New Dolls: Professionalette

Arriving for the Dolls' late shows last Friday and Saturday at Max's, I caught both early shows: the band may have grown more professional since losing its more anarchistic three fifths, but punctual, never. The late show ran till five. On Friday, the problem lay with Tuff Darts, who blew an amp in their sound check; but it's the Dolls' ambience, all the same.

On Friday, the sound was funny, too, so that through most of the new enlarged Max's upstairs, only David Johansen's lead vocals carried strong. Between this technical problem and Sylvain's unassertive lead guitar playing, something seemed to be missing. But the sound imbalance was a mixed curse, since it offered the novelty of hearing Johansen's surprising lyrics. Of the new material, "Frenchette" ("like that dietetic salad dressing") was the strongest, with a middle-period-Stonesy melody for a ballad about getting kitsch when you wanted love ("You call that loving French but it's just Frenchette; I've been to France, so let's just dance").

The tunes avoided the sameness that sometimes made old Dolls' sets monotonous, and Chris Robinson's keyboards helped--some material was even danceable, especially a couple of reggaes from the tropicana isle of Manhattan. Johansen himself was in good voice and seemed confident, more in the Jagger-sass than Jagger-scarecrow mode. Stumbling was out as a stage move.

The band's physical appearance had almost nothing to do with its earlier incarnation. It isn't just that glitter-rock is no longer outrageous (in the Dolls' audience last weekend, the most outrageous fashion statement was '60s-mod nostalgia, somber and tailored), but that outrageous is no longer what the group's look is about. Johansen dressed like Mick offstage, in a slinky dark suit and a straw hat. Sylvain, though less transformed, wore a discreetly humorous suit and suspenders; the new Dolls looked like modified rock journeymen. Of course, I missed the dirndl that departed bassist Arthur Kane used to wear for a shirt (and the Rangers jersey he wore as a dress), but Kane, the strangest of the old Dolls (bless him), was also the least durable. After this band's reverses, it was a relief to see its survivors combine health and competence with attitudes that still seem streetwise and outre.

But while reaching such conclusions, I had a concise lesson in magic when former Dolls lead guitarist Johhny Thunders jumped on stage for the old "Personality Crisis" and "Looking for a Kiss." Suddenly there were no sound problems. This could be the most beautiful man--physically--in rock today, the prized tough-sweet guy, so vulnerable-looking that he seems naked with just his face showing. Thunders neither sounded nor looked that great in his group Heartbreakers (now reportedly defunct). He can't create his own context--but he can't be upstaged, either. While, without Thunders, Johansen has developed his own considerable tenderness, Thunders's dirty, menacing, diagonal guitar lines and intense physical presence seem to drive the head Doll to less personal but more passionate stances. It's the magic of competition. Johansen himself is too smart not to survive and too smart to be boring about it. His increased professionalism was a necessity and has definitely revamped the band. But Thunders, now presumably unemployed, does invite more daring speculation. . . .

Village Voice, May 31, 1976