Johnny Thunders

In the Flesh

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An 18-track collection taken from an April 4, 1987, Heartbreakers gig at the Roxy Theater in Los Angeles, In the Flesh captures Johnny and the boys, with special guest, ex-New York Dolls bassist Arthur Kane, on one of those "had to be there" nights that, sadly, didn't come around nearly enough in J.T.'s career. Unlike a lot of Thunders live recordings, this one is conspicuous by the absence of the side banter and stoned drivel that spiced up so many of his shows. Johnny comes across as shockingly professional throughout; it's tough to argue with the greasy power of his playing. Starting things off with a fretboard-abusing rendition of the Chantays' surf classic "Pipeline," Thunders and company deliver fanged versions of nuggets like "Personality Crisis," "Dead or Alive," "Too Much Junkie Business," and the Howlin' Wolf classic "Ain't Superstitious."

As fierce as those performances are, the album's real power lies in the quieter moments, when J.T. pulls the plug and goes acoustic. It's then that the true depth of his ability -- both instrumentally and vocally -- comes across like a punch in the mouth. The album highlight is a positively harrowing version of probably his best-known track, "Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory." In an acoustic context, the song's chilling pathos wraps itself around the listener like a funeral shroud, and Johnny's vocals reek of a desperation and resignation that'll make your arm hair stand at attention.

The last quarter or so of the program is where things start to slack a bit. The Heartbreakers come back on and proceed to steamroll Booker T. & the MG's' "Green Onions," Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," and Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie." It's on these tracks where the weak link in the group, Kane, is highlighted in pretty stark contrast. Rather than swing, the bass plods, which is unfortunate because Thunders simply peels the paint off the walls and Jerry Nolan sounds like he's drumming for his soul. The album winds up with a nice rendition of "Sad Vacation" -- J.T.'s tribute to one of rock's more famous casualties, fellow junkie icon Sid Vicious -- and an enthusiastic but sloppy "Born to Lose."

Despite its comparatively slow finish and Johnny's mannered stage presence, In the Flesh is a very welcome addition to Thunders' catalog. It offers an ample track selection, generally superb performances, and surprisingly good fidelity all in one package: a Triple Crown rarely achieved in the world of live Thunders recordings.

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