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New Clothes, Same Old New York Dolls
When the New York Dolls played at the South By Southwest music festival in 2005, frontman David Johansen told the crowd, “We’re looking for a record deal.”
He got some laughs. But he wasn’t kidding.
“Maybe a couple weeks before that we said, ‘Let’s make a record,’ ” Johansen recalls. “ ‘How are we gonna make a record?’ ‘Well, we’ll go to South By Southwest and beg.’ ”
Before Johansen and company got down on bended knee, however, the record companies quickly came calling on the Dolls, who had re-formed in 2004 after a 27-year break. The result was “One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This,” only the Dolls’ third album of original material and its first since 1974.
There are some, of course, who believe that the Dolls should stay consigned to the past. They argue that a band led only by Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain (ne Syl Mizrahi) is not valid, especially when four other members are dead — original drummer Billy Murcia of an overdose on tour in Europe in 1975; guitarist Johnny Thunders (ne John Genzale) of a heroin overdose in 1991; second drummer Jerry Nolan of a stroke that same year; and bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane in 2005 from leukemia shortly after the Dolls reunited.
“I think they’re totally entitled to that position,” says Johansen, 56, who, after the Dolls broke up in 1977, led a dual existence performing under his own name and as
Buster Poindexter (“Hot Hot Hot”). “But we were out in L.A., and (Blondie drummer) Clem Burke was there, and he said to me, ‘Man, David, it’s so great, the Dolls. This is the Dolls!’
“I started thinking, y’know, who am I to fi ght it? We’re kind of like the New Dolls or something — the Dolls for a new generation! I wouldn’t have come and played unless people were gonna like it — you know what I’m saying?”
The Dolls formed in 1971 to try to blast rock ’n’ roll out of the rut the band members felt it was in. Sporting glammy, drag-style fashions, including some seriously teased hair, and playing songs — “Looking for a Kiss,” “Puss in Boots,” “Personality Crisis” — that drew from 1950s rock and ’60s pop, the band was largely misunderstood by the masses but certainly helped lay groundwork for what became the punk revolution of the late ’70s.
“They’re just one of those groups that never got airplay even when they started,” says Little Steven Van Zandt, the guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who’s been a Dolls supporter via his “Underground Garage” syndicated radio show and Sirius satellite radio channel. “They were never big. They
were never really anything more than a cult.”
Nowadays, Johansen voices frustration that most accounts about the Dolls read: “ ‘They were trashy, they were fl ashy, they were junkies, they were drag queens,’ or whatever. It’s like a sound bite, almost.
“I think maybe over the years that started to kind of take over my perception of it, and I didn’t want anything to do with the New York Dolls anymore. And when I want back to listen to the songs, I remembered how I felt and how musical it was, and I kinda just went right back to that.”
The catalyst for the Dolls’ resuscitation was former Smiths singer Morrissey, who invited the group to reunite for the 2004 Meltdown Festival in England that he was curating. Johansen’s initial reaction was to decline, but Morrissey’s enthusiasm won out and Johansen called Sylvain and Kane, fleshed out the band with other players and made plans for what he expected to be a one-off occasion.
“I just figured, ‘Oh, it’ll be great. I’m gonna go and have as much fun as I possibly can,’ ” Johansen says. “But I actually had more fun than I was capable of imagining. And then we started getting calls. ...”
‘They’re in great shape’
The Dolls wound up spending much of 2005 on the road, soldiering on after Kane’s death, and began slipping new songs into the set.
“We were just kind of naturally writing songs, which just happens,” Johansen explains. “You start playing at sound check and start knocking stuff together.”
“One Day ...,” whose title references the philosopher Virgil, surprisingly picks up where the Dolls left off 32 years ago, perhaps a bit more polished and mature but conveying the same exuberant spirit in tracks such as “Dance Like a Monkey” “Fishnets & Cigarettes,” “Gimme Luv & Turn on the Light” and “Take a Good Look at My Good Looks.”
The album features guest appearances by friends and fans such as Bo Diddley, Iggy Pop and R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, while veteran producer Jack Douglas brought plenty of punch to the group’s already muscular sound.
“It’s a rare sort of thing where the band came back in some ways maybe stronger than ever,” Van Zandt says. “They’re in great shape. It’s a real serious, signifi cant comeback.”
And it’s one Johansen says is likely to last a while — at least if he has his way.
“I’ve been pleased. I’m having a lot of laughs doing it, and the guys are digging it,” he says. “We have some kind of magic going on. Everyone’s getting along and wants to keep doing it. I have no qualms about that — none at all.”
The New York Dolls headline the third and final Little Steven’s Underground Garage Rolling Rock and Roll Show on Thursday (November 16th) at St. Andrew’s Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. The Supersuckers, the Chesterfi eld Kings and the Charms also are on the bill. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call (313) 961-6358 or visit www. livenation.com.
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