All dolled up: An interview with New York Dolls frontman David Johansen

The re-assembled New York Dolls are touring to support a new album.

Rock history is rife with bands whose legendary status is all out of proportion with the amount of tangible success they had in their heyday.

There is no better example of this trope than the New York Dolls. They are revered as proto-punks, early players on the lower Manhattan scene that produced The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads et al. Their look fell somewhere between androgynous and full-out drag, and for that they are credited as a major influence on glam-metal.

The Dolls released only two albums during their initial run: 1973's self-titled LP and the following year's Too Much Too Soon. Both were critical darlings and commercial stiffs. The band broke up in '75.

The original Dolls were plagued by dysfunction and drug abuse — the late guitarist Johnny Thunders was a classic junkie — but, according to frontman David Johansen, the main reason the Dolls packed it in was that they were broke and hungry.

"Our prospects were nil," Johannsen says over the phone in the blunt manner of his native Staten Island. "So we just split up. If someone had been looking after us, so to speak, they would've said, 'Boys, go back to your respective corners and come back in three months. Take a hiatus and come back as different people.' Instead, we just went, 'That's enough of this.'"

The Dolls had enough until 2004, when longtime fan Morrissey (the head of their U.K. fan club in the '70s) brokered a reunion of the three surviving members: Johansen, guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane (he died of leukemia on July 13 of that year). Their appearance at the Meltdown Festival in London led to offers for gigs, a fleshing out to five members, a 2006 reunion album called One Day it Will Please Us to Remember Even This (Roadrunner) and, on May 5, the release of Cause I Sez So on Atco.

In the years between New York Dolls 1.0 and 2.0, Johansen discarded the drag and fronted a few bands with blues and pseudo-jazz orientations, even experiencing a spasm of stardom in 1987, when, as Buster Poindexter, he scored a hit with "Hot Hot Hot." He landed a series of acting cameos, most notably as a wisecracking ghost cabbie in the 1988 film Scrooged.

Now it would seem that Johansen, at 59, is focusing keenly on the Dolls. Cause I Sez So resonates with renewed commitment. While busting 'tude NYC-style, the album finds the band stretching its legs into areas that even approach tenderness and rue. It includes nary a song that could be called headlong punk. Rather, Sez So is a rough-and-tumble blend of garage R&B, early-Stones rock, alley-cat blues and homages to the girl-group pop that Johansen so loved in his youth.

It's what folks used to call rock 'n' roll.

The music is given its unique, brawny character by Johansen's Bowery-bark-meets-blues-yowl, which is thicker, gruffer and more expressive than in his smeared-makeup youth.

When the New York Dolls started planning the new album last year, they brought back a name from old: Todd Rundgren, who produced their early '70s debut. "Someone said Todd was available, and being that we wanted to make the record quickly, it felt right to get with a person we knew already," Johansen explains. "I guess our management also thought we could generate a little ink by getting back with our original producer. And then when we asked where we would record it and they said Hawaii, we said, 'Well naturally we're gonna do this.'"

While in his earlier days Rundgren had a reputation as a producer who forced his imprint on clients' records, that type of power struggle did not transpire during the Sez So sessions, Johansen says. "We played and he recorded, essentially — there was not a lot of talking about what we were going to do," the singer recounts. "He just took what we do at face value. We tend to go in the studio fairly unprepared because we procrastinate. 'Do you have songs?' 'Uh, yeah, we have songs.' When in reality we don't have songs that have actually been played or written. It's more like we have confidence the songs are in us and they'll come out when the tape starts rolling. Because we work that way, the less stuff you put around [the songs] the better. Todd understands that."

Touring in the Dolls 2.0 is, of course, far different from 1.0, so much so that when I raise the issue, Johansen responds with ironic incredulity. "These days it's like a military operation — we know what's happening next from minute to minute," he cracks, then adds, "Of course it's different. Back then everyone was stoned and crazy."

None more so than Thunders, who in 1991 died an ignoble heroin death to rival that of Sid Vicious. (Theories persist that foul play was involved.) Even though the Dolls were kaput and Thunders was a zombie, Johansen stayed in touch with his old bandmate. "It was unconditional love," Johansen says, but adds that he never tried to intervene in Thunders' self-destruction: "It was his chosen path, not something he was a victim of or trapped in. There's really not much you can do about that. To go over his head would border on an Orwellian situation."

Thunders and Kane have passed on. Original drummer Billy Murcia died in 1972 during the Dolls' first trip to England. That leaves Johansen and Sylvain, joined by three seasoned sidemen. The survivors' bond runs deep. "It's sick," Johansen says. "It's this primordial connection, very meta."


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Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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