Miraculously, after 32 years, the New York Dolls do it again
"So everybody gets makeup, OK? You look dead on TV without it." Back in the Conan greenroom from a Camel-stoked walk to the Hilton with his girlfriend Leah, David Johansen was taking charge of the reconstituted New York Dolls, who didn't really need the help. The sextet showed a lot of denim in rehearsal, but all manner of magpie finery came out at the witching hour, with red-on-black a theme--Jersey guitarist Steve Conte's red-lined frock coat, keyb pro Brian Koonin's red derby, the red rose in nice-guy bassist Sami Yaffa's hair. The multiple accessories to Syl Sylvain's colorful costume include a snarly-wolf wristband and Max's Kansas City kidney belt painted by his wife Wanda in Atlanta, whom he called before he went on. And Johansen--whew. Jean Harlow (?) T-shirt. Stovepipe flares. Belts and rhinestones and silvery chains. They were a great band dressed to kill again.
Many reunions never get past the tour that's never as hot as true believers claim. And the creditable albums some bands manage never live up to old glories. The Dolls' new album doesn't either, but that's compared to my desert island discs--with this band, I'm the true believer. Their second shot took nearly 30 years, a decade-plus more than Blondie or Mission of Burma or Gang of Four. With junko partners Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan gone since 1991 and 1992, three of the original Dolls survived till Morrissey engineered a London one-shot two years ago. His dream fulfilled, bassist Arthur Kane died of previously undiagnosed leukemia a month later, leaving David and Syl to ride the one-shot's reverberations. But though the pace has slowed and the execution filled out, though Thunders's squalling sound and drop-dead time are irreplaceable, they're still the New York Dolls.
The Dolls came together at one of Queens' less distinguished educational institutions--Sylvain, Thunders, and classic drummer Billy Murcia, who died in a 1972 drug bollocks, all attended Newtown High School, and Kane grew up nearby. Staten Islander David Johansen they met downtown, and he was different. Bluntly put, what Sylvain calls the Dolls' "skyscraper soup" wouldn't have been all that tasty without Johansen's genius as songwriter and frontman. The forced rhythms and slapdash musicianship of this fast, noisy mix-up--comprising, Sylvain reckoned, girl group, blues, Eddie Cochran, Young Rascals, and Little Rascals--read radically anti-hippie and now just seems quintessentially rock and roll. But it presaged punk, and it influenced thousands of bands--none of whom sounded remotely like the Dolls because none of them had Johansen's eye for a joke, nose for a hook, clothes sense, appetite, or humanity. Nobody does.
Since the Dolls fell apart without having approached the megasales dancing in their heads, Johansen has enjoyed a solo career that included a long stint as cruise-ship popmeister Buster Poin-dexter and a briefer one yodeling in the canon with the ad hoc Harry Smiths. But give the new album half a chance and it stands as a miraculous demonstration of how much this modestly cultured middle- class New Yorker--dad an opera-singing insurance salesman, mom a librarian--benefits from the proximity of dead-end kids. He's written hundreds of songs with collaborator Koonin. But when sound-check riffs evolved into songs and then a deal with the metal heavyweights at Roadrunner Records for the first Dolls album in 32 years, Johansen knew he had to generate fresh material. "It's like being the speechwriter for a party," he told me, coyly leaving out the "political." Fools will grouse about a 56-year-old pretending he's 22 again, just as Mojo's Kris Needs recently groused that New York Dolls and In Too Much Too Soon were "neutered," "limp" renderings of the band's pansexuality. The Dolls always were over some people's heads.
I've held off on the album's strange title because it says so much: One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. The "even" is preemptive; those who level the self-evident charge that the Dolls don't jam like they used to should check their own jam level and say something new. But what's more mind-boggling is that after 30 years Johansen isn't looking back from his earned maturity--he's looking ahead. He has internalized his mortality so thoroughly that he realizes he won't be 56 forever. This is a true Dolls album--as in the Conan-featured "Dance Like a Monkey," which bids a "pretty little creationist" to shake her "monkey hips" now that "evolution is obsolete," or the opening "We're All in Love," with its "Jumping around like teenage girls" and its "We all sleep in one big bed." But it also expresses the worldview of a lean, strong-piped guy who understands what makeup is for and knows that he may not be pretty in pink forever.
Johansen scoffed at my suggestion that his new album harbored religious feelings, and I didn't push it. Instead I'll just mention the booklet's Kali Yoga shout-out and quote a few lyrics. "Feel exiled from the divine," for instance. Or "Nature with its true voice cries out undissembled, 'Be as I am!'" in the one that ends "Sensualistic/ Ritualistic/Alchemistic/Polytheistic." Or the loose talk about infinity in the two songs that lead into the perorating "Take a Good Look at My Good Looks," which begins, "Spirit slumbers in nature/And awakens in mind/And finally recognizes/Itself in time." The ghost track "Seventeen" is tacked on as a corrective. Begins: "I was down on the corner one night." Continues: "I was made all of light."
Fools may wonder why Johansen needs dead-end kids to write like this. Where's the party? But the Dolls were dead-end kids in transcendence mode. Their goal was and is the unbounded, humorous humanism apparent in Bob Gruen and Nadia Beck's circa-1973 All Dolled Up DVD, a far more vivid memento than any concert bootleg. Their summum was Too Much Too Soon's future Guns N' Roses text "Human Being"; their big drug slogan was "I need a kiss not a fix." They were anti-hippie only insofar as hippies were passive (the Dolls rocked nonstop) and pretentious (David and Syl rail at 20-minute guitar solos as if they just tuned one out on WPLJ). Heterosexuals all, they believed in universal love the way disco utopian David Mancuso believed in universal love--with a sloppy touch of the Cockettes. "I've been trying to convince Syl that what we had in the '70s wasn't sex," Johansen explained at Randalls Island in 2004, and again at Irving Plaza in 2005. A Monica Lewinsky joke, he couldn't resist. But think of it this way--maybe what they had in the '70s was love.
One attraction of Johansen's newfound Buddhist rhetoric is that it doesn't shy away from the carnal. The knowledgeable lust of "Fishnets & Cigarettes" and the pussy-worshipping "Running Around" counter the lived despair of "Punishing World," "Maimed Happiness," and the hope- deprived "I Ain't Got Nothin'." And that draft for a suicide note leads into a redemptive earthly-love triptych that dovetails plausibly, if not definitively, with what is known of Johansen's personal life, in which a long marriage to photographer Kate Simon was followed by his relationship with Leah Hennessey, whose teenage daughter designed the 10-page comic that comprises the notes. He remains a votary of l-u-v.
That is, he remains a New York Doll. "This is the most fun way I can think of right now to not work," Johansen told me, but he has big plans for his lark. No "bar band" or "preaching to the choir" for this mature professional entertainer who began his career believing he was about to take over the world. "This is going to be a big record. It's like there's no rock and roll records out there. It's a fait accompli."
It isn't, but don't tell the folks at Roadrunner. Tell them they've underwritten another desert island disc. Because it's quite possible they have.
Village Voice, Aug. 8, 2006