Rearview Mirror: The New York Dolls

“Hullo.”

That’s all it took to identify the speaker. That “hullo” on the other end of the phone — a mix of purr and growl with a wisp of cigarette smoke curled around it — could only be New York Dolls frontman David Johansen. Thirty-eight years later, this was the same voice that came barrel-assing out of my cheap stereo speakers back in 1973: a mix of thick Staten Islandese and Jaggerish drawl — the kind that could turn “Yeah!” into a two-syllable word (maybe more).

Back then, the Dolls seemed to be challenging everything — everything — with their very existence. The Dolls were as rough and raw as the Stones, yet took the androgynous look a few stiletto-heeled steps further: Mick and Keith never hit the stage in strapless evening gowns and go-go boots. At the same time, if you challenged the Dolls’ manhood, they might offer to beat the shit out of you.

“We didn’t ‘create an image,’” says Johansen. “That was the way we were before we met each other. It wasn’t like we got the band together and decided to don frocks or something. There was this bohemian enclave over on the East Side in the early ‘70s and we were kind of the dance band for that scene.”

The Dolls released their self-titled debut album in 1973 and by year’s end had won two categories in Creem Magazine’s readers’ poll: “Best New Band” and “Worst New Band.” They were punk, rock, rhythm and blues, and do-wop—mixed with a genius blend of camp humor. Johansen and company took it all very seriously, but also knew how to laugh at themselves.

By 1975, the Dolls had released a second album (Too Much Too Soon), played on national television, toured the world — and imploded. “Some people in the band were getting strung out on drugs,” says Johansen. “We all could’ve used some time off to sort things out — but we were essentially on our own and kind of, uh, impetuous. ”

Time took its toll on the Dolls’ alumni: guitarist Johnny Thunders died of complications from being Johnny Thunders in 1991; drummer Jerry Nolan did the same in 1992. (He replaced original drummer Billy Murcia who’d pulled a fatal crash-and-burn in ‘72.) The surviving members (Johansen, guitarist Syl Sylvain and bassist Arthur Kane) reunited for a successful gig at the Meltdown Festival in 2004 but still appeared to be cursed: Kane died of leukemia three weeks after the band reunited.

Deciding to fulfill the gigs that had been booked after the Meltdown Festival, Johansen and Sylvain soldiered on. A year later, they were still at it — having fun and ready to go into the studio with an album’s worth of new songs. “It wasn’t like we had a plan,” says Johansen. “We were hobos riding the freight train, as opposed to being the engineer. We were just kind of going with it and having fun.”

2011 sees the Dolls still “having fun,” with a new album (Dancing Backward in High Heels, their third since the reunion) and gigs to play on both sides of the Atlantic. Dancing finds the songwriting team of Johansen and Sylvain doling out everything from soulful early-‘60s girl-group symphonies (“Fool for You Baby,” “Streetcake”) to good ole raunchy fun stuff (“Round and Round She Goes,” “I’m So Fabulous”). There are still snarling guitars to be found, but there’s also some just-right keyboard (compliments of Sylvain and producer/Doll multi-instrumentalist Jason Hill) as well as killer sax work from guest Jamie Toms.

Perhaps the biggest difference with the Dolls’ new material is a broader world view that simply comes from having lived this long. For one, there aren’t as many New York insider references.

“When I heard ‘Babylon’ back in ‘74, all I knew was the Biblical city — I didn’t know it was also a place on Long Island,” I tell Johansen.

“Yeah, imagine naming your town that,” says Johansen. With a stand-up comic’s timing, he pauses to exhale a cloud of cigarette smoke, then cracks, “You gotta go all the way over to Sodom to find a record store.”

And then we both lose it, proving that, after all these years, David Johansen still knows how to laugh at himself.

(Originally appeared in Relix Magazine)

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