Another Basement Tale: It’s How You Play The Game

Johnny Thunders

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers loads the bases with the Yankees, Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls and more

Steve D’Angelo and Mark Spinetti were on the couch drinking beer, watching the Yankees on TV in Mark’s basement. It was a hot afternoon in Queens on Aug. 7, 1998, and the two men had nothing better to do than get drunk and reminisce about the days when punks were punks.

“Hey,” said Steve. “Remember when Johnny Thunders went out with your sister and you wanted to kick his ass?”

Mark stared blankly at the TV screen. The Yanks were already clobbering the Royals, and it was only the second inning. “Yeah, I remember,” Mark said. “And when I caught up with the little runt, he promised to get us into one of those New York Dolls gigs at the Mercer Arts Center. Good show—that’s when Billy Murcia was still alive and playing the drums.” 

“Uh-huh,” Steve agreed. “I really thought those guys were going to make it big. After Jerry Nolan replaced Billy, they sounded even better, but dope broke up that band too quick.”

Mark went over to the fridge and fished out two more beers. He could hear a soap opera blaring from the front room of his parents’ home upstairs.

“That’s for sure,” Mark sighed. “How about the time we saw Thunders at that used-record store in the East Village? He was selling off a stack of Dolls LPs for a dollar apiece!”

Steve took the beer and held the icy can against his forehead. He glanced at the TV and noticed Darryl Strawberry had just hit his 21st home run of the season. 

“Johnny had formed the Heartbreakers by that time,” Steve said. “It was Thunders, Nolan and Richard Hell from Television when they first started—what a bunch of prima donnas. Hell didn’t last long before going off to form the Voidoids. He just wasn’t interested in contending with Thunders. Besides, the coolest thing they ever did together was steal ‘Chinese Rocks’ from Dee Dee Ramone.” 

Mark laughed, “That’s true, then they got Billy Rath on bass and Walter Lure on guitar and did that Anarchy Tour in Europe with the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned. Kicked punk ass on those little limeys, too. Thunders and Nolan were way more experienced than those British lads.”

Mark’s mother hollered downstairs that it was time for him to pick up the dry cleaning. “Later, ma!” Mark yelled back. “It’s a double header and we’re killing them—I’ll go between games!” 

Clearly embarrassed, Mark resumed his nostalgic spiel. “The Heartbreakers were good, but it was like the song goes, ‘Too Much Junkie Business.’ They couldn’t keep it together, and after Nolan quit, they just fell apart.”

Steve shook his head. The first game was over, and the Yanks had put away Kansas City 8-2. “Yeah,” he said. “Except for that farewell gig at Max’s Kansas City. That might have been the best of them all.” 

Mark smiled at the mention of Max’s. “Man, I loved that place in the early ‘70s. We’d always see Lou Reed or somebody from the Warhol crowd or maybe Patti Smith, but you’re right—that gig at Max’s in 1978 was great. It didn’t matter that Nolan was gone. The drummer knew the tunes and never missed a beat. Everything was so offhand you forgot how hard they were rocking—perfect rock ‘n’ roll is just deceptively simple, I guess. Those shows were special because there was no pressure other than Thunders having to show up and try not to fall down. They sure had that whole wiseass, junkie Bowery Boys punk shtick down pat, too … ” Mark became quiet, lost in a reverie as he drained his seventh beer.

For the second game, the Yankees resumed their pummeling of the Royals. Steve picked up where Mark had trailed off: “Thunders sure made that all badass racket seem easy. Going to see live music was so much fun back then—you never knew what was going to happen. I mean, it wasn’t like there were people lined up to see that show. It was just another gig. Still, they ripped through it all so fast you have to thank goodness they were rolling tape and actually recorded the damned thing.” 

Mark’s eyes suddenly snapped back to reality. He turned the sound on the TV way up in a futile attempt to drown out his mother’s nagging from upstairs. He practically shouted over Bobby Murcer’s play-by-play, “I loved his buzzsaw guitar sound, but how in the hell did Johnny get so into ‘60s girl groups like the Shangri-Las?”

Steve struggled to his feet and made his way to the door. The Yankees were on their way to another rout of the hapless Royals—it was almost too easy this year. Mark was arguing with his mother about the stupid dry cleaning, and she was yelling at him to get a freaking job when Steve finally said his goodbyes. 

Mark stopped bickering for a moment, looked right at Steve and said, “Billy’s dead, Nolan’s dead, Johnny’s dead—what a bunch. There ain’t no heroes in this world, that’s for sure.”  

The Yankees went on to win the second game 14-2—you can look it up. The rest is history.

Earlier incarnations of this Basement Tale have appeared in The Tracking Angle and The Boy Who Cried Freebird.