The Rath of a Heartbreaker
by Phil Mitchell
On August 16th, 2014, Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers bassist Billy Rath passed away from throat cancer. Though Rath wasn't an original member of the band (he replaced original bassist/singer/songwriter Richard Hell in '76), he was part of the ‘classic' line-up of the group which recorded their only studio album, the questionably-mixed L.A.M.F. from 1977 and participated in the band's shows with the Sex Pistols for their well-named ‘Anarchy' tour. After participating in the supposed final Heartbreakers shows in 1979 (documented on the great album Live at Max's Kansas City), he also participated in the odd reunion show with the band up until 1985. Rath then decided to clean up his act from the drug-heavy band days to get a BA and Masters, putting it good to use in rehab sessions for others. More recently, he had plans to start up his music career with his new band the Street Pirates.
On September 8th, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Daily, a mutual friend of Billy and I who served him loyally as a friend, band mate (in the Street Pirates), roommate, and caretaker during the final chapter of his life.
PSF: How did you meet Billy?
JD: I was doing the C-Note open mic in Hull, Mass(achusetts) with Dave Smullen and Billy thought I sounded like Jim Morrison. We just got together and put together a couple of songs. That's how we formed the Street Pirates. I knew a lot of the songs because I was a teenager when the songs came out.
PSF: He's known as an innovator in the punk scene but I feel like he really identified with the term ‘street rock'.
JD: Street rock, that's what he did. He didn't want to punk it.
PSF: I've been listening to Johnny Thunders, So Alone album. It's a perfect time capsule of that whole early punk/street rock scene he was a part of. The song, "So Alone" is just so unbelievable and raw.
JD: It's a great album... very emotional.
PSF: I've read in some other interviews of much he really missed Johnny.
JD: He missed him a lot... He did tell me that. When we were in Arlington for a Johnny Thunders documentary premier, I walked outside to have a cigarette with the filmmaker and Johnny's 10 year old grandson introduced himself to Billy along with Johnny's sister. They were all such nice people.
PSF: What were some of other bands he played with?
JD: He actually just recently played me an old cassette of his band Dazzle from the early 1970's. They were the Boston equivalent of the New York Dolls. They were really awesome. He also showed me video footage from the Madrid tour when he was playing with DOA. He was really cut then. He looked like a true rock star. He told me a story how the band witnessed a bullfight while they were in Spain and it really upset him. He didn't like that.
PSF: Billy seemed to take practice very seriously.
JD: Oh, very serious. He could be a Nazi. I worked hard for him and with him. We would have a falling out, but we always came back to each other.
PSF: Did he enjoy the touring scene?
JD: He did love it, he told me. He toured with Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols. He knew all the Ramones. Billy asked me what it was like to hear his music when I was a teenager when his music first came out. I just said, ‘Oh, Billy...'. I went to boarding school and was infatuated with the London and New York scene. I wanted to look just like that in 1977.
PSF: I've heard a lot of stories of his higher education and theology work
JD: He did know a lot. He had his master's in theology and was working on his doctorate. He took some classes at Berkley as well. He knew his jazz too. He became a Baptist minister after allegedly encountering the Holy Spirit.
PSF: I knew Billy has been dealing health issues for quite some time, but his death seemed very sudden.
JD: He started to sound very hoarse, so I made him an appointment. It turned out to be stage 4 throat cancer. The day before his surgery, he could hardly breathe. The nurse had asked me some questions about his medical history and his past, and I said, "Have you ever heard of Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers?" "Yes" "Well, he's the bass player. This man is a rock star." I pulled it off perfectly. He was down to about 90 pounds at that point. The doctors had set him up for another surgery and chemo therapy date, but he refused... but that's how he died. How he lived, was creatively.
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