Too Much Junkie Business: An Interview with Legendary Heartbreakers Guitarist Walter Lure
When the New York Dolls splintered in an explosion of mascara and recrimination it was a prophecy fulfilled. Too much, too soon. But in their wake they left a legion - from Television, to The Ramones, Blondie and their Bowery ilk. There was no lack of fuel to fill that wasted void as the New York of the mid 70’s threw out a cultural rallying cry to the world in the face of dreams denied and a society in decline.
One of the first to heed that call was Walter Lure, who would go on to join Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan and Billy Rath (after an abortive pre-Voidoids stint with Richard Hell) in the formation of another gloriously doomed endeavour. The Heartbreakers were the logical heirs to the Dolls' tattered throne and yet no less cursed, as too much junkie business and some bad juju at the pressing plant conspired to scuttle their vessel, but not before some heads were tilted and some legends inked.
Now, after a lifetime of music, a stint on Wall Street and enough anecdotes to fill an oil drum, last man standing and raconteur par excellence, guitarist Walter Lure returns with a killer new album by his outfit The Waldos and the delicious prospect of a book on the horizon.
You can almost feel the time unwind as he comes crackling down the phone line, quintessential New York swagger in every syllable as he barely pauses for breath. This cat can talk LAMF. And he has a lot to tell.
On New York in the 1970’s
New York itself was in a recession. There was a lot of poverty and welfare. It got worse in the middle 70’s when the punk thing started happening - especially on the lower east side of Manhattan where all the drug dealers and the bums were. In the winter you’d walk outside and see a dead body in the street every other day. It was so cold that the homeless people would just lay down outdoors and die. It was dangerous. The whole country was in recession, but I was playing in cover bands and hanging out at the Fillmore. My favourite bands were all the British bands -The Stones, Bowie and what have you - and then all of a sudden in roughly 72-73, The New York Dolls happened.
Before that there were no real musicians in New York. There were just bands doing cover stuff, there were no local bands playing. So the Dolls were like the first band in god knows how long, almost since the doo-wop bands in the 50’s that started a whole scene. It made people come out and start a bunch of bands. If you had three chords and a guitar you could start writing songs and start a band, however derivative it might be. The Dolls really opened the floodgates.
There would be new clubs opening up and there’d be the Mercer Art Fair, where you’d have ten different bands performing on any given night. So The Dolls were very inspiring. They were getting bigger and there was this whole scene that was developing.
To this day I call the New York Dolls the Grandmothers of the Punk scene in New York. Yeah, they had long hair and some of the glam clothes, but the clothes were all ripped up and they were like a glam band after they got hit by an atomic bomb - so it started the transition to the whole punk thing. That’s what got me involved. I knew I had to get out of doing cover bands and start doing original stuff because otherwise I’d be playing in little shitty bars out in the suburbs forever.
On Meeting Johnny and Jerry
I started a new band called ‘The Demons’. We were using the Dolls’ rehearsal loft because Elliot was a friend of The Dolls and he sold them drugs. I got to the rehearsal one day and ran into Johnny (Thunders) and Jerry (Nolan). I had known Johnny for years because I’d see him at every concert I ever went to, but I never really knew him to say hello, we would just nod at one another because we’d see each other so much. The Demons were getting ready for our first gig, which was around the same time as the Dolls broke up. We heard they were down on tour in Florida when Malcom McLaren was their manager and they broke up, 'cause they weren’t drawing people and 'cause David was a control freak and blah blah blah. It was the red patent leather era, which I’d seen back in New York and it was alright but it was kind of constricting the Dolls into one type of flavour which was stupid. That was Malcolm’s idea. So they’re touring but they’re drawing less and less people and finally they just broke up. Johnny and Jerry hated David. And til the day they died they hated him cos he was such a control freak.
So we hear that Johnny and Jerry are back in new York and they’d joined up with Richard Hell, the bass player from Television, and they’re starting a new band called The Heartbreakers, and the word was out that they were looking for another guitar player. So The Demons did our first show at this place called Club 82 and while we’re playing I notice that Jonny and Jerry are in the audience. After the show Johnny takes me aside and says "Don’t tell Elliot" ('cause they still wanted to get drugs off him), "...but would you like to join our band’? Can you come to an audition?”.
So the following week I went to midtown Manhattan to audition for The Heartbreakers. We went through about four or five songs. They had 'Chinese Rocks', 'Blank Generation', 'Going Steady' and I’m playing along and it’s sounding good. I loved the songs. So I finish up and they said they’d get in touch with me.
Then like a month or so goes by and I haven’t heard anything so I’m thinking they must have gotten a real guitar player, but the next thing I knew there was a gig booked with The Demons and The Heartbreakers playing together. We were opening up for the three-piece version of The Heartbreakers and it was just across the river from Manhattan in Queens, in a small club called Coventry. That was the first Heartbreakers gig as a three piece and for whatever reason it wasn’t really crowded. So The Demons played, then The Heartbreakers did their thing and I watched them and was thinking 'They’re good, they have good songs, but they really need another guitar player' 'cause when Johnny was singing he kept losing track of the chords and stuff. So then after the show was over we’re sitting at the bar and Jerry walks over and says "So do you wanna join the band?".
I was like "Oh shit, yeah!".
On Friday night I played my last Demons gig at 2 in the morning with about 20 people in the audience sleeping or nodding out. The next night was my first Heartbreakers show and the place was filled to the walls. It was sold out, you couldn’t even get in. There were lines around the block. I’d never played a gig where I’d had that kind of rabid crowd before. So right away I’ve gone from being nowhere to being in one of the biggest bands in New York City. Chris Stein from Blondie used to call me ‘the rookie of the year’ because I came from nowhere and wound up on top of the world.
On Crossing the Pond for the Anarchy Tour
We’re in New York and there’s no internet, no cell phones and stuff like that - so we think we’re the centre of the universe. There’s all these bands playing, we’re getting a little bit of press, but I have no idea what’s happening out in L.A. or in England.
The record industry in the States was still looking after Aerosmith and all the hair bands. In the 70’s they were the established 'Rock Kings', so they weren’t signing any of the new Punk bands because there wasn’t really a country-wide scene. It was just on the coast, and maybe in little bits of Detroit and Chicago. The bands that were getting signed, like The Ramones and Blondie, were getting these lousy record deals where the manager and the company would keep 50%. The band would get 50% of whatever was earned, but there wouldn’t be any big advance to buy equipment or stuff like that.
It was a pretty dismal scene, but we almost signed a record deal because we had no other options. Then we get the call from Malcolm (McLaren) to come over to England to play a gig with these bands of his - The Pistols and The Clash and The Damned. We knew nothing about the bands, but we said “Why don’t we just go over there and see what’s going on?”.
So we arrived at the airport in Heathrow, and Malcolm and his assistant are there to pick us up in a limo, and Malcolm’s out of his mind, he’s talking to himself, his eyes are twirling in his head, he’s totally freaking out. We were thinking 'What the fuck’s wrong with this guy?'. Well it turned out that this was the day of the infamous Bill Grundy show where the Pistols cursed live on TV. So he’s out of his mind because … I mean, we had no idea that this kind of reaction was out there, until we woke up the next morning and saw every newspaper on every newsstand just totally devoted to the Pistols. People were going crazy and throwing their TVs out the window and wanting to have the band thrown in jail. It was the most absurd outbreak of outrage that I have ever seen. It was just like a billion dollars worth of publicity, you couldn’t even get the money to buy that kind of publicity at that time.
It worked great for us because right away we’re among the aristocracy of British Punk Rock, because we’re part and parcel of this Anarchy tour. So we meet the guys and I think the tour started a day or two later. We get on the bus and it’s The Pistols, The Clash, and us plus a few roadies and what have you. The Damned would travel alone on a different bus. And of course the papers are still going at it. Its front page headlines every day. There was at least a week where there was nothing else on the front page of any newspaper in London, and I’m assuming the rest of the country as well. Photographers are constantly coming up to the bus and (Johnny) Rotten is making fun of them and laughing at them.
On the first date of the tour we get to the town and discover the show is cancelled - the town had some sort of unique power to cancel any show they wanted if they thought it was improper or immoral. So we all go to the hotel bar and get drunk all night. You know, there’s three bands and the road crew. So this is happening every fucking night of the tour. It had to be a week before we got to play the first gig.
So we got to be great friends with the Pistols and the Clash - we were hanging out, I’m having wrestling matches with Paul Simon in some hotel room... just piss drunk every night. In that one place we played in Wales, Caerphilly I think was the name of it, we were in this movie theatre and then across the street in the parking lot, you’ve probably seen the story I bet, the local minister or priest, he’s got a whole mess of the parents of the kids who went to the show. And he’s preaching to them in the parking lot, “Don’t let your kids go in the theatre across the street, the Devil’s in there.”, and all this shit like that. It was hilarious, because we were looking out the window of the theatre and seeing all these idiots in parking lot. This clown going on about the Devil.
On the English Scene
The whole scene in England was totally different than in the States. In the States everybody was always laid back and cool, it was more junkies than speed freaks and acid-heads. The audiences were good in the States, but nothing compared to ones in England. In England they would just go absolutely out of their mind. They’re bonkers. They’d be throwing shit at us, they’d be spitting all over you. We found out later that meant they liked you! If they liked you they’d throw bottles of beer at you and they’d spit all over you. So we had to adjust to it. I’d rather not have all these big blobs of gob all over me when I get off stage, but it means they like you so I would adapt (laughs).
And meanwhile the kids in the theatre, they’re all into this safety pin craze. They were actually in the men’s room, sticking these things through their cheek and it’s all infected and shit is dripping out of the sore and stuff like that, these kids are out of their minds! And they’re walking up going, “Hey how you doing?”, and they feel so proud to be showing you this infected hole in their cheek with a pin hanging out of it! I was just amazed at how crazy the kids got.
And of course there was fights in the audience, they would hit you over the head with a beer bottle, then the kids would come up to the stage with blood on their face, looking at you like 'Oh yeah, I’m just as punk as you are!'.
The drugs that the kids were mostly doing over there were mostly speed and LSD. We’re all junkies, we like a shot of coke with some dope, but it’s mostly like, we’re heroin addicts. So it was definitely a generational difference there. Of course all the old English fans were all heroin addicts, the Stones and Zeppelin and what have you. But the younger kids are still on speed and acid. We had gone through our speed and acid days back 10 years ago but no way did I want to go back to those zoomy days, I went through it in college.
But being junkies, it was difficult to try and find heroin over in London. In New York you just bought it in the street, you went to a sleazy neighbourhood and you looked around, and you’d find out where the dealers were and you bought it from people in abandoned buildings or what have you. But in London you had to make contact, you had to meet people, or you had to have people introduce you. So there were a couple of newspaper guys who helped us out in the beginning, and then we started making more contacts. It was a whole different process than you had in New York at the time.
I think John Lydon’s still a bit dirty about the whole heroin infiltrating the scene. His whole thing was that the Dolls and the Heartbreakers brought heroin to London and it killed everything. I’m not sure that it killed everything, but we were probably the first punk band that were into heroin that were invading the UK scene. I didn’t see that many kids doing it, and later on maybe they started, but it’s a natural progression when you start on speed and acid. The bands in the 60's did that. They always graduate to heroin and cocaine. Speed and acid, it’s just too frenetic. Very dry. Even Johnny had started as a speed freak back in the early Dolls days. Johnny always swore that it was Iggy Pop that was the first one who ever shot him up with heroin. I’ve never had that story substantiated, but I’ve heard it from people all over the place. Who knows. It’s a good myth if nothing else.
On John Lydon
Rotten, okay, let’s get to Rotten for a second. He’s a person with sort of a deficient personality. When I first got to know him, on the Anarchy tour, he was generally a nice guy. He would sit on the bus and make jokes, or sit in the hotel bar at night and chat, get drunk, stuff like that. He wasn’t this obnoxious personality that he turned into. I did notice, though, that when anyone who wasn’t with the entourage came into the bar - whether it be guests or someone from the press - Rotten would turn a switch on and his personality would … there would be no smiles anymore. There would be this mad look on his face all the time. And if anyone else asked him a question, he would just say “No, fuck you, bye-bye”.
He just turned into this Rotten personality, and I would hear him do this nightly, because at all the hotels there would be someone coming through and wanting to meet the band. Apparently in later years he became like that all the time. The switch that he flipped back and forth between 'Normal Rotten' and 'Nasty Rotten' got stuck on 'Nasty' somehow.
I was on Steve Jones’ radio show out in L.A. maybe two years ago, and he told me that they did a big 2009 tour where the Pistols reunited. It was a fairly big tour and they made a lot of money, but Steve said he could never do it again because by the end of the tour everybody hated Rotten. They didn’t wanna talk to him, they didn’t wanna be in the same bus with him. He just became this obnoxious person that would just alienate everyone who was in the room or the bus or at the show. That’s the story of Johnny Rotten.
On the troubled gestation of LAMF
The songs are great, it was a great band. It’s just that the initial vinyl pressing sounded like shit. We remastered it, remixed it, did it 100 times. It would sound great in the studio, but every time it came back on vinyl it would sound like shit. And we had no choice, the record company wanted it out for the Christmas Holiday and said, “Either you okay the release of this thing or you don’t have a contract and you have to go back to New York", so we said okay.
Then Jerry quit, so it kind of led to the break-up of the band because it didn’t sell all that well because of the sound. Later on in the 80's it was remastered by Johnny and Tony James, and when it came out on CD and then cassette tape, it sounded like we wanted it to sound, it sounded really good. It was just... like a curse. I used to call it Johnny and Jerry’s curse, because they had the same problem with their Dolls albums.
The Dolls albums never sounded as good as they did live. They never really sold much, they did well at first for a little while, but it was just a flash in the pan. But it’s all history now. The band was gonna break up eventually anyway because of all the drugs. I tell people to this day that, say the album had been great and gotten big and started making money, we all would have been dead a lot earlier because we would have had more money to take drugs. So in a sense, it kept us alive.
On the Waldos
For some reason, people in France used to call me 'Waldo' when we played over there. I enjoyed it and thought 'Waldo' sounded kinda cool, so I went with it and figured I’d call the band the Waldos.
We did the first Waldos album - my first album since The Heartbreakers breaking up - on a small label. It was released but of course it wasn’t going anywhere. There was no Punk scene in New York anymore. There were still bands playing at clubs, but that’s how it went ‘til the mid 90s.
By this time I had stopped doing drugs and I’m starting to become bigger on Wall Street. I’m working for a regular Wall Street broker firm rather than the small firm I started with in the early 80s. The world of finance is 100 times bigger than the world of music, because the whole world runs around finance. Music is nice, but if it stops the world wouldn’t end - whereas, if you didn’t have any finance, you would be back to living in caves or whatnot.
So I got into this whole financial world. By the early 90's I’m a vice president with a firm, in charge of like 125 people, a big trade settling operation, and I’m making three or four hundred thousand dollars a year, which is great. But I’m still doing gigs on the side. We did the Waldos album in '93, but then in '95 my bass player died of liver cancer. Then in ’97 my younger brother died. He’s wasn't in the band anymore, but he was still around and playing in his own band. So I go, “Oh my god, everybody’s fucking dying on me". So I’m getting ready to retire, because it’s like a curse, everybody that I play with fucking dies. I’m thinking I may end up just retiring from the scene, just go into the sunset, Wall Street money man or something like that. Then one of the local bands that used to play - a Japanese band that came over in the early 90's - they said, “Hey let’s do a gig or two together.” So I’m going like, “Okay, this is fun, I can do it".
Then starting around 2007, people started calling me up. I guess it was because of MySpace, when that was coming on, so people made contact.
“Would you like to come out? I heard your show, would you like to come out to the UK?”. So these people got in touch with me in 2007 and I did a quick tour of France, Germany and Belgium.
Then a couple weeks later I get a call from this guy in Sweden, this producer who is friends with The Hellacopters, and he wanted me to go to Stockholm for a week to play some shows, so I went there for a week, of course with a backup band of guys from Sweden. Then my old guitar player Joey was living L.A. and he gets me to come back there for some shows, because he’s playing with some people out there and they loved the sort of Walter Lure, Waldo show they called it.
So that’s how it’s been going. I went to Brazil, once or twice with this other guy I met who’s in LA, who was from Brazil originally. And then I was in Japan a couple times, through the Japanese guy in my band. But it’s sort of like this Chuck Berry thing, where you go and it’s you know, it’s not my New York band, once or twice in Japan I brought my guitar player with me, just to sort out the train fare and help out. So that’s how it’s been for the last few years, and then finally at one of the shows in LA, two of the guys who came to the show were the guys from Cleopatra Records, Brian who’s the vice president asked me, “Would you like to do a new Waldos record?”, and I’m going, “Yeah sure”. So we worked out about two or three years ago, but that’s how we decided on it. And then I get the deal, they sign me some advance money, and we start recording in January of 2017.
So now it’s finally ready, it’s a big release. But it was like … You know, some of the songs I had written back in the 80's and 90;s, there were songs on it, it’s a mix of different genres, but there is 25 years of unrecorded stuff.
I finally recorded it, it’s the first real Waldos album.
On the Culture of Wall Street
From the minute I joined in the 80's until I retired 3 years ago, it’s always been about greed. It’s all fucking greed. They all want as much money as they can make in as short a time as possible. In the 80's we used to have company parties and there’d be lines to the bathroom - not because anyone had to go to the bathroom - but they were in the bathroom snorting coke.
In my office, we had this inter-office mail thing. You’d put items in envelopes to send to another department in the same building, or company, and they’d be delivered internally. You didn’t go outside. People were sending cocaine through this inter-office mail and stuff. It was just sheer madness in the 80's.
After the ’87 crash the drug culture on wall street kind of calmed down. I mean, it was still there, but it wasn’t as crazy. It wasn’t pure hedonism.
The market’s getting ready to blow again. They’re saying it may have another year or two, because Trump’s gonna build up the deficit to a point where processes are gonna collapse or something is gonna blow up. He’s cutting taxes, so it’s gonna explode and then there’s gonna be some major bankruptcies. At some point the U.S. government is gonna be in threat of defaulting on something, it’ll stretch itself. For that to happen, it would be almost like the end of the world.
Kicking On and Making Music in 2018
It feels good, actually. I’m retired, I’ve got enough money to sit around the house a bit if I want that, but I do love to exercise. I’m still playing music and I’m gonna be 70 next April, so it’s pretty nuts. I’ve got family that’s in decent health, so there’s no problem there, not for now anyway. And I’ve been lucky to survive so long. Probably getting on to Wall Street was one of the reasons. It kept me alive. I was still strung out for the first five or six years working there, but finally I got out of it, which is good. Johnny and Joey never had any reason to get out of drugs, they were stuck in the same surroundings all the time.
It’s funny, I was just thinking about Sid Vicious with Sid and Nancy and when Nancy died, and then when Johnny (Thunders) died … I don’t know why the cops never get a satisfactory answer about why these people died, or what happened. With Johnny it’s the same thing; I’ve heard different stories about it, but no one seems to know the real truth. Johnny had a ton of cash which disappeared. The story I heard was that he went down to a bar nearby and got some stuff off some guy. He thought it was dope and it turned out to be LSD. He got back to the room, he was freaking out because he was getting all spaced out, and he swallows Methadone trying to stop it, to bring him down, and he overdosed on that.
I have no idea if that’s true or not, it’s just a story you hear that floats around. He was definitely sick, the autopsy said it was like the body of an 80 year old man when they went inside. And he had been arrested a lot within the last 10 years of his life. He’d be on stage totally out of it sometimes. His constitution kept him alive, just like Keith Richards. I think Keith Richards is probably gonna have it as well.
Jerry sort of stopped being the mad drug addict that Johnny was, but Jerry was on Methadone since we got to England. It was ’76 or ’77 when he started, and he never got off it his whole life. That sort rots you inside as well.
Of course, Billy Rath had gotten off drugs too in the 80s, probably before me. But then he was in a weird situation - he was in some sort of a religious cult for a while, then he got married again, but then he got AIDS, he got Hep-C, he lost one of his legs in a car accident. He had all this bad luck.
So maybe I’ve had a charmed life, or there’s an angel on my shoulder or something like that. I went through it all and still do it. It was fun. I lived to tell the story.
The new Walter Lure and the Waldo’s album ‘Wacka Lacka Boom Bop a Loom Bam Boo’ is out now on Cleopatra Records.