a good school to go in. I learned everything from how to support myself as a musician, how to walk down the street without being robbed, how to survive.
On one wall of Susanne Blomqvist’s hair salon in Södermalm, Stockholm hangs a large black and white photograph of daughter Jamie beside a picture of Johnny. The resemblance is striking. Susanne receive inquiries all the time of writing books and doing interviews about those years, but declines.
– I am glad that Johnny today is seen as an accomplished musician and songwriter, she says. When I talk to you I scrape on the surface. I do not want to disclose our private life. I had almost seven years with Johnny, those years. I want to keep for myself, Johnny and our daughter.
– How do you see this period of your life?
It shaped me into who I am. What I got to experience with him is hard to beat, we had fun together. I learned a lot from him. His humility, how to look at other people. I have a lot of Johnny in me, both good and bad sides. We lived so close together. And we did get Jamie.
I do not regret one second, says Susanne Blomqvist.