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Walter Lure recounts punk rock lore

Walter Lure may not be a household name, but if you follow any ’70s punk bands, chances are he knows them somehow.

Lure wrote songs and played guitar for the Heartbreakers – a punk group that initially included Richard Hell, as well Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan of the New York Dolls.

Lure will perform at Dave’s Aqua Lounge in St. Petersburg at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, with a backing band that includes Florida garage punk rocker Charlie Pickett.

Lure spoke with The Oracle about performing in the Heartbreakers, playing guitar on three Ramones records and being verbally harassed by a priest.

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The Oracle: What were the initial years like in the Heartbreakers with you, Thunders, Nolan and Hell?

Walter Lure: It was wild. I was in this local band called the Demons and that’s sort of how I got to meet Johnny and Jerry. The singer knew them because he used to sell them drugs or something like that. We also used to share the same rehearsal space. At that time, I had only been with (the Demons) for six months and the Dolls were getting ready to break up. They had come down to actually our first gig, and Johnny … snuck me aside like he used to do, with his head down, whispering in my ear, “Well, you want to join a band?”

It started there and there was an audition a couple of weeks later. We actually had a gig coming up with the Heartbreakers with the three of them – Jerry, Johnny and Hell. We opened up and they played and after the gig was over, Jerry said, “Did you like any of the songs we did?” I said, “Yeah, I loved them.” So he asked if I wanted to join a band, and I said, “Sure, fine.” That was it.

The first gig we played was the CBGB’s Fourth of July festival in 1975. Friday night, I played my last gig with the Demons and then Saturday night I played my first gig with the Heartbreakers. It went from 20 people in the audience to 1,000 trying to break down the doors – a whole different world. Chris (Stein) from Blondie used to call me the “rookie of the year” because I went from nowhere to being in the top band in New York almost overnight.

In the beginning, it was fun – we rehearsed once or twice a week, gigging fairly often. For the most part, people were on time even if they were still going out and doing (drugs). In later years, it was worsening and even worse back in New York. They’d miss shows or rehearsals, or show up halfway unconscious to some shows later on. But that was the beginning of the band, and also, I guess, the beginning of the end.

O: Do you have any favorite moments from your years in the Heartbreakers?

WL: There’s zillions of them. Going on the Anarchy tour was a great thing because we had no idea what was happening over in England. I loved them because their clothes were wilder, with bleached and different-colored hair … Punk at home was more toned-down, with Dungarees and leather jackets, maybe some ripped-up t-shirts for variety. The English always had style and dressed better.

Then just the excitement – it was more mainstream than it was over here because punk was just little movements in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. Over there, it was big in London, but it was also big for the whole country. It’s a smaller country, that’s probably why things took off quickly there. So right away, we were on the front pages of the paper for the Anarchy tour and the Sex Pistols … We were catapulted from this band that played the New York punk scene into this pantheon of punk gods in London.

Of course, Johnny and Jerry were worshipped from the Dolls. The Clash and the Pistols were all in awe of them because they came from the Dolls, who were their old inspiration. Then the tour was hilarious. We’d go town to town and get ready to play a gig when they’d cancel the gig, so we’d sit in the hotel and get drunk all night.

The few gigs we did … in Wales, a local priest brought out all the parents in the parking lot across from the theater, saying, “Keep your children out of this theater because the devil’s in there.” You were in the theater looking out the window, and this parking lot’s full of middle-aged people and a priest railing at us.

The British scene was an eye-opener as opposed to the New York scene, which we were familiar with and getting a bit jaded as time went on. People were getting serious record contracts, where they give you money and royalties. Over in the U.S., a few bands were starting to get deals, but they were all these sleazy deals where the guy would take half of everything. You’d have money to buy amplifiers and you thought you were stars. Bands like Blondie and the Ramones would have to work their way out of contracts to get into more respectable deals.

O: What was it like playing on the Ramones records “Subterranean Jungle” and “Too Tough to Die?”

WL: They asked me to play because they were looking for a different sound. They were trying to get a hit record. The Ramones, for all their touring, didn’t really have any hit records. So they made most of their money from touring constantly and merchandising and stuff. But the records never really took off, so they’d get Phil Spector and the guy from Eurythmics to produce, and they still couldn’t get that hit record.

So they were trying different sounds … and they asked me because they always liked my guitar playing with the Heartbreakers and other groups. So I went out and rehearsed with them for a couple months. They would pay me by the hour like a hire, which is fine, it’s what I signed off on.

They didn’t give me much credit – on the album, they put a little blurb that said, “special thanks to Walter Lure” – but that’s because Johnny (Ramone) didn’t want anyone to know there was another guitar player playing on the records. It was fun though. They were a much more serious band in a sense. They were nuts, but they had it organized as a business. They all hated one another, but that’s all with any band. They’d give the money on a daily basis, organize rehearsals in a studio – the Heartbreakers were always so loose and sloppy, but Johnny ran the place like a prison and had people showing up on time.

O: Are there any new bands that you like or that inspire you?

WL: There’s some new bands I like. One band I just caught last year was MGMT, a local Brooklyn band that had a couple of semi-hit records … Not that they inspire me, but they do have some odd lyrics that started me thinking on some things.

There’s no bands I really follow or go out of my way to see anymore like I used to. I grew up on the Rolling Stones and all the big guitar players – Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. More or less, I just follow whatever pops up onto my radio while I’m driving my car.

O: What advice would you give to any aspiring musicians?

WL: Whatever you like and learn how to play – just learn how to play whatever you like, and then you’ll originalize in how you try to play it. That’s how I did it. There was stuff I wanted to play, so I picked it up and learned it. When you learn it, you never learn it exactly because you’re always changing things so it always comes out different.

So learn what you like and play with people you like. It sounds simple, but bands are like being married. It’s a whole give-and-take thing, and if things don’t happen quickly enough, people get bored and want to leave or try other things. Do what you like and keep on doing it, and hopefully things will fall into place.

O: What can fans expect from your upcoming St. Petersburg show?

Walter Lure: It’s a mixture of Heartbreakers and Waldos songs, and a few covers I do on the side. Depending on how familiar they are with my background, they would either know the songs or there’s a few covers I might just be familiar to. Most of the stuff has been recorded at least on bootlegs or different versions of albums. I might do a Charlie Pickett song or two just to flare up the set a bit.

It’s loud and it’s fast – it hasn’t changed much since the early days as far as the style. If you like my music, you’ll like this.