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.

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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’d 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 cos they weren’t drawing people and cos 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 which was a lesbian bar during the day that had started putting on punk shows in the evening for some extra money, and while we’re playing I notice that Jonny and Jerry are in the audience. So after the show they walked up and said ‘great show’ then Johnny takes me aside and says ‘don’t tell Elliot’ (cos 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.

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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 I was thinking ‘they’re good, they have good songs, but they really need another guitar player cos 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’?

And 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 and the next night was the first Heartbreakers show with me as a four piece 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.

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On crossing the pond for the Anarchy Tour

We’re in New York and there’s no internet, no cell phones or 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. I had remembered maybe about six months before we went over there, there was an article in one of the local papers about, I don’t even know if they called it Punk at that time, but they had a couple pictures of bands like The Pistols and The Clash. I was just sitting there reading it, but you didn’t hear the music so I had no idea what was going on. Of course the New York scene, exciting as it was, it wasn’t really going anywhere.

The record industry over in the states is a lot bigger than the one in the UK and it 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 there. It was just on the coast, and maybe in little bits of Detroit and Chicago.

So the bands that were getting signed, like The Ramones and Blondie, they 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, but 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, “Oh we should focus on making a deal. 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. So I go “what the fuck’s wrong with this guy?” and then he goes like, “Hey I’m sorry if I seem like distracted”, but it turned out that that was the day of the infamous Bill Grundy show where the Pistols cursed live on TV. So this is the same evening!

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 see every newspaper on every newsstand, the front page is totally just devoted to the Pistols. These people going crazy and throwing their TVs out the window and wanting to have them thrown in jail. It was the most absur d outbreak of outrage that I have ever seen.

If someone cursed in America, on the radio show or TV show, no one really gives a shit, people didn’t really curse on TV back then, it was still censored, but if they did, no one would get overexcited about it. But the way this got through on the TV show, and the outrage it caused, it was just like a billion dollars worth of publicity, you couldn’t even get the money to buy that kind of publicity in that sort of time.

So it really worked against them, because of all the shows that got cancelled. But 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, and 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. So photographers are coming up to the bus and (Johnny) Rotten would make fun of them and was laughing at them.

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But on the first date of the tour we get to the town, and the show was cancelled because the town  had some sort of unique power to cancel any show they wanted if they thought it was improper, or immoral, or something like that.

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 tours. It was haunting us. it had to be the first week before we got to play the first gig, which was Leeds. But every night we’re going into the hotels, we’re sitting in the bus in front of the gig that was cancelled, so we’ll just go to the bar.
So we got to be great friends with the Pistols and the Clash, we were hanging out, I’m having wrestling matches with Paul Simonon 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 like you know, “The Devil’s in the theatre across the street.”

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. Just gobbing all over us. 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! (laughs) 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.

And meanwhile the kids in the theatre, they’re all into this safety pin craze. They’ll put it through their cheeks, that was supposed to be the sign of the punk. The real bands who had those pictures with safety pins were just doing an impression! They’re just like fake things, there were things you would stick in your mouth that would look like it was stuck to your cheek, but it wouldn’t really go through your cheek.

But these kids 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, 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! So 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!” And they’d be wanting approval from someone. I’m standing there laughing, like, “Screw you.” Meanwhile, dodging piles of gob and glass and stuff like that.

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 the 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 bought 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 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 60s 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 but who knows. It’s a good myth if nothing else.

On John Lydon

But Rotten, okay, let’s get to Rotten for a second, to put his comments in perspective. 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. He would sit in the hotel bar at night and chat, get drunk, stuff like that. He wasn’t like this obnoxious personality that he turned into, but I did notice if you were in the bars especially, when there’s anyone who wasn’t with the entourage that came into the bar, whether it be the 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 all the hotels there would be someone coming through, 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 and so he just became this obnoxious personality.

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 show and they didn’t wanna. That’s the story of Johnny Rotten.

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But still, (Sid) Vicious was friends with us and he was a good guy, I never saw Sid get nasty or start fights. His only problem was that he hooked up with Nancy (Spungen) who was our fault, because Nancy was a New York groupie who came over. She got Jerry’s guitar out of a pawn shop and brought it over to England, and then Jerry didn’t want her around, so he kicked her out of the apartment after like half an hour. But then she must have latched on to Sid. She was a topless dancer, probably a prostitute too in New York and had money. So Johnny and Jerry became her friends, just because they would get money out of it, to buy more drugs and stuff like that. So she ended up getting Jerry’s guitar out of a pawn shop in New York and bringing it over to London. She comes to our flat and was here like, half an hour, an hour, they kicked her out. I don’t know where she went, but she fucking started whoring in London as well. She would come to the shows and would finally hook up with Sid, which was probably Sid’s big downfall.

But in any case that was the scene. The scene was alive, there were a ton of different clubs that we’d play, there was always different places like The Roxy. It was a great scene, and as we did lots of little mini tours all around the UK and on the continent. The rest of the UK was all over it. They might not be as crazy as London, but they were just as enthusiastic about the shows.
The Anarchy tour was good, but later on after we were doing our own stuff with Siouxsie and the Banshees opening for us we had these great shows as well. The UK scene was so much more alive than the New York scene, that’s why I loved it over there. So we stayed to do the album.

On the troubled gestation of LAMF.

The songs are great, those were great songs, it was a great band. It’s just that the initial vinyl pressing that was out 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 you have 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. we had no choice. And then Jerry quit the band, 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 80s 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 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 Waldo’s.

People in France for some reason, used to call me Waldo as a nickname when we played over there. I could speak a little French, but instead of calling me Walter, they said “Hey Waldo.” It sounds better in French than it does in English.

I enjoyed it, Waldo, sounds kinda cool, so I went with it and figured I’d call the band the Waldos because it just sounds so different it might work. So we did the first Waldos album, and that was my first album since The Heartbreakers breaking up, it was 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.

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By this time I had stopped doing drugs and I’m starting to become bigger on Wall Street because I’m working for a regular Wall Street broker firm rather than the small firm I started with in the early 80s. And then as I stopped drugs, all of a sudden I’m taking an interest in the world of finance, because the more I learn the more I like it. It’s 100 times bigger than the world of music, because it’s just like 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 90s 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 Waldo’s album in 93 but then in 95 my bass player died of liver cancer. Then in ’97 my younger brother died. He’s not 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.”, after my drummer died back in ’92. So I’m getting ready to retire, because it’s like a curse, everybody that I play with fucking dies.

So I’m thinking that it’s getting late and 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, they were a Japanese band that came over in the early 90s and I made friends with them. And 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 80s and 90s, 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 80s until I retired 3 years ago, it’s greed, it’s all fucking greed. And they all want as much money as they can make in as short of time as possible. In the 80s, 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 these inter-office mail things. You’d put items in envelopes to send to another department in the same building, or company, and they’d be delivered internal. You didn’t go outside. People were sending cocaine through this inter-office mail and stuff. It was just sheer madness in the 80s.

After the ’87 crash the 90s kind of calmed down the drug culture on wall street. I mean it was still there, but it wasn’t as crazy. It wasn’t pure hedonism. And then of course then I’m coming up in the industry, and I’m doing good but then my firm got taken over by the bank, and then that bank got taken over by another bank and then of course when they come in, they start laying people off. So they start laying vice presidents off left and right, because they want to make everything in their own order.
The front office is all about the traders, but the investor banks, whatever, it’s all about trying to suck as much money out of the system in as short a time as possible.

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 somethings gonna blow up. Because he’s cutting taxes, so it’s gonna explode and then there’s gonna be some major bankruptcies or something. 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. But in any case. That’s the culture of Wall Street.

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On still kicking 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 of why these people died, or what happened. With Johnny it’s the same thing, I’ve heard different stories about it, 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. So that’s sort of what rots you inside as well, so that didn’t do much for him.

But yeah he was just destroying himself slowly. The main thing that people would say when Johnny died, was that they were surprised that he lasted as long as he did.

But 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, and 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 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.

– Andi Lennon

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