Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

In Love With the New York Dolls

"People have the wrong idea about us," says Arthur Kane, bassist of the New York Dolls. I strain to hear what will come next, for altogether Arthur is a big guy, standing well over six feet in his platform heels, he speaks in a barely audible lisping murmur. "They think we're a bunch of transsexual junkies or something."

Of course, Arthur, that's a ridiculous notion. Although you are wearing red lipstick and a New York Rangers jersey-minidress over white tights. And David Johnasen will tie up his arm and inject himself with an imaginary hypodermic while singing "Looking for a Kiss" at Kenny's Castaways tonight. And Syl Sylvain will look like the strutting image of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret at the Mercer tomorrow. And Billy Murcia, your first drummer, died in what is called a drug-related incident while the band was overwhelming England last fall. Transsexual junkies? What a calumny.

Johnny Thunders has his own theory, which he offers in the band's more typical sensitive tough-guy voice: "I think we're just a bunch of kids looking for a good time." This occasions merry agreement among the others, merry because they've all been drinking up their share of forthcoming proceeds at a restaurant near Kenny's.

"That's right," Syl says. "Apple pie and ice cream." And as if to prove that his cohorts are just healthy American boys, New York division, Jerry Nolan, the new drummer, orders some ice cream. Actually, Nolan is just a healthy American boy--an Army brat with a heavy Brooklyn accent who has been into rock and roll since his big sister took him to see Alan Freed in the fifties. Thunders, Kane, and Sylvain are bombed-out working-class dropouts from the depths of Queens. Johansen comes from a somewhat more middle-class background on Staten Island. They're probably fibbing, but all claim to be somewhere between eighteen and twenty-two. Just a good old-fashioned punk rock and roll band.

The original members--Kane, Thunders, and Murcia--got together a year and a half ago, shortly after Kane and Thunders first met on Macdougal Street.

"I hear you play guitar," Thunders said. "I play bass."

"I'm not too good," Kane replied.

"Well, neither am I," said Thunders.

After switching instruments, the two joined with Murcia to form the Dolls. Thunders named the group and sang. Soon Sylvain added a second guitar. Then Johansen, who had been performing as a solo singer-songwriter, joined on. The group played for anyone who would listen--at political rallies, a steam bath in Brooklyn Heights, and like that. The Mercer Arts Center, where they made their reputation, was one more such opportunity. By the time the Dolls got there, about a year ago, the Mercer was already a haven of what is called glitter-rock, which I would define as deliberately dumb rock and roll played by bands of ambivalent gender allegiance. The Dolls are not a glitter-rock band. I can't offer an absolute guarantee--they are so much to my taste that I have to mistrust my taste a little--but they sound to me like the best hard-rock band since the Rolling Stones.

The comparison is unavoidable, but the Dolls resist it, and for good reason--it limits and dates them. Unfortunately, there's really no other way to understand. Like David Johansen, Jim Morrison was described as Jagger-like when his fame began, and the image had to suffice until the Doors' specific identity took hold. As Johansen points out, he has more in common facially with Peter Noone, of Herman's Hermits, but his hair and hip gestures are very reminiscent of Jagger, and he generates the same wild unisex eroticism. Like Jagger, Johansen seems to have been through a lot. But whereas suffering made Jagger tough and distant, Johansen remains vulnerable and close to the surface. He is attractive and dangerous as only someone who always means well and always follows his well-meaning impulses can be attractive and dangerous, the kind of person you forgive in advance for hurting you. That kind of appeal is called star quality.

The rest of the boys also resemble the Stones, especially the early Stones, more than recent hard-rock bands. They convey the same poor, desperate, droogy decadence in 1973 that the Stones did in 1964, and their music is the same elementary metallic blues cacophony, only more anarchic. The Dolls do not possess a classy blues soloist like Mick Taylor, and they wouldn't know what to do with him if they did. They're quite content to careen around the stage making noise, with Nolan, who has firmed up the group's commitment to the rock and roll myth, keeping a rapid beat. "We're a lot faster than the Stones," Johansen says. And somebody else adds: "And younger."

Some rock snobs put such music down because it seems so elementary, even impoverished. That's exactly what it's supposed to be, of course, and in any case the Dolls are not another minimal band in the manner of critical faves like the Stooges and the MC-5 or popular successes like Grand Funk and Black Sabbath. The crucial difference is that the Dolls have good material. Working with the band for his melodies, Johansen writes hard-rock lyrics in the tradition of early Peter Townshend and Jagger-Richard. He says his favorite composers are the old Brill Building hit-makers, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, and like them, he shows that knack for the magic catch-phrase.

The songs wouldn't be so memorable if they weren't arranged as exuberantly as they are composed. The Dolls may not be virtuoso musicians, but they know how to structure a song. They create and intermesh within the bounds of their technical competence. They think up intros and closes and segues and fades; they add harmonies for variety; they end a song before you want it to be over or extend it after you thought it was done. They do dozens of little things that require not training but immersion in rock and roll and street-type savvy. They do what great rock and roll bands have always done.

The Dolls are managed by Marty Thau, who used to be a promo man at two of the greatest singles labels, Cameo-Parkway and Buddah. A promo man is someone who gets radio stations to play singles, and Marty Thau was very good at his work. Some trendy music-industry types whisper that Thau is too square for this band, but it's more likely that they're too hip--they don't know the Brill Building handshake.

Thau loves this band, but he's had an immense amount of trouble getting them a record contract. Buddah told him that the band was great but Johansen didn't make it; MCA told him that Johansen was a star but the band was lousy. A&M's New York staff was informed by president Jerry Moss that the Dolls were wrong for the label's image. Paul Nelson, head of New York a&r for Mercury, loves the Dolls so much that he's seen them twenty-five or thirty times, but the president of Mercury hates them. Atlantic says they're too crude; Columbia says they're too hard; Paramount says they're too loud; Capitol says they're too weird. RCA and Polydor express interest but don't even come to see them. Give or take a few subsidiaries, that leaves Warner Bros. for the time being, but others may come back in.

Of course, the fact that the Dolls were drunk at their first major audition and unrehearsed at their second couldn't have helped. Nor was Thau's $250,000 asking price an inducement. And it's true that teen-agers aren't into the Dolls' kind of hard rock anymore--they seem to like heavier, more melodramatic stuff.

It's also true, however, that the Dolls are the first new band with major talent to play such music in years, and if anybody can get them recorded and promoted right, it's someone like Marty Thau. Ever since the beginning, the rich, classy men who own the big record companies have hated rock and roll. They'll jump on any other bandwagon to get rid of it for a while. But it keeps coming back, haunting them with its unreasonable demands. This time it's wearing makeup and platforms and suggesting possibilities of love that decent people don't want to think about. And eventually, some brave, greedy capitalist will try to make it go.

Newsday, Feb. 1973

An eight-million-dollar countersuit may seem paltry compared to the fifty-five-million-dollar suits that opened the hostilities, but it seems that one thing Terry Knight never taught Mark Farner, Don Brewer, and Mel Schacher, known to the world as Grand Funk Railroad, is how to think big. The musicians claim that their estranged manager kept two-thirds of all the group's recording royalties and 68 percent of all publishing royalties, the latter through a dummy corporation. They are suing not only Knight but also their former lawyers, Howard Beldock and Jerrold Kushnick, which is understandable in view of their claim that one million dollars in gate receipts was improperly invested in an oil firm headed by Donald Beldock, who is Howard's brother.

Anyone struck by the recent flurry of official rock and roll--from the Rolling Stones and their Malagua benefit in Los Angeles January 18 to the President's inaugural youth ball, featuring Solomon Burke and a rock group called the Mob (why not Our Thing?)--will doubtless be interested in Slade's first appearance at the London Palladium on January 7, sponsored by none other than Edward Heath. Slade, you will recall, is the biggest, roughest hard-rock band in England, and Edward Heath, you will recall, is the tax man mentioned so disparagingly in the Beatle song of the same name almost seven years ago. Well, the world does progress. The occasion of the concert? The entrance of Great Britain into the European Common Market.

Faberge, Inc., has announced the formation of a new division of its Brut Productions subsidiary. The division will be called Brut Records. Those of you who always thought those were cosmetics may or may not be relieved to learn that Brut Productions makes movies. Brut Records will be distributed by Buddah, which is an entertainment service of Viewlex Corp., not an Enlightened One.

Can a superhero be a superstar? Buddah Records announces that it has just signed Spider Man. . . . Can a down-home boy be a superstar? Atlantic Records announces that it has just signed Doug Sahm, a/k/a Sir Douglas. . . . Can a superstar be a record magnate? Elton John announces that he has founded Rocket Records in England. He won't record for Rocket himself, a decision that would have ruined any of the other artist-owned labels in months. . . . Speaking of artist-owned labels, sort of, Terry Knight has finally found a distributor for his Brown Bag Records. Not Capitol, which has apparently decided to go with Grand Funk Railroad rather than the Fourth Funker, but United Artists. . . . Finally, according to their own press agent, the Bee Gees are now shooting a "nonmusical horror film." You betcha. Filming will take place in Yugoslavia. Where they belong.

Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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