New York Dolls: Anarchy from the USA
The cross-dressing pioneers of punk, the New York Dolls, begin a UK tour. James McNair talks to the band whose excesses have become part of rock'n'roll legend
Monday 30 November 2009
Like many of us, the New York Dolls' frontman David Johansen knows the folly of not backing-up his laptop. His machine died on a recent promo trip to South America, and with it went drafts of lyrics for his group's latest album, Cause I Sez So.
"Suddenly I realised what a huge chunk of my creativity I'd invested in this Icelandic bank," rasps the 59-year-old, a skeletal smile lighting-up his big, puppet-like head. "I felt traumatised, then philosophical. All your photographs and personal stuff on one computer – it's no way to structure a life."
Together with the guitarist Sylvain Sylvain – the only other living member of the original Dolls line-up – Johansen is in the UK for a series of gigs, and to chew over the band's seedy past.
When they began pedalling their trashy glam-punk around lower Manhattan in 1971, they were more burlesque act than band; a bunch of lipsticked, gutter chic-endorsing cross-dressers that Johansen once described as "the sore thumbs" of the community. Nun's shoes, purchased from a specialist supplier on New York City's Delancey Street, were a favourite item of footwear; Johansen evoked Mick Jagger at his most camp; and the music, lest we forget, was a primal, beautifully botched amalgam of Stooges-esque riffing, proto-glam and the Phil Spector-produced girl groups. Not everyone, though, was down with the programme.
"It took us three years to get signed", says the Egyptian-born, New York-raised Sylvain, 58. "People were always saying 'yes', then backing out. One time, our management got the presidents of almost every record company to a showcase, but they all passed. We weren't too great without our home crowd. Or maybe it was our look. We'd walk into clothing stores and all this weird shit would be shouting 'Me! Me! Me!'"
It was Mercury records, one of the few imprints not at the showcase, that eventually signed the Dolls, after the A&R man Paul Nelson took a shine to them. One imagines a scenario reminiscent of that old Kit Kat advert wherein a music mogul eyes an act of dubious pedigree and says: "You can't sing and you look awful – you'll go far!"
The group had also met and befriended the then NYC residents Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, but McLaren's account of events – positioning himself as a key management figure for the Dolls– doesn't tally with that of Sylvain.
"Malcolm was maybe our personal [manager] at a stretch," says the guitarist, "but there was no paperwork or contract. Billy Murcia [the Dolls' original drummer] and myself had this store called Truth & Soul Sweaters, and we met Malcolm and Vivienne at a fashion trade show in 1971."
Johansen recalls that they commissioned McLaren and Westwood to make them outfits inspired by the Dolls' song "Red Patent Leather." These the band duly wore while performing in front of the USSR flag – the communist symbolism not to everyone in the US's liking.
By 1975 McLaren was back in London managing the Sex Pistols, one of the many punk and new wave bands for which the New York Dolls undoubtedly helped pave the way.
"People knew that if we could get signed, you didn't have to be the Beatles or a stadium act to get a deal," says Sylvain. "Bands stripped things down and took more risks, so after us came Patti Smith, the Ramones, Blondie..."
For all their later influence, the original Dolls line-up recorded only 1973's New York Dolls and 1974's Too Much Too Soon before the latter album's poor sales prompted Mercury to drop them.
The production whiz Todd Rundgren (Patti Smith, XTC) oversaw the band's eponymous debut, and, pleasingly, he is reunited with the Dolls on their new record. Coz I Sez So was recorded at Rundgren's Utopia studios in Hawaii, the band and producer enjoying idyllic cliff-top views of whales cavorting in the surf. Relations between Johansen and Rundgren certainly seem to have thawed somewhat in recent years. The singer used a four-letter word to describe Rundgren when interviewed by Sounds' Sandy Robertson in 1978 when she asked about his part in the Dolls' eponymous debut.
It was one of the New York Dolls' celebrity fans who kick-started the group's 2004 comeback. Long before fronting the Smiths, Steven Morrissey had been president of the Dolls' UK fan club, and in 1981 wrote a short book about them, published by Babylon books. When Mozzer curated London's Meltdown festival in 2004, he invited the Dolls to headline, whereupon Johansen, Sylvain and the long-term Dolls bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane appeared with the Libertines' Gary Powell moonlighting on drums. Soon came more gigs, and 2006's One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This album, but the great sadness was that Arthur Kane had died of leukaemia less than a month after the Meltdown show.
Death has stung the Dolls again and again. Indeed, perhaps only This Is Spinal Tap records more fatalities in the history of one band. But there was nothing comic about the passing of the Dolls' drummer Billy Murcia (in 1972 after mixing Mandrax with alcohol on the band's first UK tour), or that of the guitarist Johnny Thunders, who died in a New Orleans hotel room in 1991 after a suspected heroin overdose. Jerry Nolan, Billy Murcia's successor, is also at the great gig in the sky. In 1992, he had a stroke after contracting bacterial pneumonia.
This is all delicate stuff, but one wonders how the so-called "Dolls' Curse" has affected and Sylvain. Is there survivor guilt, perhaps?
"You could take guilt from it if you had a mind to," says Johansen warily. "Or you could not, or you could waver, or you could do all three like a complex human being."
"I think those guys help us where we are today," adds Sylvain, ever the diplomat. "They're certainly in our hearts and minds."
We talk more about Arthur Kane, and I read a quote which their late bassist gave Q magazine in 1995: "I make more money from Guns N' Roses' version of 'Human Being' than I do from the New York Dolls," Kane told Mat Snow. "It's criminal."
"Yeah, and nothing's changed," says Johansen. "We're still broke. We have people trying to trace the lost monies we're owed, but it's, like, Byzantine – you can chip away at it forever. The best thing about all this is that we're still having fun. We don't try to steer the ship; we're just passengers."
The New York Dolls tour the UK from Wednesday to 10 December (08700 603 777; www.seetickets.com)
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