Guitarist Johnny Thunders is one of those marginally famous musicians whose cult status seems to grow year after year. Like the Velvet Underground, his record sales were minimal, but his influence continues to expand, particularly in the power chord-loving Northwest.
'Thunders brought rock guitar back to the basics in the '70s,' says Portland musician Greg Odell. 'When groups like the Eagles were doing soft rock, and groups like Yes were going all experimental, Thunders brought back that Chuck Berry, Elvis and Buddy Holly sensibility.'
In the early '70s, Thunders was Keith Richards to David
Johansen's Mick Jagger in the proto-punk band the New York Dolls, supplying the riffs and attitude on ripping rock classics such as 'Personality Crisis' and 'Looking for a Kiss.' Along with Iggy and the Stooges, the Dolls were instrumental in paving the way for punk rock. In 1976, Thunders and his band the Heartbreakers (no relation to Tom Petty's group) toured England with the Sex Pistols, lighting another punk rock fuse that was ready to explode.
'Johnny Thunders bridged rock and punk without even trying. He gave people what they wanted from punk before they knew they wanted it,' says Gregarious Cline, a local DJ and musician. 'He was rock 'n' roll personified.'
intensely creative types, Thunders also lived by the adage 'The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.' One of his signature songs was 'Chinese Rocks' Ñ written by Richard Hell and Dee Dee Ramone Ñ about a type of heroin that was popular in New York's Lower East Side. Thunders eventually died of a heroin overdose in 1991. For several years before that, he was primarily known as a wasted shell of his former self rather than for any recent artistic triumphs.
Filmmaker Martin Scorsese used Thunders' 'You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory,' in his grim 1999 flick 'Bringing Out the Dead,' about an ambulance driver (Nicolas Cage) on the verge of a mental breakdown.
A choice assortment of Portland rockers, including Odell's two bands, the Gays and 8 Foot Tender, will assemble at Dante's to pay tribute to the late guitarist and to raise money for Outside In, a local clinic and shelter that provides services for low-income adults and homeless youth. Other bands on the bill include the Weaklings, Frank Furter, New Wave Hookers, Starantula, Freak Show Rodeo, Exploding Hearts and the Ex-Boyfriends.
Organizer Casey Maxwell planned the event merely as an excuse to play songs by one of his heroes. 'It was a selfish thing,' he says. 'I just wanted to play some Thunders songs.
'I decided to make it a benefit show É and everyone told me Outside In did really good work,' Maxwell continues. 'I went over there and was really impressed. They provide medical treatment to homeless kids and also offer counseling to drug users.'
The irony of a tribute to a rather notorious addict serving as a benefit for at-risk kids who may be involved in drugs is not lost on Maxwell.
'It's true that a big part of Thunders' legacy was the whole drug thing,' he says. 'And he played up to it. And I know that drugs are a rampant problem in the Portland music community, too.
'But this is a way to turn it around, put a positive spin on it and to celebrate Thunders' music, which sometimes gets lost in all his legendary behavior.'
Cline, who will play in an 'unnamed, ramshackle pickup band' with Maxwell at the event, offers his own assessment. 'It's like in 'Twin Peaks,' ' he says. 'You have to go through the Black Lodge to get to the White Lodge. In this case, maybe Johnny Thunders is the Black Lodge. He was a dark caricature of rock 'n' roll to the extreme.'