For David Johansen, every finger is his "pinky." Photo By: Getty Images
“GET THE GLITTER out of your asses and play,”
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
“They say that we’re very crude and don’t use our guitars 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.” - David Johansen
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.
That misunderstanding, strangely enough, came most often from high-level executives of the recording industry, who flocked to court the Dolls and then left in droves, each muttering his own paranoid damnation. “Too loud,” said one, with his fingers in his ears. “Too amateurish,” piped up another. “Aesthetically indefensible,” sniffed still another. “Faggots,” muttered the one from New Jersey. They were so blinded by their self-righteous sense of taste that they completely failed to take notice of what was going on around the Dolls, a frenzied activity that men such as themselves would ordinarily have immediately translated into hard dollars-and-cents. Well, you’ve just gotta figure that anything that can make those people that defensive is going to be pretty special.
One of the first things that made record executives uneasy about the New York Dolls was simply the way they looked, which consequently must make it very important. As with the first time you ever saw the Rolling Stones (and every major phenomenon, for that matter), the way the Dolls look establishes an instant identification, and is centrally tied to what they represent.
It might be easy to write off the makeup, platform heels and devastatingly flashy costumes as merely the accoutrements of the dubious trend toward limp-wristed rock, but this time there’s something very different going on. Their punk swagger, “Kick ‘em in the ass” attitude and the overpowering hardness of the music might seem better suited to skull-laced leathers and a Harley-Davidson, but this volatile marriage of primped flash and toughness is the source of their strength. Some will tell you that clothes are irrelevant to music, but then again, the Dolls’ music may very well be irrelevant to music; just one part of something much larger.
Even to an industry that has sucked millions of dollars out of hard rock in the last two years, the music of the Dolls is hard enough to be scary. It is delivered at an unnerving volume, and its aggressiveness makes no apologies for whatever its technical limitations might be. “Some people think that we don’t have any manners,” snorted David Johansen, “they say that we’re very crude and don’t use our gui
“Mick Taylor told us ‘you guys got just six months to polish it up.’
I told him to go screw.” - David Johansen
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.
The New York Dolls are still far from being the most mature band in the world, but they have this absolute familiarity with 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.
To say that the Dolls had a tough time securing a recording contract is an epic understatement. Some maintain that the band is starting out with too big a push in back of them, but there have been few bands who’ve actually started out with as much against them. The record execs walked out almost to a man. Manager Marty Thau’s price-tag of $250,000, which scared off a lot of them before they’d even seen the band, earned him accusations of brain damage and worse. The band’s contempt for their prospective angels didn’t help, either.
“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.
“So, we came on stage, and all we could see were these balding old relics with their polished heads, snorting coke and thinking that they’re so outasite. And I’m supposed to get a record contract out of these people? It’s like I’m just a prostitute, right, but if I’m okay maybe they’ll give me a Lincoln and make me a pimp. Ahmet Ertegun and Mick Taylor decided that we were the worst high school band they’d ever heard. Mick Taylor told us ‘you guys got just six months to polish it up.’ I told him to go screw.”
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.
David Johansen is presiding over his favorite table in the back room of Max’s Kansas City; beside him is his lady of the moment, the lovely and talented Cyrinda Foxe. “When you look back at every cultural music scene,” he is saying, “there were always a couple of bands that came first – like the Beatles and Rolling Stones – and then there were a million bands that came along in their wake and had only a nominal success. That’s the way I think it’s going to be in New York. There’ll be a couple of groups that hit pretty big, and a lot that’ll hit pretty minor. The New York Dolls are gonna be around for a while.”
“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 question exists as to whether something so totally tied to New York can possibly mean anything to somebody in Kansas -- the kind of culture gap that cost the Kinks much of their American audience with “Waterloo Sunset.” The answer is yes. In the first place, the Dolls’ music talks to rock ‘n’ roll kids about things common to all of them; New York just makes those things more obvious and immediate. And the Dolls, in turn, help New York transcend its ugliness and become again the city of myth and mystery it once was. Many observers contend that the Dolls define New York in the same way as the Velvet Underground, but the way in which the Dolls define New York is actually much closer to West Side Story. The difference is that between success and failure.
“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.”
With Rundgren’s expert help, those “scenarios” were translated into one of the most dynamic and compelling debut albums
“There is no reason to get David Bowie or some other weirdo to produce it.”—Todd Rundgren
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.
In sorting out the mix, Todd momentarily cut off all the tracks but Johansen’s, leaving his voice to carry the tune solo. It sounded nearly pitiful; all slurred and only sometimes in tune. But when the rest of the 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.
Perhaps the main reason that the Dolls have been so misunderstood is that they don’t play to any existing audience; it’s an audience that has yet to reveal itself. More than simply latching onto an audience, the next phenomenon will be that which creates its audience. The Dolls have very little choice: they either create that audience or they have none at all. They don’t really belong to anything else.
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.
“You’d have to like our shows even if you didn’t like the music,” David challenges. “I mean, all those crazy kids running around ... “ The boys in the band do their part, of course: David commanding the action with arrogant desperation, as if every show was to be his last; Johnny and Syl greasing every blitzkrieg chord aggression with vicious body crossfire; while Jerry does his best to exterminate his drums with a maniacally disciplined assault. With the band pulling out all the stops and the audiences returning the favor, the only word that comes close to capturing the experience is acceleration. David Bowie wasn’t too far off-target when he told the New York Dolls that they had the energy of six English bands.
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.
“Our audience really respects us,” said Jerry Nolan in a voice that should’ve been coming from the front seat of a Manhattan taxicab. “One time, this friend of ours from Brazil – the guy spent three months with us, hanging out and videotaping – somebody ripped off all his equipment at the Mercer Arts Center. But just because it was a New York Dolls gig, by word of mouth, underground grapevine ‘no questions asked’ kind of thing, all his equipment was returned. And all his film of us.”
The audience that has been willingly seduced by the Dolls’ image of decadent overdose will be terribly disappointed to discover that this band never signed a contract to star in their closet home-movies. “A lot of people thought that we were the band that was gonna camp on the Sixties for the old queens,” spits David with a look of disgust, “but you can tell ‘em that I said ‘those used-up queens can all go screw!’ “ The rest of the band loudly voices their support of this motion; it’s obvious that they embrace a common and unequivocal notion of where they’re headed. And every time the New York Dolls are turned loose on a stage, they’re one step closer to getting there.
Originally published: October 1973