Guys in dolls

Not to name names but some guy in heaven has been lobbying for a complete set of New York Dolls since 1972. Frustrated in His efforts to locate the elusive Arthur “Killer” Kane (who, it turns out, was praying to a Mormon God), He turned His attention to collecting Ramones until a Morrissey-instigated U.K. reunion last year at the Royal Festival Hall reignited Dolls fever. Luckily, two crucial Dolls, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and singer David Johansen, are still in circulation, in used but otherwise near-mint condition, with Hanoi Rocks bassist Sam Yaffa in for Kane (who died of leukemia weeks after the U.K. reunion), Libertines drummer Gary Powell as Jerry Nolan (who died in 1992) and guitarist Steve Conte in for Johnny Thunders (who died in 1991).

Since the New York Dolls’ 1977 implosion, Johansen spawned several cutting-edge action figures, from “David Johansen, Arena Rocker” to “Buster Poindexter, Lounge Singer” to “David Johansen, The Actor” to “David Johansen and the Harry Smiths,” complete with Grizzly Adams beard, blues repertoire and acoustic guitar.

This year Johansen turned 55, Joan Crawford’s age when she went from movie star to Grand Dame Guignol with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? If the latter-day Dolls eschew glitter queen hand-me-downs, just freeze-frame any part of The Return of the New York Dolls — Live From the Royal Festival Hall DVD and you’ll see in Johansen’s eyes the same crazed intensity in Crawford or Bette Davis’ peepers at either end of their careers. Rest assured that the lissome shouter can still get it up for “Frankenstein.”

“The Dolls thing? It’s aerobic,” Johansen says. “I decided with Syl if we’re having fun, let’s do it. I know it sounds kinda Pollyannaish but I’m really having a ball. I think it’s healthy.”

Today, however, he’s a late riser, having pulled an all-nighter taping his Friday night six-hour Sirius radio show, where he plays everything rock, blues, jazz, salsa and opera in one marathon session. Musical archeology threads through Johansen’s career, and if it’s an album or a radio show, he seamlessly transitions a flop Ronettes single to Big Bill Broonzy.

“I’m a digger,” he says. “I define myself by what I like. If I don’t like something, I don’t even think about it.” (When asked his least favorite song of all time, considerable brain-farting ensued until, “Maybe ‘The Surfin’ Bird.’ How about anything by Sting?”)

“If I had to create something to fit the marketplace, to me, that’s no fun. That’s like going to a factory,” he continues. “I guess that’s why the Dolls were like a band’s band. They inspired a lot of bands, but maybe for the masses they were a bit much.”

In their heyday, American press fixated on Johansen and Thunders’ amped-up Mick-and-Keith veneer and largely missed the Dolls’ glittery irony and musical blow-kisses to everything from girl groups to the Delta blues. But the band was inspiring scads of future rock stars, and their influence can hardly be underestimated. The Dolls directly ignited more great punk (Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols) and post-punk (Japan, the Smiths, Hanoi Rocks), and were misinterpreted by more crap metal “glam” bands (can’t we forget Poison, Warrant and Mötley Crüe?) than any other American group.

The British punks “picked up on the attitude and the do-it-yourselfness,” Johansen says. “The thing with the Dolls, we all brought a different kind of music sensibility to it and that’s what makes a band.”

When Johansen was thinking up “Frankenstein” and “Personality Crisis,” Richard O’Brien was in London concocting an alchemy of British glam rock and old horror movies called The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and both officially debuted in the summer of 1973. Although the Dolls released only two studio albums, they stick in the mind as one huge original cast album of an insane, off-off-Broadway show.

Was he writing from the viewpoint of a central character in all those songs? “I think it was more like I was a spokesman for the band,” he says.

The Dolls’ consciousness could be disputed in their last days. Probably fueling the slide into personal abuse was that 1974’s aptly titled Too Much Too Soon did even worse sales-wise than the band’s self-titled debut, despite pockets of U.S. support.

“In Detroit we were huge. We were on AM radio there. I remember getting into a car, and they were playing us, and I thought, ‘I like this town.’ And in New York, Wolfman Jack played us on Top 40 radio.”

Although dropped by Mercury Records, the band had songs for a third album, and hooked up with future Sex Pistols manager and frothy London fashionista, Malcolm McLaren.

“Me and Syl had written so many songs, and a lot of them I had put on my first solo album. ‘Frenchette,’ ‘Funky But Chic,’ ‘Donna’ — I can’t even remember the other ones. And even ‘Girls,’ which I think was on the second album [it appeared on Johansen’s first solo album]. John had kind of lost his creative spark there, but me and Syl were like, ‘C’mon let’s write a song, boom-boom-boom.’”

One Johansen-Sylvain song, the fetishist “Red Patent Leather,” instigated what may be their most misunderstood antic. “We decided, ‘Hey let’s build a thing around the song.’ So we got Malcolm to make the clothes because he had had a clothes store called Too Dumb to Live or something. Malcolm says he was our manager, which was fine ’cause it got him some cachet, but he was really our haberdasher. He would walk around with a tape measure around his neck and straight pins in his mouth and the half-glasses.

“And it was my bright idea to put the communist flag behind us. I thought let’s have a communist party,” Johansen continues, laughing, inflecting that last word so there’s no misunderstanding he wasn’t about to mix Stalin with stilettos. “I didn’t know McCarthyism was still so popular. I would be cracking myself up, but other people would look at me aghast, and it never really registered to me what that look meant. And that’s true about a lot of things about the Dolls that I thought were funny and a lot of people thought was heresy.”

Johansen outgrew the glitter boots and found FM-radio favor as a journeyman rocker. Again, record buyers ignored him. “I was opening for heavy met-al bands in hockey rinks,” he says, enunciating “heavy metal” delicately as if it were foreign on his palette. “I was out 290 nights a year.”

Enter Johansen’s Buster Poindexter persona in the mid-’80s, which saw him alternating jump blues with pop standards. The see-what-happens gig finally afforded the singer some mainstream success. His encore? A handful of high-profile movie roles including Scrooged, Married to the Mob, Freejack (with Mick Jagger), and Car 54, Where Are You?

Later, Johansen followed the same low-key approach to the Harry Smiths project when the unexpected call came from Dolls super-fan Morrissey.

In post-Dolls days, Johansen stayed tight with Sylvain, who’d embarked on a low-profile solo career and continued his original vocation as a clothes maker. Johansen says he’d see Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan occasionally.

“John I would see. I would get up onstage with John and he would get up with me. Jerry I would see in the street. Jerry wasn’t really the kind of guy you could really talk with about anything except the weather. He wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box.”

Johansen had no contact at all with Kane but says, “It was actually a treat when I saw him again. I didn’t know what kind of shape he was in. He certainly didn’t seem sick. Mentally he was so brilliant. When I first met him he was the most genius guy I’d met. He just had this take on reality that I really dug and got. Then he got on this — I’m not saying I’m a saint — but he went off on this intense booze trip. He had had a rough childhood and came from a really abusive situation but then he found himself. He went through the whole journey and came out whole.”

The most amazing thing about seeing the Dolls’ reunion with Kane is the musical polish and proficiency (i.e. guitars in tune) that never derails the original spirit of the material.

“That’s the way I’m used to working now. It’s got to be like that. I can’t go out and think, ‘Is this gonna be a train wreck?’”

The band had huge buzz at this year’s South by Southwest, and actually performed new material for a planned studio album. Where does Johansen see the Dolls now?

“I don’t wanna toot my horn,” Johansen says, laughing. “I like to tell people we’re as good as anybody, but we’re better than most.”


Wednesday, May 18, at the Majestic Theater (4140 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9700). With the Paybacks.

Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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