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May 28- June 3, 2009
Frustration & heartache
The New York Dolls are America’s most
famous unknown band
by Adam Perry
A stunning, celebrated documentary titled New York Doll appeared a few years ago, told from the perspective of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, who had become a depressed, alcoholic Mormon in the 30 years since the Dolls broke up. Kane died of leukemia in 2004, just after his old band had reunited thanks to long-time super-fan Morrissey. In the film, Morrissey calls Kane’s death “a blessing… because he was a terribly unhappy person who lived in complete turmoil. There was so much pain in his eyes… I don’t think he really enjoyed his life.”
Kane certainly enjoyed being a flamboyant rock star in the early ’70s, but he made virtually no money from being in the New York Dolls, while the bands they inspired subsequently made millions. Though the early-’70s glam-punk band influenced two generations of rock (from KISS, the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, et al., to Guns N’ Roses, Twisted Sister and countless other ’80s hair-metal acts), the original Dolls broke up in 1975 amid drug addiction, in-fighting and commercial failure brought on by infamy and polarization.
For instance, CREEM magazine voters gave the Dolls awards for being the best and the worst new group of 1973.
The other surviving Dolls (singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain) are currently touring and recording with some energetic youngsters filling out the band, but the press (especially in America) is still giving them shit.
“No normal listener gives a hoot about any goddamn song the New York Dolls ever made,” middle-American rock journalist Chuck Klosterman wrote in his ’80s glam-rock manifesto, Fargo Rock City. “The only people who have even listened to their material are (a) rock journalists and (b) the people who read books written by rock journalists (and half of those people are lying).”
Just what exactly Klosterman meant by a “normal listener” we may never know, but in high school I had plenty of punk friends who loved the New York Dolls (listened to them AND covered their songs in their fledging bands). Plus, the mindless (and gazillion-selling) ’80s pop-metal that Klosterman openly worshipped in Fargo Rock City (Poison, Mötley Crüe, GNR, etc.) was heavily influenced by the New York Dolls (from the wardrobes to the stage presence to the music), so those guys must have listened to the Dolls’ material at some point, too. Then again, no one in their right mind would call Brett Michaels “normal.”
The point is that the New York Dolls — who for a short time successfully and explosively combined elements of the Stooges and Little Richard — were one of the best American bands of the 1970s and one of the most influential rock groups of all time, having paved the way not only for bands like KISS and eventually ’80s hair-metal, but also much of what became known as “punk.”
Like the Ramones, whose classic self-titled debut album came out two years after the New York Dolls’ second and final studio offering Too Much Too Soon (1974), the New York Dolls drew heavily upon ’50s rock ’n’ roll postures and arrangements, giving that classic sound an update via distorted guitars; wild, offbeat attitudes; dangerous lifestyles; and, in the Dolls’ case, cross-dressing.
The New York Dolls’ eponymous debut album, produced by Todd Rundgren for Mercury Records in 1973, was released at a time when glam-rock à la David Bowie, Lou Reed and Roxy Music was more about androgyny and musical experimentation than flat out rock ’n’ roll, which is what (combined with R&B and Stooges-esque volatility) the Dolls specialized in. For the Dolls — fronted by singer Johansen (later a notable actor who moonlighted as Buster Poindexter) and immensely talented and original guitarist/singer Johnny Thunders — dressing up as women for their shows was more of a “fuck you” to the then-stale music industry and the conservative media than a transgender exercise.
Emerging out of New York City in 1971, the New York Dolls were five city kids who loved to party, get laid and play music. Guitarist Sylvain Sylvain and original drummer Billy Murcia owned a clothing store across from a doll-repair shop called the New York Doll Hospital. Thunders, Kane, Sylvain and Murcia started rehearsing together in the Bronx as “the Dolls” and later recruited Johansen as the dynamic lead singer. Their first gig was on Christmas Eve 1971 at a homeless shelter. The scene that suddenly sprouted up around the Dolls in New York at venues like Max’s Kansas City was remarkable and helped make them the “next big American thing.” They were courted by all the major labels and even invited to open for Rod Stewart in England, but Murcia’s overdose that left him dead in a London bathtub scared away much of the band’s mainstream attention.
Thus, the Dolls’ debut album bombed sales-wise in America, but (along with crucial, searing early recordings by the Stooges and the Ramones, which suffered similar commercial fates in the States) went on to become a keystone influence on the late-’70s English punk-rock explosion. The Clash and the Damned (among others) learned a lot from the New York Dolls, and the Sex Pistols even included “New York” (a scathing, brilliant song mocking Johansen) on their landmark (and only) album Nevermind the Bullocks, whose guitar sounds openly ripped off Thunders. Plus, the Dolls actually started the underground NYC rock scene that flourished later that decade with bands like Blondie and the Talking Heads. But just as that scene was taking off, the New York Dolls were reduced to dressing in red patent leather in front of a huge Soviet flag, having been run into the ground by future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
As Morrissey said in New York Doll:
“All the people who have really listened to [the Dolls] absolutely love them and feel very passionately about them. They only made two studio albums, and for a group who did so little and existed for such a short amount of time [1971-75], their impact has been extraordinary. But because they were connected with drugs and transgender issues… I don’t think record companies [or] managers cared about them and looked after them. They were extremely unfortunate… and ahead of their time.”
The Dolls broke up after Thunders (who died of heroin-related causes in 1991) left the band in 1975 to form the Heartbreakers with Richard Hell and eventually go solo, recording the classic album So Alone in 1978. But they’re still a great live act — Johansen is a timeless frontman à la Mick Jagger — and it’s a wonder any of the band is still alive, let alone performing.
For More Info:
The New York Dolls perform with the Cliks and Hemi Cuda a.t 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 31, at the Bluebird Theatre, 3317 E Colfax Ave., Denver, 303-377-1666.
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