Johnny Thunders, Room 37 Please

Photo by Frank Aymami

October 26, 2009
Punk Rocker's Peculiar Death Lures Pilgrims to New Orleans Hotel:
by Richard A. Webster, New Orleans City Business

Room 37 at the St. Peter Guest House in the French Quarter has become a tourist destination and an in-demand room after New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders died there in 1991.

Every year for the past 18 years, punk rock fans from throughout the country have made a pilgrimage to New Orleans. They arrive on the doorstep of the St. Peter Guest House in the French Quarter, asking if Room 37 is available for the night, or if they could just have a look inside.

The small unassuming suite is where legendary New York Dolls guitarist Johnny Thunders injected one last blast of heroin before drawing his final breath at the age of 38.

Hotel staff found Thunders’ body on April 23, 1991. The late singer Willy DeVille, who was playing guitar on a stoop across the street from the St. Peter at the time, saw the coroner carry out Thunders in a body bag.

“Rigor mortis had set in to such an extent that his body was in a U-shape,” DeVille said in a later interview. “When you’re laying on the floor in a fetal position, doubled over, well, we said, ‘God damn, that guy must have died a horrible death.’ He was bent like a pretzel.”

And since that day, fans of Thunders, such as Baltimore resident Jason Wicksell, have traveled hundreds of miles to spend the night where their rock hero died.

Wicksell and his girlfriend, Jane Kelly, booked the room in March for Halloween weekend. But when he called to confirm a few weeks ago, the hotel operator told Wicksell she had his reservation but that they were no longer booked for Room 37.

“Apparently there is somebody who has rented the room every Halloween for the past seven years. But we beat them to it and they tried to have us moved,” Wicksell said. “Well, I got pretty heated on the phone and they put us back in 37.”

Room 37 hasn’t quite achieved the popularity of the gravesite of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. But considering how long ago Thunders died and that he is somewhat of an obscure rock star, the St. Peter gets a fair amount of requests for his room, manager Heidi Darby said.

“The worst I’ve ever had is a lady who busted out crying when we showed her the room. And how do you get rid of somebody who is crying all over the floor?” Darby said. “For most people, it’s just another room and they have no idea somebody croaked in there. But some people are completely shocked that we don’t have some kind of memorial set up.”

Billy Williams, head of maintenance for the St. Peter, said he keeps an extra supply of 3s and 7s to reattach to the door because people keep prying off the numbers, thinking they are the originals.

“People claim they hear voices in the room, and people staying next door say they hear noises when it’s empty,” said Williams, who started working at the St. Peter two years after Thunders’ death.

The employee who found Thunders’ body refused to be interviewed, Darby said.

The New York Dolls are considered to be one of the forefathers of punk rock. They formed in 1971, disbanded in 1976 and reformed in 2004 in time to play the first Voodoo Music Experience after Hurricane Katrina in October 2005.

Lead singer David Johansen is better known to some as Buster Poindexter, his big band alter ego.

To many music fans, Thunders, born John Anthony Genzale in Queens, N.Y., is the Keith Richards of punk rock. For much of his life, he struggled with addiction. At one point he embraced the lifestyle, saying, “I take smack because I enjoy it. I enjoy all it makes me feel. I don’t do it to be in with the in-crowd. I can rock out with it.”

But a few years later, he expressed misgivings about the drug’s impact on his life. “I’ve been on heroin for eight years and I want to try a different lifestyle. It made me split up with my wife. It ruined a lot of things for me,” he said.

The official cause of Thunders’ death was a drug overdose, but many people don’t buy it.

New Orleans musician “Sneaky” Pete Orr said his brother, Jimmy, attended Narcotics Anonymous in New York with Thunders and Dee Dee Ramone, bass player for the seminal punk band the Ramones.

“Thunders was this absolutely sweet Italian guy,” Orr said. “I remember him being at my family’s house standing in the kitchen talking to my mother with a cup of coffee. He came over and like a good Italian son he had to talk to your mom and listen to all of her problems.”

Thunders reportedly came to New Orleans because he was enamored with the city’s brass and jazz sound and wanted to start a new band. He arrived April 22, 1991, and was dead the next day. At the time of his visit, Thunders was still addicted but didn’t die from a self-inflicted overdose, Orr said.

Supposedly, Thunders met two homeless drug addicts, often called gutter punks, at Kagan’s, an infamous and long-closed junkie bar on Decatur Street. He is said to have invited them back to his room at the St. Peter to get high. Instead, they reportedly slipped him a “hot shot,” a lethal dose of heroin often mixed with poison, with the intention of killing and robbing him, Orr said.

The suspects were later seen wandering the French Quarter wearing his clothes, according to the documentary, “Born to Lose — The Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie.” Thunders’ manager Mick Webster asked police to conduct a formal investigation, but they refused.

“They seemed to think that this was just another junkie who had wandered into town and died. They simply weren’t interested,” Webster said in a 1994 interview. For years people asked Orr why, in many of his songs, he depicts gutter punks as heartless lowlifes.

“To people from New York, the idea that you’re hanging out being punk rock and would kill Johnny Thunders to rip off his stuff is insane,” Orr said. “That’s like saying you’re a rock fan but killed Keith Richards. I don’t care what drugs you’re on. This guy is the reason you’re dressed like you are and have the haircut you do.”

But Orr, whose brother died in 2003 at the age of 51 from health complications because of his own drug use, knows Thunders’ death, whether by his own hand or the hands of others, was inevitable.

“They understood this was one of the hazards of this lifestyle. They were all doing heroin since they were teenagers. They may not have died from overdoses, but they died from the hazards of it. They died from things inherent in the lifestyle.”

Johnny Thunders, Room 37 Please Check Out


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