Still Un-Alive And Well

Listening to this live 1987 Johnny Thunders CD in the year 2000, one gets a strange sense of hearing a remnant of not only an era, but of an entire attitude, one that's virtually evaporated from rock 'n' roll in the intervening years.

Thunders' dope-fueled image — Keith Richards as a hard-core, streetwise New Yorker — may have at times lapsed into cliche and self-parody, but there's simply no denying the late New York Dolls/Heartbreakers guitarist's trailblazing talent. Likewise, no one can refute his uncompromising display of personal extremeness in the face of an increasingly conservative mass culture.

It seems evident, as time drags on, that regardless of the decadent habits that simultaneously influenced his muse and dragged down his life, one Johnny "Thunders" Genzale was worth more than 20 or so of the backwards-baseball-capped bumpkins crowding what's left of the "rock scene." It also seems likely that the kind of risk-free, safety-obsessed techno culture engulfing the West will yield little in the way of inspiring art. And if we are then to have no messy (and messed-up) Johnny Thunders types around anymore, we may well eventually have no rock 'n' roll, or discernible culture, to call our own.

As such, In the Flesh is a timely reminder of rock 'n' roll as it once was. Recorded in 1987 at the Roxy in Los Angeles, deep into Thunders' supposed decline (he died in 1991), the music here is at once sloppy, raunchy, tender, vicious, crashing and all points in between. It is imbued throughout with Thunders' archetypal street punk persona, captured in his roaring, singular, subway-train guitar sound — a sound lifted neatly verbatim by Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols (possibly via Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who briefly managed the Dolls before coming upon Johnny Rotten, Jones and company.)

Thunders takes off here with a searing cover of the Chantays' '60s surf instrumental, "Pipeline" (RealAudio excerpt) its chugging vitality belying the oft-held notion that Thunders was some kind of debilitated basket-case (ditto for the raucous covers of Bo Diddley's "I Can Tell" and Booker T. & the M.G.'s' "Green Onions" (RealAudio excerpt). Old Dolls' classic "Personality Crisis" also smokes right in all of its glorious, shambolic chaos, with Thunders' punk squawk filling in admirably for old Dolls' vocalist David "Buster Poindexter" Johansen.

The anthemic "Too Much Junkie Business" proudly flaunts the first half of Thunders' "street punk with a heart" persona, while the latter gets a good airing during an "unplugged" solo segment (always ahead of his time, that Johnny), as the audience sings along on "You Can't Put Your Arm Around a Memory" like it was Gordon Lightfoot up there. In fact, so enthralled is the crowd that Thunders' suggestion that he bring his band back out is met with a roar of disapproval, eventually leading to an inspired solo reading of the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire" (RealAudio excerpt).

Longevity? Nope, Johnny didn't "achieve" that; it simply wasn't on his agenda. But as another artistic "outlaw" who died young, Arthur Rimbaud, once wrote on the subject: "So what if he is destroyed in his ecstatic flight through things unheard of, un-nameable: Other horrible workers will come; they will begin at the horizons where the first one has fallen!" Perhaps. But sometimes the wait seems a long one.