The Heartbreakers

tumblr_l8e1glHJ571qckm0wo1_500The two best shows I ever saw were both the Heartbreakers. I saw all their early shows, starting with their debut with Walter Lure at CB’s in July 1975. They had played a no-one-knows gig at Coventry in Queens as a trio: Johnny, Jerry and Richard.

Truth be known, the Heartbreakers really made CBGB. By that time Television was drawing but not packing the place. No one else was even on the map, except Patti Smith who was working her way up along with Television. For the Heartbreakers debut it was packed out into the street. I got there early and sat at a front table with my buddy from work Steve, who was four years older and curious.

We saw I think six bands that night and I’m trying to remember them. Possibly Talking Heads was one but they may have opened for the Ramones about a week later. The Shirts for sure, a band called Cracked Actor, and definitely Mink DeVille. It was a great show and The Heartbreakers topped it easily, but it wasn’t their best show.

That show was their 3rd gig at CB’s, the night that they debuted their version of Love Comes in Spurts, which was eventually recorded in a much different version on the Voidoids first album. That night I went with my best friend Dee, and the two of us and the whole house were blown speechless. Maybe someone else can do it just as well but no one can do it better.

Naturally, they couldn’t get a record contract. Everyone was scared of the junk and the failure of the Dolls. Richard left the band in early 1976. Johnny, Jerry and Walter disappeared for 2-3 months and emerged with Billy Rath on bass. The Hell songs were gone and in their place were Get Off The Phone, It’s Not Enough, I Love You, All By Myself and Let Go. They gigged around a bit and went to England at the end of the year, as it happened on the very night that the Sex Pistols were on the infamous Bill Grundy Show. The Heartbreakers were on the Sex Pistols tour, along with The Clash and briefly The Damned. Briefly too because the tour only played six dates what with the threat to England of Johnny Rotten, but the boys stuck around after the tour gigging extensively all over England and even Paris.

In the summer of ’77, that anarchic summer, they came back to New York to play a long weekend at the Village Gate. No doubt me and the boys would be there. It was the week that Elvis died.

Another wild scene. I don’t mean uniforms either. What came to be “punk” fashion was much more an open question then. The looks were various and imaginative. The band was hanging out among the crowd and they looked perfect early 60s gangster, except for the hair of course (there is a Facebook page called Johnny Thunders’ Hair). It took several years for the junk to really show. Any number of members of NY bands were also there, in addition to all the band’s fans and lemme tell ya they were an active bunch. The little headline in the Daily News said “Crowd Steals Show at Heartbreakers Return.”

But not for us. The band stole the show. They came out smoking with Chinese Rocks, absolutely on the money with the hugest sound I ever heard, right into One Track Mind, and just blistered their way upward. Halfway through, Robert Gordon gets up on stage and they do Jailhouse Rock for Elvis and Be Bop a Lula. All of us walked out of there soaked and full of wonder. Actually, three of us decided that night that we were going to do this; we would make music like this. The fourth guy said “I’ll be your manager.”

5 thoughts on “The Heartbreakers

  1. Great read. Surprised that record companies were “scared of the junk” though. I guess cocaine was no problem then but heroin out of bounds. Was there a belief at the time that punk rock sales would be better than they were? Or had record companies at the time already that early decided that it wouldn’t be? Could it have been? Why did imitators like Green Day become so popular so much later?

  2. On reflection I think the junk was a distant second to the disastrous failure of the Dolls. Forgotten amid the cultural triumph of Punk – the Met and stuff – is that the Dolls and the Ramones were mostly and viscerally HATED by the musical public at the time. They got good press but the radio would not play them. I know for a fact that WNEW-FM got complaints whenever they played either band. I actually lost friends over the New York Dolls. Besides a few fanatics, you didn’t hear them at parties the way you heard the (early) J Geils Band or Motown or the Stones or even Slade and Humble Pie.

    The record companies were full of prospering hippies, and they resented that their little brothers thought they were full of shit. We laughed at peace and love right from the start. The guys who beat the shit out of us every day were all of a sudden flashing peace signs. We couldn’t afford to be fooled. The love part meant getting laid not universal harmony.

    It was a half-generational thing, a small scale version of the real generational split which came later with rap. For white people that is, because for black people rap was half-generational, and similar in many ways to the punk thing that was happening in New York at roughly the same time.

    And yeah, people drew the line at smack.

    I don’t know why Green Day became popular except that they had some hooky songs. They were much better recorded than the early bands, with the exception of the Pistols. Americans like production values. Hollywood has spoiled us. Maybe there just aren’t that many people who like real rocknroll.

  3. The Heartbreakers were not a Punk bank, they were a pure Rock and Roll Band!!!!!!! My God when they were on they were untouchable, like a freight train running amok. They were magic. Their last gig at the Marquee in NYC in Nov 1990 was also Magic.

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