“I guess we were much better live than in the studio – loud, sloppy but real,” is the assessment of sole surviving Heartbreaker, guitarist Walter Lure, who describes their controlled cacophony as “organised chaos”.
L.A.M.F., the band’s only studio album, in 1977, was famously lambasted for its lacklustre mix. Here, then, is the antidote: the band, minus original drummer Jerry Nolan (replaced by Ty Styx), reunited briefly “for old time’s sake” and captured live at the titular legendary New York dive first in 1978 (Volume 1) and ’79 (Volume 2, with Nolan reinstated).
Live At Max’s (on CD and double vinyl, plus detailed sleevenotes from Nina Antonia) is the unexpurgated result: an hour in the company of Johnny Thunders, arguably rock’s second-most famous junkie, bantering with Lure and the audience, drawling with smacked-out abandon one minute, lacerating all-comers with incendiary guitar the next.
The intro – all police and air raid sirens, jackboots and gunfire – sets the tone: into battle with the Heartbreakers. Milk Me (aka Chatterbox) neatly sums up Thunders’s ethos: ‘I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where I’ve been.’ His slurred pronunciation of the title of Chinese Rocks is a thing of wonder. It’s moot whether this is less murky than the album version. Get Off The Phone – or Gitoffdafuckinphone – offers primal excitement, while London is dedicated to “Joe Bummer”.
A lot of the songs have their lyrics and titles changed as Thunders and co. stumble from song to song: Can’t Keep My Eyes On You, for example, becomes Can’t Keep My Cock In Your Face, while references to Jerry Lewis and paraplegics abound.
Volume 2, largely unreleased until now, has a somewhat cleaner sound, all the better to hear the propulsive Pirate Love and Thunders’s poignant tribute to Nolan: “Can’t believe we’ve been together so long – longer than any bitch I’ve had.” Nice. Too Much Junkie Business is “for all our friends, living and dead”, while Stax classic Don’t Mess With Cupid comes with a request for the audience to remove their clothes.
So Alone, Thunders’s theme song, is prefaced by a blast of New York Dolls’ Jet Boy to remind you where he came from, and is followed by six minutes of mournful guitar as a signpost to where he could have gone – think Thunders’s take on Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer.
This was retrograde fare, of course, compared to the alien terrain their (post)punk peers were straying into circa ’79, but if its raw thrills you’re after, it’s as livid as a scab from a dirty needle.