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For David Johansen, every finger is his "pinky." Photo By: Getty Images
barks Todd Rundgren, firmly strapped into his pilot’s seat behind the board in Studio B of the Record Plant in New York City. Coming from that flaming multi-colored head, such words are already suspect, but the group of individuals they are aimed at, known professionally as the New York Dolls, react with contemptuous laughter and offer suggestions that can’t be recounted in a family publication. Rundgren and the Dolls, you see, share this private joke, a joke they’re in the midst of making public. Written off by many as just another in the wearisome line of glitter pretenders, the New York Dolls are cooking up a bit of brass-knuckled astonishment for those people.
Singer David Johansen strolls over to the plate-glass partition that separates the studio from the control room, and scotch-tapes an advertising flier he’s just found to the window so that it faces the booth. “Too fast to live, too young to die,” it reads, “LET IT ROCK!” He spins around as the band launches full-throttle into “Trash,” an electric explosion that seconds his gesture with a vengeance, and without which his action would’ve been empty and melo
dramatic. In that moment it becomes perfectly apparent that the New York Dolls – far from being an easy target for anybody’s labels – are in the midst of creating a category that doesn’t even have a name yet.
“Sneering, sporting women’s clothes, shoes, makeup and hairdos, contending they add pizazz to their music, the recently emergent New York Dolls are classically offensive. Their raw, screaming music supports the obvious hostility of their stage image.” – The New York Sunday News, May 13, 1973.
The New York Dolls have been the most walked-out-on band in the history of show business, having handily bested the formidable scores racked up by (early) Alice Cooper and the Stooges. And while there are those who would have you interpret this to mean that the Dolls are one of the worst bands in history, it more realistically means that they are one of the most misunderstood.
tars in the traditional sense of the instrument. But we use those guitars to make sounds that mean something to us. We don’t make sounds that would mean anything to a bunch of hillbillies.”
What even many of their most loyal followers may not yet realize, but will when they’ve heard the album, is that the Dolls are a good – possibly even great – rock ‘n’ roll band in the traditional sense. Johansen may not be working with a Cadillac for a voice, but his phrasing, punctuation and general vocal strut serve his ends just as well. The two guitarists, Johnny Thunders and Syl Sylvain, work out of a relationship that defies the old lead-rhythm standard. They work together, building knockdown chord figures and then trading blitz-fills like electric Siamese criminals. Arthur Kane’s bass is simple and unshakable, the anchor for the guitar dynamics.
When original drummer Billy Murcia died the victim of a stupid accident during an abortive (and consequently curtailed) tour of England, he was replaced by another New Yorker named Jerry Nolan. Nolan, who had previously played with a group called Kicks (formed by Billy Squier, now with the Sidewinders) and Wayne County’s Queen Elizabeth, has made a tremendous contribution to the Dolls’ musical progress. He’s a power drummer who might someday be quite favorably compared to Keith Moon, but brought with his power a finesse that has served to focus dramatically the potential impact of the band.
their material which more than compensates. Their songs – already top-notch – are so much what they are that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish what is music and what is simply the New York Dolls. And, delivered with their adrenalin energy and boundless enthusiasm, it’s hard not to get a bit caught up in it yourself. Everybody loves to dance.
“When we came back from England,” David recalled, “we just went right into this show, just to get ourselves back into it. But someone had invited down Ahmet Ertegun, Clive Davis, Joe Polydor and these other crazy people. Out of an audience of 500, there were maybe 20 real kids who were there to rock. The rest of ‘em were record-company people, and if you mess up ... well, goodbye, and the trap door opens and you fall into the snake pit.
One that kept coming back, however, was Paul Nelson. The head of Mercury A&R in New York, his campaign to get his label to sign the Dolls eventually took on the proportions of a crusade. He persisted long after the company had given him a flat “no,” to the point where it looked like his own job might be on the line. But his persistence paid off, and Mercury, plagued by severe identity problems in the last few years, has made an investment in their own future that they probably don’t even understand yet. The notion that the Dolls, a band that Mercury didn’t even want, might have more to say about the label’s future than Rod Stewart is somewhat funny. If it’s proven to be true, however, it’ll be even funnier to see all the other record-company execs who turned up their noses suddenly hurrying to grab a piece of the action for themselves.
“You know it, honey,” Cyrinda drawls in her alcohol Texas accent. And then burps.In many respects, the pattern of the New York Dolls’ fortunes follows very closely the story of the MC5. Both bands could call upon a strong sense of community to sustain them, both economically and spiritually. The MC5’s community was founded on a loosely reactionary set of social circumstances which were interpreted as overtly political. The Dolls’ community, though every bit as reactionary, defines itself on much more fundamental (and almost instinctive) terms.
Like the MC5’s native Detroit, New York is not a very pleasant place in which to live. It’s ugly 24 hours a day and can be mean almost as often. These negative factors, however, are what make the Dolls possible. Their audience is created directly by the need to escape the ugliness around them, and that is the source of the urgency in both the Dolls’ music and the response of their audience to it. Like the MC5 tried to tell us, “Shakin’ Street” is still where all the kids meet.
“The main reason that I did the Dolls album,” reports Todd Rundgren, the man the Dolls picked to produce their first record, “was because it was a New York City record. There was no reason to get David Bowie or some other weirdo to produce it; the only person who can logically produce a New York City record is someone who lives in New York. I live here, and I recognize all the things about New York that the Dolls recognize in their music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I testify to that stuff; it doesn’t even mean that the Dolls’ music testifies to that stuff. The only thing that it testifies to is that they’re punks! But it doesn’t say ‘take drugs’ or ‘hump’ or ‘go to outer space.’ It’s more like scenario music.”
of the last five years. Todd wisely kept his own personality in the background and succeeded in capturing in cogent recorded form more of the Dolls’ live energy and spirit than any of us dared hope for. It’s the kind of album that should be able to convince those who’ve never heard that band, might even surprise the audience they now have, and will aim a well-deserved razzberry in the direction of their detractors. It almost seems too good to be true.
The sessions were often as frenzied as the music. People were constantly dancing in and out, jumping up and down, shouting their encouragement to the band on the other side of the plate-glass window. And the Dolls were the Dolls every minute, talking and jiving and keeping it going as if they were at a table on a hot night at Max’s, making the studio just one more stage and making it work. On the record it’s impossible to miss: The Dolls are nothing but themselves.
band suddenly reappeared, it was magic. It was magic because it was none of them, it is all of them or nothing.
In the other studio at the Record Plant was Livingston Taylor, adding some string parts to a forthcoming album. His string players – middle-aged session people saying things like “my kids will be thrilled when I tell them that I played on a session for James Taylor’s brother!” – got very nervous when they had to wade through the sleazo mutation of humanity that littered the hallway outside the Dolls’ studio. It’s going to come as quite a shock when they discover, a few months from now, that their impressionable youngsters are far more excited by the information that they were right outside the studio where the New York Dolls were recording their album.
That audience has only just begun to open its eyes. A lot of them probably just started buying records recently, and if they buy Alice Cooper and Rolling Stones albums, they do so with contempt for the fact that they have to share them with their totally jive older brothers and sisters. They’re the kids who want something of their own. I love the Dolls not only because they’ll help make this enfranchisement possible, but because they have the power to make me feel a part of it as well.
What makes the Dolls so wonderfully different is that every bit of energy at their disposal is exhausted in reaching out to make that precious rock ‘n’ roll connection possible. And any band that believes in its audience enough to work that hard for them is just bound to see that energy reciprocated. They’ve only just begun to see if this magic applies to audiences outside their home turf, but they’ve got better tools for the job than anybody else presently in the running.
Originally published: October 1973