by Dr John Barry
Johnny Thunders, guitarist with the hugely influential New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, is a rock & roll icon. His is a story of incredible talent tragically squandered to heroin addiction. This article speculates that the cause of this tragedy was dad deprivation.
His story is depressingly familiar, echoed in the lives of contemporaries of the music scene in the late 70s, such as Sid Vicious and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Like Vicious and Jones, Thunders (real name John Anthony Genzale) had a dad-shaped hole in his life. Shortly after he was born into an Italian-American household in Queens, New York, Thunders’ womanising father left home, leaving him to be raised by his mother and older sister.
His sister’s record collection – mainly girl groups like the Shangri-Las – helped fill the void for a time, and we might speculate on how this influenced the cross-dressing of The New York Dolls. But Thunders was also a natural athlete and excelled at baseball. He even got a tryout with the Little League’s Philadelphia Phillies, but he wasn’t allowed to take part because of the requirement of the presence of a father.
But clearly Thunders had spirit and he transfered his energy into guitar playing and fashion. These activities however didn’t fill the dad-shaped void in his life, as suggested by his tendency to take drugs. He and The Dolls became notoriously unreliable due to the influence of drugs and addiction, and his music career was crippled because of the music industry’s lack of willingness to take a risk investing their money there.
Drug-taking wrecked his mental health too. Thunders was sometimes described as appearing depressed. One story tells of him fleeing a hotel room, terrified because he thought Darth Vader was hiding behind his curtains. Psychologists of a psychoanalytic nature might read something into the fact that the Darth Vader character was created as a ‘Dark Father’, which is perhaps what Thunders’ father became due to prolonged absence.
Like his father, Thunders was popular with women. He tried to settle down and had three sons with wife Julie Jordan in the late 70s, but his drug use made his life shambolic and incompatible with family life. In the early 1980s Jordan took the children from him, and he never saw them again. His eldest son Vito, would later be jailed by drug trafficking, perhaps also a victim of dad-deprivation.
There is a rumor that is interesting in regards to Thunders and Sid Vicious, both of whom were victims of dad-deprivation. It is claimed that Thunders introduced Sid Vicious to heroin, waving a syringe in his face and shouting: “Are you a boy or a man?” Perhaps this shows that in the absence of healthy rites-of-passage, men will create unhealthy rites-of-passage.
Thunders’ drug abuse made him hard work for anyone around him and contributed to his notoriety, but it would be naïve to think that it contributed to his talent. In fact his drug use vastly reduced his creativity and output, and who knows how many more great songs he would have recoded had he hadn’t been so addicted and self-destructive.
According to Thunders’ biographer, Nina Antonia: “The thing that was always missing was a father figure”. He could have been a massive success, but he became best known for failure. One of his best known songs is “Born to lose” – clearly that’s how he felt, and that’s how he lived. He died tragically aged 39 in New Orleans in seedy and mysterious – possibly murderous – circumstances. Definitely not the way any father wants their son’s life to end, and something for all fathers to learn from.
About the author
Dr John A. Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, and author of over 60 peer-reviewed publications on a variety of topics in psychology and medicine. John is a professional researcher and has taken an interest in improving the teaching of research methods and statistics. He has practiced clinical hypnosis for several years and is a member of the British Association of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis. His Ph.D. was awarded by City University London, on the topic of the Psychological Aspects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is also the topic of his forthcoming book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is co-founder of both the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS).
Antonia, N. (2000). Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood. Cherry Red Books.
Barry J (2017). How much empathy do we have for a Lonely Boy? https://malepsychology.org.uk/2017/01/09/how-much-empathy-do-we-have-for-a-lonely-boy/
Barry J (2019). Born to lose: the sad start and tragic end of Sid Vicious https://malepsychology.org.uk/2019/02/02/born-to-lose-the-sad-start-and-tragic-end-of-sid-vicious/
Farrel, W (2018). The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.
Jones, S. (2016). Lonely Boy: tales from a Sex Pistol. London: William Heinemann. ISBN-10: 1785150677