Anyone who saw Johnny Thunders perform in the years after the demise of the New York Dolls knew: you paid your money and you took your chances. For when Thunders was good, he was awe-inspiring, and when he was bad, well, he was usually face-down on the floor tangled in his own guitar lead. On January 4, 1987, however, he was very good indeed. For that gig at the Roxy in Los Angeles, captured here on You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory, Thunders was joined by bassist Arthur Kane, drummer Jerry Nolan, and a young gunslinger, second guitarist Barry Jones. But this was not a Dolls reunion, even if three of the five members were reunited at last. Down the years, Thunders and his various cohorts' debt to R&B and the blues were lost amidst all the feathers, lipstick, and smack. At last, though, that I.O.U. has been paid off in full with a set paying tribute to Thunders' own past, which is stuffed with inspired covers of both genres: "Ain't Superstitious," "In the Midnight Hour," "Little Queenie," and the list goes on. A pair of Dolls songs, a clutch of Heartbreakers, as well as Thunders' own solo material are all interspersed among these covers, all accentuating the links between the originals and the blues. Intriguingly, during their own songs, the band tend to dissolve towards the ramshackle, but they're tight as a drum elsewhere. Read into that what you will.
The exception is Thunders' solo acoustic segment which begins with the title track, and winds through Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," the Dolls' own "Lonely Planet Boy," Marc Bolan's "The Wizard," and ends with a cover of the Rolling Stones own nod to the blues, "Play with Fire." And it's the blues that fire much of the night, driven by Kane and Nolan's rock-solid rhythms, but ignited by Jones' incendiary blues riffs and Thunders' ferocious, searing leads. Jones is flash enough to take over for the former Doll without deflating the sound, allowing the guitarist to put down his axe and pick up the mic. And although Thunders attempts to emulate Wilson Pickett, he unfortunately ends up sounding like Fat Albert, but even his erratic vocals can't break the spell of the music. The crowd shouted for their faves, but the covers are what truly impress, and in the light of day, they're what make this show so worth revisiting.